The Differences Between Mechanical And Philosophical Knowledge

Knowledge is a concept that means different things to different people. According to, knowledge is defined as "an acquaintance with facts, truths or principles, as from study or investigation." However, can knowledge be broken down even further than this? According to theologian, John Henry Newman, knowledge can actually be broken into two subcategories that separate the term based on how the information was acquired, along with how it is used. In his piece, The Idea of a University, Newman explains that there are two types of knowledge: mechanical knowledge and philosophical knowledge. He describes mechanical knowledge as knowledge used to complete a manual task or trade, while defining philosophical knowledge as knowledge that stems from reason and requires in depth thinking. Although Newman expresses the importance of both types of knowledge, he leans toward giving philosophical knowledge superiority over mechanical knowledge. However, in my future, I personally believe mechanical knowledge will be more valuable to my success.

In Newman's piece, The Idea of a University, he describes mechanical knowledge as a knowledge associated with "…manual exercises in the fine and useful arts in trades, and in ways of business." (Newman 30) This means that mechanical knowledge is used in a "hands-on" craft in order to complete a job. However, Newman states that "…these methods have little or no effect upon the mind itself, and are rules committed to memory, to tradition, or to use." (Newman 30) Thus, he argues that this knowledge does not actually better one's mind and their wisdom, but simply gets the person accustomed to completing a task or trade routinely. Even though he states that mechanical knowledge does not require the critical thinking that philosophical knowledge does, Newman still acknowledges the importance of mechanical knowledge in the successful running of a society. He concedes that mechanical knowledge is beneficial when he states, "let me not be thought to deny the necessity, or to decry the benefit… as belongs to mechanical arts." (Newman 29) Although he recognizes the importance of having people who specialize in mechanical knowledge, Newman believes one is able to be more influential with the possession of philosophical knowledge.

In our modern-day society, these mechanical traits can be seen all around us in occupations that are needed to sustain life as we know it. Newman does not provide specific examples in his piece, but the reader can make obvious connections on how mechanical knowledge is used in society. A very important use of mechanical knowledge in our society is the knowledge that farmers must possess. Although they may not be the most theoretically inclined human beings, the knowledge farmers have on cultivating successful crops and having consistent harvests are crucial to the welfare of millions of people. Although one may believe having the ability to drive a tractor and plow a field is not very impressive, if you really dig into it, you will see these farmers' mechanical knowledge is what puts food on the table of 300 million Americans. Another illustration of the practical use of mechanical knowledge can be illustrated by the common repair man. Any person in the business of repairing relies upon mechanical knowledge to successfully fix the issue with the item they are focused on. Whether it be a mechanic fixing a car engine or a plumber installing new pipes, these repairmen all gained their skills and knowledge from completing their tasks repeatedly. And as they completed countless jobs, over time, their mechanical knowledge increased because the work they had committed to memory had become natural for them. These illustrations depict Newman's definition of mechanical knowledge perfectly, as this knowledge came from experience, and is more practical for everyday use.

Unlike mechanical knowledge, philosophical knowledge is a gift people are more likely to have than others. According to Newman, philosophical knowledge is "…something which reasons upon what it sees." (Newman 29) This means that in order for someone to obtain philosophical knowledge, they must have the ability to think deeply with reason in order to solve an issue. However, this ability to possess wisdom can be negative as well. According to The Allegory of the Cave, Plato, a renowned Greek philosopher, argues that in order to have real knowledge, we must gain it through philosophical knowledge. (Plato 3-6) This piece basically makes the argument that real knowledge has to come from personal enlightenment, instead of learning customs by observing another person. Newman agrees in his piece as well, making the assertion that knowledge gained from seeing (mechanical knowledge), does not amount to the knowledge one acquires from critical thinking. Although it is debatable, this claim does have pieces of truth behind it. However, I personally feel that the applicability of mechanical knowledge still makes it superior to philosophical knowledge for my future.

While philosophical knowledge is not as practical as mechanical knowledge, it can still be useful. People use philosophical knowledge every day and base most decisions off of philosophical knowledge. Most people in the world today use some type of morals/ethics to make critical life decisions and this is a perfect example of what philosophical knowledge is. When we, as humans, are confronted with a decision that could be controversial we must truly think on what is right and what is wrong, and this type of thinking is what philosophical knowledge is all about. Not only are you critically thinking on something you already know (your morals), but you are taking those morals and applying them to a certain situation, which is what builds wisdom in people. This is why both Newman and Plato argue the superiority of philosophical knowledge. They make that claim because when one is engaged in philosophical thinking, they not only are thinking critically, but they are applying that knowledge they own to whatever issue they may be facing at that time. So, really, these two theologians valued the ability to critically think in any situation, higher than they did the ability to learn and complete a trade. But if you think about it, haven't times changed since this period of enlightenment?

I bet you, the reader, are wondering, "why is this mechanical knowledge you speak on so important to you"? Well, my future occupation revolves around mechanical knowledge, so I know how important this knowledge is to me having a successful future. After graduating college, I plan on entering the field of agriculture, which makes up a good portion of the U.S. economy, which is shown by the USDA to have contributed over $992 billion to the U.S. GDP in 2015. (USDA) As I explained earlier in this piece, farmers rely heavily on mechanical knowledge to successfully complete whatever task they have to do. My dream for the future is to own a farm that specializes in the growth of corn. But let me explain how this "mechanical knowledge" applies to my dream of becoming a part of the agriculture business. The first step in growing corn, or any crop for that matter, is to prepare the land for sowing. A farmer learns how to till up his land not by sitting and pondering the theoretical meaning of "preparing the land for sowing" but learns to successfully till the land from watching another person teach them to do so, along with years of repeating the action until he finally perfects the act, which is exactly what Newman explains mechanical knowledge to be. After planting the seeds, I would need to irrigate my crops well in order to keep them healthy. I personally have seen the confusing act of irrigation at work and can say from a first-hand experience it is not an easy task. Although it is confusing and takes wisdom, I would still need mechanical knowledge in order to set up a successful irrigation system. As a farmer, I would not care why the water moved the way it did, as long as it moved to the plants the way I wanted. This is a good example of what mechanical knowledge is according to Newman, as someone who specializes in mechanical knowledge is more concerned with the question of "does it work?" over the question of "why does it work?". Anyways, the last step in my example of farming is the most important one: the harvest. When harvesting my corn, I must first make sure the crop is matured enough to be reaped, then go about the action of "picking" the crop. The way any farmer knows if his crop is ready comes once again from his mechanical knowledge. As stated before, his knowledge comes from watching others and experiencing multiple harvests, so after a while he will be able to know his crop like the back of his hand. I understand this example can be confusing to someone not associated with agriculture, but I really believe it illustrates Newman's idea of what mechanical knowledge is about quite well. When you add in the fact that my future is in agriculture, I would be imprudent not to use farming as an explanation of mechanical knowledge.

In conclusion, I believe Newman wrote a very sensible piece, explaining how knowledge can be broken down. He explained that philosophical knowledge is related to critical thinking on the "why" of a subject, while he suggested that mechanical knowledge was more related to gaining wisdom from experiences and watching others. And although both types of knowledge will be useful for my future, I personally believe mechanical knowledge will be more important for my success because of my goal to be a farmer. I will conclude with a quote by Albert Einstein that portrays my opinion on knowledge. He said, "the only source of knowledge is experience."


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