The feel of the thing; or, embodied knowledge

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a woman..

Sayings of Agur, The Book of Proverbs

These are things you have to learn how to do – or just what they’re like – by doing or experiencing them, often repeatedly. Some are knacks, others a kind of technique, others a sort of structural literacy, and yet others a kind of sensory-emotional preparedness that enables you to resist overwhelm and respond appropriately once you’ve come to understand the feel of the thing.

It would seem (given my difficulties in teaching my children to put on their socks) that they are hard things to teach, and the ability to articulate them well is a rare skill.

I’m thinking of things like…

  • How slowly you should run at the start a marathon;
  • How hard you can push a computer chip into a slot;
  • Whether the part on your car / motorbike / washing machine calls for brute force or finesse;
  • How three balls – or five – can be juggled in two hands;
  • How to slice – rather than chop – with a cooking knife;
  • How to draw in perspective;
  • How to sharpen the knife before you chop;
  • How to hold a hamster;
  • When to stop kneading bread…
  • … or whisking egg-whites;
  • The emotional texture of physical violence;
  • The sublime (sublime!) moment when solder melts onto a circuit board;
  • Removing a splinter with a needle;
  • The first draught of ale or wine;
  • How fast a terrified rat runs;
  • How to catch a wave;
  • How to change gears in a car with manual transmission;
  • How to tie your shoelaces effortlessly;
  • How to make a child know that you mean what you say;
  • How to make thirty children in a classroom know what to do;
  • How to kill an animal;
  • How to pick a lock;
  • The feel of a good quality tool / piece of equipment / item of clothing;
  • How to play that tricky chord sequence;
  • What faces to pull when speaking a foreign language;
  • How to wrap a gift;
  • How to open a mangosteen…
  • … or a durian;
  • How to put on socks;
  • The hard recoil of a rifle;
  • How to sing in harmony;
  • The subtle signs that give you the feeling that this will be a good place to eat;
  • Breathing compressed air underwater;
  • The rhythm of returning a squash ball off the back wall;
  • How to dance with a partner;
  • How to drive a golf ball;
  • Mounting and dismounting a bicycle in the one-footed style*;
  • How to execute a judo throw;
  • How to push through a difficult conversation;
  • How to write a FOR loop;
  • What a well designed document looks like;
  • How to perform on stage or speak to an audience;
  • How a horse shifts from walk to trot, to canter, to gallop;
  • How flying feels in a light aircraft;
  • How to apply spray / acrylic / emulsion paint;
  • How to use a spoon without pushing food out of the bowl;
  • How to stay on top of the water when swimming…
  • … and how to go under it;
  • How to have something to say.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain explain.

1 thought on “The feel of the thing; or, embodied knowledge”

  1. These are largely questions of nurture, not nature, from which we live in a teaching environment, (somewhat at least, luckily) of which, look for Gibson’s “affordances,” later made publicized amongst HCI/ergonomics crowd by Don Norman. The knife tells the hand it’s about cutting, truly, if sometimes with cruel results.

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