Knowledge Circles

Knowledge Circles

Knowledge Circles sensitize us to different ways of knowing about the world. At the moment in the urban sustainability field, as in many others, there is tendency to privilege reflective consciousness — that is, empirical analysis, planning, etc. — rather than other forms of knowledge. Among the many different ways of knowing, the Circles approach distinguishes four main forms. Each is important in contributing to an integrated and engaged approach to remaking our cities. The categories are not mutually exclusive. In any given situation these forms of knowing overlap and intersect with each other.

  • Sensory experience (feeling)
  • Practical consciousness (pragmatics)
  • Reflective consciousness (reflection)
  • Reflexive knowing (reflexivity)

Move your cursor over the Circle below to see the four domains, each with four subdomains.


The first form of knowing is sensory experience: feeling things. This is the phenomenal sense that something exists in relation to us, or has an impact on us. The concept of ‘affect’ attests to this kind of consciousness, as does ‘sense data’. But sensory experience is less technically conceived than those abstract expressions. It is embodied experience. It is felt, but not necessarily reflected upon. How we feel about our cities and homes is critical to how we act upon them.

  1. Sensate knowing: knowing based on being attuned to one’s senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.
  2. Perceptive knowing: the cognitive apprehension of having experienced a sensation.
  3. Emotional knowing: the somatic feeling of affect, including the feeling for someone else’s situation; for example, the blush of shame; the clenched fists of anger.
  4. Revelatory knowing: a visceral response to a particular scene or sound paradoxically experienced as ‘out of body’: for example, the experience of the sublime or ‘being touched’ by the transcendental.


The second form is practical consciousness: knowing practically or pragmatically how to do things; knowing how to ‘go on’. Practical consciousness is basic to human action in the world. Writers as different as Wittgenstein and Marx have elaborated upon this theme. Often we just know how to do things without reading instruction manuals. This way of knowing comes from long-term practical experience. Such experience is fundamental to generating good practice and remaking our cities in positive ways.

  1. Experiential knowing: knowledge based on doing things many times: for example, craft knowledge.
  2. Intuitive knowing: knowing through projecting possibilities; ‘conscious embodiment’ before it comes to reflective or articulated understanding; sometimes called ‘being savvy’.
  3. Tacit knowing: knowledge that cannot be articulated or translated into written form.
  4. Situated knowing: knowledge that is specific to a particular place or time.


The third form is reflective consciousness. This is the modality in which people reflect upon their felt experience and practical knowledge. It is the stuff of ordinary philosophy. It is what thoughtful practitioners often do when they get a chance to step back from a project — thinking about what has been done, what is to be done, and how could it be done better. It is the basis of good interpretation. It is necessary to good urban design and project management.

  1. Trained knowing: knowledge based on learning supported by teachers and/or curriculum.
  2. Contemplative knowing: knowledge that emerges in the saying or the thinking. For example, knowing that comes through linguistic consciousness, such as in the moment of saying ‘I love you’ and realizing in the act that it is true or otherwise; or knowing that comes through trying out ideas and seeing if they sound right.
  3. Analytical knowing: knowledge based on breaking things down into their constituent parts: deductive knowledge.
  4. Theoretical knowing: theoretical work that makes a claim about the determination, framing or meaning of something.


The fourth form is reflexive consciousness, or knowledge that comes in interrogating the nature of knowing while seeking to understand the world. Reflexivity requires reflection upon the constitutive conditions of being here or doing things. In the Circles approach reflexivity goes beyond reflecting upon techniques, processes and practices. It involves standing back from and reinterpreting those techniques and practices in the light of the nature of thinking and acting that underlies those techniques and practices. This process of interrogating the conditions of our practice is tenuous, recursive, and always partial. But it is necessary to good practice in a world that is full of both fashionable and commonsense claims about what should be done — some helpful, some not.

  1. Recursive knowing: knowledge that bears back upon itself and constantly interrogates the basis of its own knowledge.
  2. Epistemological knowing: knowledge about the different forms of knowledge; that is, classic epistemology understood in the sense of the study of knowledge.
  3. Meta-analytical knowing: analysis that reflects back on the basis of its analysis. For example, methodology studies, which work through the way in which we make claims about things. Another example is psychoanalysis of the kind that entails its practitioners reflecting on their own reflectiveness as they do their work. In other words, this is a kind knowing in which the subject and the object are brought into constant dialogue.
  4. Meta-theoretical knowing: theoretical work that seeks to understand the world while theorizing the possibilities of its own theorizing.

Background to the Knowledge Circles

Knowledge Circles, or hermeneutic circles as they are known in the philosophical literature, treat these ways of knowing as deeply connected to each other. Each way of knowing relates to the others in continuous hermeneutic circles where each way of knowing is interdependent. Taken together, they constitute a stronger circuit for evidence collection than, for example, just gathering data. If we are going to remake our world in positive ways we need to use all our ways of knowing.

Unlike the usual modern list of forms of knowledge — data, information, knowledge and wisdom — our Knowledge Circles set up no hierarchy of knowledge importance. There is nothing to fetishize about one form of experience or understanding over the other. We do emphasize the critical importance of reflexive learning and assessment, but that is only because it is the one form that is usually left out of contemporary discussions.

One current fashion is to emphasize ‘big data’, for example. However, it tends to forget that, without interpretation, big data is just sets of coded information. There is no doubt that big data can be extraordinarily useful, but only if it is drawn into a broader epistemological framework. Similarly, development practitioners emphasize training and capacity development, but teaching techniques and processes independently of larger circles of interpretation leaves both the teaching and learning thin and unsustainable.

Each level of knowledge, as presented here, is more abstract than the prior level(s). More abstract levels of knowledge give us different ways of accessing concrete things, events, ideas and processes in the world, but this more abstract knowledge also loses something in the process of standing back from the world.

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