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The Learning Paradox:
You Must Know An Idea BEFORE You Can Learn It,
but you Only Learn Ideas You Don't Know

Dr. Matt,

My name is Lauren. I'm 20 years old and from Phoenix, Arizona. I'm taking a college philosophy class, and my professor introduced a confusing contradiction called "The Learning Paradox," which goes something like this — In order to learn something, you must already know it. That turns my brain inside-out for sure. Can you explain this conundrum for me?


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Hi Lauren:

Whenever the question is asked, “what do you know?” An intelligent reply will be given in words. However, there are some things that we think we know, but cannot express them well into words; this vague and dreamy breed of “knowing” is the pre-condition essential to having words make sense — when you hear them.

This vague version of knowing IS the fuzzy residue of experience; unarticulated experience that is central to solving the conundrum called the Learning Paradox: “You can’t Learn something unless you already Know it, but the process of Learning suggests you don't previously "know" what you are trying to Learn.”

The key to unlocking this conundrum is in distinguishing the difference between Experience-Knowing, Word-Articulation-Knowing, and Whole-Knowing. Let me explain:

If you haven’t had prior experiences that pertain to particular word-ideas, then the “light bulb” of Whole-Knowing cannot "turn on." In other words, you cannot relate to the words that describe certain things and happenings of which you have no experience — the word-ideas blow over your head because you don't have the anchor of experiences to hold them.

For this reason, you cannot learn an idea unless you have a foundation upon which that idea can stand. Whole-Knowing happens within a mutually-informing cycle — a reinforcing round of words, ideas, and experience. The Learning Paradox puzzle is solved thus:

You must already Know an idea at the level of Experience
in order to Learn that idea at the level of Words.

Note: Coming to Know dance movements, and other physical skills like soccer, golf, gymnastics, or piano playing are learned differently — they are Learned directly IN the Experience of Doing. In contrast, the kind of Knowing that applies to the Learning Paradox, is a Conceptual kind of Knowing, the kind encouraged in school classrooms.

One large obstacle of classroom learning is that it tends to be heavy on word-ideas and light on experience. When Ideas are not tied to Experience, all a student has is . . . Words; thus, memorization of Words becomes a common substitute and immitation for genuine Learning — where Rhetoric has little connection to Reality.

Because classroom education is typically tethered to text books and desks, schooling does not supply a sufficient foundation of experience. Thus, students may think they're learning lots, but as a giant wave of inspiring ideas come crashing upon the shores of classroom learning, students that hold up a cup of experience, can only retain a cup of knowledge.

Alas, an ocean-full of insightful ideas melt from the minds of Learners, unless they are anchored in experience. This is also a problem with weekend workshops that "pump you up" with exciting ideas in a short period of time; but this momentary high of exciting ideas quickly deflates, because those ideas are not reinforced IN experience.

* * * * *
A gallon of insightful ideas cannot be contained
by a teaspoon of experience; neither can a barrel-full
of experience be ordered and articulated
by a teaspoon vocabulary.
* * * * * 
(Changing Your Stripes, page 209)

But when a Learner has a rich resource of Experience, this is where schooling becomes valuable: “book learning” gives a student the “words” to grab hold of ideas, and to articulate those ideas — ideas that, in turn, describe the world that arises through experience.

When direct world-experience is overlooked and unapplied, conversations can get caught up in empty rhetoric that loses connection to reality. Jacques Derrida said this of such ungrounded esoteric talk:

“Where we thought there was knowledge there is only literature. . . . all our writings — all the texts that we write to represent texts, referring to other texts which represent texts and arguing with their representation of texts — that all these texts are suspended over an abyss of fundamental ignorance about the origin, truth, presence, reality and nature of the things which we are representing. . . . all our rhetoric lead us only to an awareness of the limits of our knowledge.”

Claims of “knowing”are empty unless they are grounded on the firm foundation of directly-lived experience, yet knowledge also requires ideasand wordsto be complete. Ideas will not “turn on”without experience, neither can ideas and experience be ordered and remembered without words—the handles by which we grasp our world.

* * * * *
Experience is like Electricity, Ideas are like Light Bulbs,
and Words flip the Switch. Words articulate the
connection between Ideas and Experience.
* * * * * 
(Changing Your Stripes, page 210)

In Antony Flew's book "A Dictionary of Philosophy," the Learning Paradox is framed this way:

"An old problem raised in Plato's Socratic dialogues and later found in certain medieval approaches to the knowledge of the nature of God. A person can learn only that which he doesn't know, but if he doesn't know it, how does he know what he is seeking to learn."

As to Knowing God and the Nature of God, you can see how the Learning Paradox comes into play: Because atheists have no experience with God, thus Words which speak of God have no meaning — thus atheists cannot Learn of God. The Words are there, the Idea is there, . . . but the Experience is NOT, so the "LightBulb" of understanding cannot turn on.

Lauren, that's the Learning Paradox . . . in a nutshell — a big elephant-sized nutshell.

Dr Matt

Matt Moody, Ph.D.
Social Psychologist

* * * * * * *

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