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How Much Knowledge Is Necessary for Action?

Joachim Funke

How much knowledge is necessary for action? This question is fundamental because it suggests that the link between knowledge and action is debatable, that there is no given, fixed causal relationship between knowledge and action. In addition, there seems to be no fixed causal direction. Knowledge can be a prerequisite for action but also a consequence of an action. My opening question relates two key words in psychology. One of them is knowledge, about which a large body of knowledge exists (e.g., Halford, Wilson, & Phillips, 2010)—about its different types (e.g., procedural, declarative), styles of acquisition (implicit, explicit), and degrees of accessibility (conscious, subconscious, unconscious). The other word is action, about which there are various theories describing human behavior with respect to intention (e.g., Fishbein & Ajzen, 2010). In this introductory section I try to give an overview of these conceptions and of the relation between knowledge and action.

The issues around the keywords knowledge and action—which constitute the title of a book by Frey, Mandl, and von Rosenstiel (2006)—are captured by the following four main aspects, which generate corresponding questions.

  • 1. The relation between knowledge and action. From the perspective of the psychology of knowledge (e.g., Strube & Wender, 1993), knowledge is a competence for action, a precondition. What is known about the relation between knowledge and action and what is not known? How much of human action is governed by routines, experience, intuition, and knowledge? What is the tradeoff between taking action and improving knowledge?
  • 2. Types of knowledge and different phases. To what extent do various types of knowledge (e.g., implicit or explicit) influence the steps from cognition to action (e.g., aspirations, attention, decision-making, problem-solving, the evaluation of situations, the search for alternatives, and the implementation of intentions)?

J. Funke (*)

Department of Psychology, Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

P. Meusburger et al. (eds.), Knowledge and Action, Knowledge and Space 9, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-44588-5_6

  • 3. Rationality and knowledge. What categories of rationality should be identified? Concepts of rationality are common ground in social and economic theories, but rationality in everyday life seems to be something else. To what degree does the concept of bounded rationality (Simon, 1947, p. 61-65) weaken the link between knowledge and action? Is there a threshold of minimal knowledge that is necessary for action?
  • 4. Action theory and language. How constitutive is language use for action? Searle (1969), with his concept of speech acts, points out that speaking can be acting. To speak about X requires knowing something about X. If someone is not able to speak about Z, can that person act upon Z or does the inability to speak about Z imply the inability to act upon Z? What about the idea that “actions speak louder than words” (Tanner, Brugger, van Schie, & Lebherz, 2010)?

The contribution from my own empirical work addresses mainly the first and at least in part the second of these four main aspects, leaving many of the other questions to the reader.

After a short section on definitions, I ask whether action is possible without knowledge and afterward venture the question of whether it is possible for people to act against their own knowledge. Thereafter, I review some of the standard views on the relation between knowledge and action, interpretations that may help this chapter’s exploration of that connection through three theories: planned behavior, unconscious thought, and the option-generation framework. The chapter then continues with empirical evidence from my own research area, problem-solving, and shows that the relation between knowledge and action is strong within that area.

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