Back when I was interviewing for jobs (so this would have been during the last few days of the year 1989 in Atlanta), my writing sample was “Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions” (which later appeared in PPR), and a quite famous* philosopher insisted to me during an interview that it was in fact extremely uncommon for people to say that they do or do not “know” things, and that I only thought otherwise because I spent all my time talking with other philosophers. I remember him exclaiming, “Why, I go whole weeks without using that word!” I tried to convince him otherwise (well, not about his own usage, which I couldn’t really speak to, but about his general point), citing all the various kinds of situations in which it is utterly natural to use “know(s)”. He wasn’t budging: “No, I almost never hear that.” I in fact spent a whole lot of time with non-philosophers, and I thought this guy was, well, full of shit, as my non-philosophical friends liked to say (almost as much as they liked to say “know(s)”!)
Has anybody else heard such claims — about “know(s)” being seldom used in non-philosophical talks — from philosophers? Do any CD readers think this themselves? Does anyone have any insight into what could be behind such claims? I have heard it from time to time since then.
A few days ago, another quite famous philosopher told me the same thing again. This time, I thought to check it out on Google. (Of course, I couldn’t do that in 1989, but could have done it for a few years now.) Turns out, at least according to Google, it is in fact wildly popular — one of the most commonly used verbs in the English language, at least so far as I can tell. I’m not an expert at Googling, but I did a search on “know OR knows OR knew”, and compared it with some other results. Here’s what I get right now:
know OR knows OR knew: 2,060,000,000
give OR gives OR gave: 1,680,000,000
play OR plays OR played: 1,410,000,000
remember OR remembers OR remembered: 688,000,000
The trouncing of “play” is especially impressive, because “play” and “plays” are also a singular and plural noun — and a quite common noun on the internet, since sports are all over the web (double play, what a great play, etc.).
Well, you get the idea, and can now check for yourselves. In fact, you may be much better at this than I am. I’ve heard that somewhere one can find a list of the most commonly used English words — and that “know(s)” ranks pretty high. But I haven’t yet seen such a list.
Of course, not all of these results are uses in which it’s said someone knows that something is the case (propositional knowledge), but, when you dip into the results a bit, it seems that a whole lot of them are.
So, if you are ever worried that “know(s)” is mostly just philosopher-speak, it looks to me as if that’s wrong.
*by “famous,” I just mean “philosophically famous.” As I explain to my students when I catch myself calling a philosopher or a philosophical position or argument “famous,” I suspect that the most famous American philosopher, whoever that might be, is much less famous in America than is the least famous of the Spice Girls (Sporty, perhaps?), though the Spice Girls were British, broke up quite a few years ago, and never did anything worth mentioning.