3 Ways to Know Something


3 Ways to Know Something

How do we “know” something?

I think you’ll like this as a simple model to help answer the question – how do you know something to be true?

There are 3 main ways.

1. Experiential (Empirical)

With experiential, you know something because you’ve “experienced” it – basically through your five senses (site, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.)

2. Cognitive (Rational)

With cognitive, you know something because you’ve thought your way through it, argued it, or rationalized it.

3. Constructed (Creational)

With constructed, you know something because you created it – and it may be subjective instead of objective and it may be based on convention or perception.

Because of my day job of finding and sharing best practices, I depend heavily on “experiential.”  By testing and reproducing success patterns, it helps me separate fact from fiction, good theories from good results, and turn insight into action.  Experiential has been my most reliable source of knowledge – I can test it and reproduce it.  I find that my cognitive and constructed tend to be more malleable, and sometimes less dependable.

Challenge What You Know

As you continue to learn throughout your life, you can challenge yourself – do you know this because you’re “experienced’ it, simply argued your way through it, or constructed it?

For more information, check out Epistemology – the theory of knowledge (Wikipedia.)

Photo by accent on eclectic.


  1. A little tanget..
    Interesting thing about this is that all of these are colored by point of view. I’m careful about relying on any of them. Experiential is the best method of testing, but staying open to what’s actually occuring vs your preconceived notions of what will occur is an important part of the process.

    I used to think that if I shared an experience I would have the same point of view as someone else. Not true. I’ve also seen people repeat the same experience over and over even when they don’t have to because they are not paying attention or they have different assumptions.

    None can be considered an objective truth and considering your assumptions when you get a certain outcome is part of the process.

  2. Hi JD .. that’s interesting – I don’t think one can “know” something – it’s different to each of us – how we look at the information. On the other hand I’m not in a research situation ..

    For my blog – I know that I am not an expert in any shape or form, but somewhere along the many, many! years of life I’ve obviously picked up far more knowledge than I think I have. I do question things as I research items .. and perhaps generalise where I’m unsure.

    I hope that we’re (particularly those of us around your blog) aware enough to work out for ourselves that it looks as though what’s being proferred as ‘knowledge’ is ok … whereas sometimes in the media, on tv, the radio .. we’re given a fair amount of garbage & it’s so primary school level info ..

    I seem to have been born with more common sense than most people and so just get on with things .. probably not always the best way! If I need to know then I find out, and I question, work ways round, and question til I’m satisfied ..

    I do seem to be able to help people with their choices – by rationalising their situation and offering a positive angle, when I’m asked .. or we’re having a discussion.

    I must be a pain! – but we do laugh ..
    Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

  3. I wonder if you could add a fourth way of knowing something — emotional. Or perhaps, intuitive. Just a thought.

  4. Hi JD

    Like Melissa I was also wondering about the intuitive-type of knowing. The good old “gut feel”. I suppose this can be thought of as a result of subconscious experiential or cognitive processes, but is there something more?

    Having said that, is there a way of routing out this subconscious knowing? That would be useful.


  5. Could one combine the ways? So for example, taking some experiential data and making various observations and inferences leads to hyoptheses that then can be tested. I guess that combines all of them if one ends up with a constructed theory at the end. Just an observation after reading that at first glance.

    I’ve preferred the test of knowing something is trying to explain or teach someone else whatever the something is. This can have a wide range of results from a “Yes, dear,” that a close friend or relative may give to a, “You want me to do WHAT?!?!” or other colorful reactions. While passing knowledge may seem straightforward to some, every once in a while there will be that question that makes one go, “Hhhmmm…” like what “C & C Music Factory sang about back in the day.

  6. I am fairly sure I use these three categories after I intuit something..then I check it out or justify what I know…

    My brother is definitely experimental in his learning and my sister just follows rules of mathematical logic or interpersonal behavior that she learns or copies from others?

    Thinking about this because I had a strong reaction to this

  7. @ Rob

    I think one of the great skills we practice at Microsoft is identifying our assumptions and testing our assumptions.

    I’ve found it helpful to keep subjective experience on the left and the objective side on the right (so whether we thought the world was flat or we thought things should fall up, we still have a left side and a right side to consider.)

    I think subjective experience is especially interesting since we’re our most important meaning makers and filters.

    I like how argumentation accounts for flavors of evidence and relationships, which help us deal with shades of gray.

    @ Hilary

    One of the best ways I’ve found to cut through media is to simply walk the claims and sources.

    Helping people find a way forward by adding a positive spin is a great skill and it sounds like you use it well.

    @ Melissa

    Another way of looking at knowing is whether you know it intellectually, emotionally, or physically. For example, your body might know how to shut off the alarm clock or the right key to type. You might have an emotional reaction to something — and it’s simply how you *feel* about it.

    You can walk these by asking – what do you think about this? What’s your heart say? and what’s your gut say?

    Intuition is especially interesting and there’s multiple flavors. A lot of our intuitive knowledge is from past experience (the more we’ve seen, the more we can pattern match and simulate.)

    @ Juliet

    One of my favorite guides on intuition is Gary Klein’s Sources of Power. Basically, a lot of intuition is pattern matching + mental simulation.

    Blink teaches us that thin slices of data tell us a lot. There’s also another book that teaches about *flash* insight and how it’s different from blink.

    I think the simplest ways to leverage your intuition are:
    – apply Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats
    – apply Michael Michalko’s THINKERTOYS

    There are other ways, I’ll share in the future, but what I like about the above is they are rock solid techniques you can get better with over time.

  8. @ JB King

    Absolutely. When you first go to learn something, your prior knowledge will give you an intuitive answer. You can then logic and or experience your way through it.

    I think it helps when you try to know something, to know what the data is versus what your conclusion is, along with your assumptions and evidence. It’s a good sanity check.

    @ Nadia

    I think basic living is a pretty intuitive process. I think the game goes up, the more you work in knowledge work, as you know from the legal field. For example, in software, we have to share “castles in the mind” which are pretty complex and very non-intuitive … and it’s a lot of construction from constructs based on other constructs … etc.

    @ Patricia

    Checking your default thinking is a great practice. It’s what separates us from the animals, otherwise, we’d just be having our buttons pushed all the time.

    It’s a powerful lens.

    I’m trying to keep it simple by asking myself, do I know something because it’s a fact or figure I can look up? Do I know it because of my experience, in which case, am I clarifying between my conclusion and the actual data? Do I know something because it’s purely based on constructions or paradigms? Do I know something purely because I argued or rationalized my way into it?

    When it’s purely experiential, I know that experience is subject to change, based on what I’m thinking, feeling or doing. But just knowing that is huge.

    @ Vered

    The beauty of a cognitive focus is it’s also a good way to improve your intuition. The more I’ve read, the more I can pattern match with intuition.

  9. I am always reminded of the wise words of Maria Montessori when it comes to learning… “There is nothing learned that first does not come through the senses.” And she said that over 100 years ago!

    God, I love that woman! Just can’t say enough good about her and what she did for the world.

    Happy weekend, J.D.

  10. Here is 4th way to know something is true – trust reliable sources [of insight (;]. Really, if you have great network of manvens you save your time for proving it is right. Since it comes from reliable source you know it is true.

  11. @ Jannie

    Maria sounds practical and wise.

    Happy weekend to you, too!

    @ Alik

    I’m a fan of teaming up and leveraging experts when it comes to information.

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