SKEPTICAL KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT

Rafael Capurro

 
 
   
 

This paper is a slightly modified version of a lecture at the Akademie für Technikfolgenabschätzung Stuttgart on January 23, 2001. The original German version was published in: C. Hubig, P. Koslowski, Eds.: Wirtschaftsethische Fragen der E-Economy. Heidelberg: Physica Verlag 2002, as well as in: R. Capurro: Ethik im Netz. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2002 and is also online available here 

This English version was published in: Hans-Christoph Hobohm Ed.: Knowledge Management. Libraries and Librarians Taking Up the Challenge. IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) Publication 108, Munich: Saur 2004, 47-57.

Portuguese translation:
Gestâo do conhecimento cético. In Perspectivas em Gestâo & Conhecimento, 1 (1) 2011, 4-14.


 
 
 
 
Content
 

Introduction 
I. Tacit and Explicit Knowledge or Hermeneutics Revisited 
II. Zahn and Aristotle on Knowledge Typology 
Prospects 

Acknwoledgements 
References

 
 
 

Introduction

"I contest that we know whether we know something or not; we do not even know whether we know this or not; and we do not know whether something is or is not." (Diels/Kranz 1956, B 1) This is the skeptical view of Democrit's disciple Metrodore of Chios, in some way superseding Socratic skepticism. We can only manage what is and what we know about. "I contest that we know..." Therefore knowledge cannot be managed. Skeptical knowledge management – an oxymoron? 

In contrast we face today a mighty knowledge and information industry, and a third industrial revolution based on them to a large extent. Industrial society has become a knowledge industry society. It is therefore clear not only that we know but also that we can know a lot. It is just a question of how we use knowledge and the possibility of having it. 

A skeptic has no criteria in order to distinguish true and wrong opinions. This is why he just abstains from judgement and gets inner peace (ataraxia). He knows the technique of opposing phenomena (phainomena) and thoughts (noumena). He is always able to find a perception that is not compatible with a given one. We could paradoxically say that a skeptic is a manager of non-knowledge. His goal is a therapeutic one, as Socrates showed. He wants to heal from quick judgement as well as from arrogance (oiesis). But his method is different from the Socratic one as far as he wants to liberate the patient from the search for truth (Ricken 1994).

It is paradoxical that although he contradicts the dogmatic search for knowledge (episteme) he strives for a fixed goal, namely inner peace. In order to achieve this goal he must renounce to the search for truth as well as for value judgements. Nevertheless, skeptics and dogmatists have something in common: they both criticise simple opinion (doxa). Skeptical thinking appears at the moment in which the difference between divine and human reason is stressed (Long 1995, 940). Skeptics take a more radical view than just with regard the trust on divine knowledge by expanding their attitude also to everyday knowledge (doxa) as well as to scientific knowledge (episteme). From a skeptical viewpoint, knowledge management is a technology that pretends something that it cannot achieve.  

Peirce, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger belong, according to Ricken, to the skeptical tradition as far as they question modern fundamentalistic claims going back to Descartes. Skeptic forms of argumentation like the tropes of Agrippa (ca. 1st century BC) – namely: dissent (diaphonia), infinite regress, the relativity of the person who pronounces a judgement, and the circular argument – are rediscovered today, for instance, in some of the criticisms to naive realism such as Hans Albert's "Münchhausen's trilemma" (Ricken 1994, 161). Antiquity reacted to skepticism with different strategies such as Plato's criticism of the sensualistic concept of being or Aristotle's distinction between different kinds of knowledge. 

The present discussion on knowledge management in business shows that some old questions and arguments from the skeptic and critical traditions particularly from hermeneutics and theory of science are rediscovered, including the Aristotelian knowledge typology. 
 

I. Tacit and Explicit Knowledge or Hermeneutics revisited

In his book "The Tacit Dimension" Michael Polanyi (1966) mentioned the importance of "tacit knowledge" in biology. According to Polanyi human thinking is grounded in our body in such a way that this tacit bodily dimension is the basis of the so-called objective or explicit knowledge. In their classic work "The Knowledge-Creating Company" Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi (1995) place the concept of "tacit knowledge" at the core of their theory on how knowledge is created within companies in comparison to the traditional view that takes into account only the processing of explicit (digital) information. Information as "a difference that makes a difference" (Bateson 1985, 582) has to be integrated within a dynamic mostly implicit context of thought and action. The transformation of implicit into explicit knowledge or, in other words, making explicit an implicit context is an essential condition for the creation of new knowledge. According to Nonaka and Takeuchi this process includes four types of knowledge transformations:

- from implicit to implicit knowledge: socialisation 
- from implicit to explicit knowledge: externalisation 
- from explicit to explicit knowledge: combination 
- from explicit to implicit knowledge: internalisation 

Most organisation theories consider three of these transformations, namely socialisation, combination and internalisation. Combination belongs to the expertise of traditional documentation and library scientists. Nonaka and Takeuchi reflect on all these processes from the point of view of the business company. They do not only rediscover the key role of implicit knowledge within the knowledge creation process but they also analyse the dynamic spiral-like interrelation between these forms of knowledge transformation in the business field. Knowledge creation is based on context-dependent subjective relevance that remains mostly tacit.  Their aim is to understand how firms mobilise this basic creative resource, beyond the traditional view of knowledge management (Takeuchi 1998). Following this line of thought, Von Krogh, Ichijo and Nonaka (2000) put it like this: "This book is about knowledge enabling. It is our strong conviction that knowledge cannot be managed, only enabled". (Krogh/Ichijo/Nonaka 2000, vii) In other words, what can be managed is information or explicit knowledge which is only one part of the process of knowledge creation. In fact, we can only manage the creation of conditions of possibility for knowledge creation, which they call "knowledge enablers", such as: 

- instill a knowledge vision 
- manage conversations 
- mobilise knowledge activists 
- create the right context 
- globalise local knowledge 

This approach entails some arguments and thoughts related to the skeptic tradition as developed for instance by hermeneutics as well as by Popper's critical rationalism that in fact prima facie reduces all knowledge to "objective knowledge" but at the same time stresses that knowledge is basically "conjectural" i.e. based on beliefs, dispositions and "horizons of expectations" "whether these are subconscious or conscious". (Popper 1973, 345). Behind  some superficial polemics against hermeneutics (Albert 1994) the main common idea concerns the perception of the interpretative nature of knowledge as stated in hermeneutics with the concept of pre-understanding (Capurro 1986, 17).

In a letter to Paul Feyerabend about Hans-Georg Gadamer's famous book "Wahrheit und Methode" ("Truth and Method") (Gadamer 1975, first ed. 1960) Hans Albert writes: "Some parts of the book are very interesting, for instance regarding biased knowledge ("Vorurteile"), in which he seems to support a similar viewpoint as Popper in his Conjectures! I was surprised. Popper is ahead in about 16 years! Has the poor guy ("der Gute") (i.e. Gadamer) used him (Karl Popper) a little bit whenever he needed it?" (Quote from Grondin 1999, 336, my translation). Something similar could be said with regard to the relation between Popper and Heidegger who in "Being and Time", published in 1927, i.e. some twenty years before Popper's book, analyses the structure of pre-understanding (Heidegger 1976 § 31-34). Should "the poor guy" (i.e. Popper) have used him (Heidegger) a little bit whenever he needed it?  

Beyond this polemic we can state that the idea of empirical knowledge as "theory-impregnated" (Popper) is an example of what hermeneutics calls the "circle of understanding" or the "hermeneutic circle" (Capurro 2001). Modern theories of knowledge management such as the one by Nonaka rediscover at a new place an old truth. Von Krogh, Ichijo and Nonaka even reaffirm the importance of dialogue as a necessary condition for adapting global accessible knowledge to a concrete situation. Electronic networks are just but one instrument to achieve this goal and they are not necessarily always at the focal point. Nevertheless today's rediscovery of the topic of knowledge and information management within the business field allows also, vice versa, to criticise a technological hostility within the hermeneutic tradition. I call the conjunction between hermeneutics and information technology artificial hermeneutics (Capurro 2000a) which is concerned not with the face-to-face but with the interface situation. This means that, as with any other media change, electronic networks create new possibilities for knowledge creation, helping us, for instance, to overcome in a different way time and space constraints as in the case of bodily encounter or of printing technology. Classic hermeneutics has largely discussed the differences between the transmission and interpretation of written (and printed) texts as different from face-to-face dialogue. This was already a main point in Plato's criticism of writing. 

According to Essers and Schreinemakers from the Rotterdam School of Management (Erasmus University) Corporate Knowledge Management (CKM) cannot be reduced to Popper's paradigm of "objective knowledge" at least as far as such a paradigm implies an encyclopaedic view of knowledge within a firm (Essers/Schreinemakers 1997). This makes a difference with regard to Nonaka's "dynamic theory of organizational knowledge creation"  which implies that knowledge is shared by a community of practitioners or experts. The idea that knowledge cannot be separated from specific practices, institutions, instruments etc. is not far away from what Thomas S. Kuhn called "paradigms" (Kuhn 1962). But Essers and Schreinemakers point to the following differences between knowledge within both contexts: 
- Theory of science is interested in the analysis of science from a theoretical perspective while knowledge management is concerned with questions of application and use 
- A company is not just concerned with scientific knowledge but also with other types of knowledge. 

Knowledge management is interested in the subjective side of knowledge or, in the language of the theory of science, it is less concerned with the context of justification than with the context of discovery and application. Nevertheless "objective knowledge" understood as Popper's "World 3" plays a major role also in Nonaka's conception of knowledge creation. The relation of explicit knowledge to implicit values and interests rises the question concerning different types of conflicts for instance with regard to the difficulty of getting consensus between employer and employee concerning, say, a new product.  

Another critical question raised by Essers and Schreinemakers has to do with the context of justification. They refer to a 1994 paper by Nonaka in which he does not discuss the role of classic scientific criteria in opposition to economic ones (return on investment). This relative view of scientific knowledge from a pragmatic point of view can be seen as a skeptic form of knowledge management. This is also the case with regard to the largely discussed question about the incommensurability of paradigms. Nonaka seems paradoxically not to consider this practical situation which plays a role in everyday conflicts and breakdowns. Even more, he seems to conceal these kind of conflicts on the basis of a harmony oriented viewpoint. Essers and Schreinemakers make clear the importance of the situation of "interparadigmatic disagreement" within a company, i.e. of what we can call skeptical knowledge management, as the "crucial Aufgabe for the ever globalizing civilization of our time". (Essers/Schreinemakers 1997, 31). They make thus an important correction with regard to the widespread idea this kind of problems can be dogmatically solved on the basis of a company's vision.

This criticism does not make justice, I believe, to the dialogical process of knowledge creation as described by Von Krogh, Ichijo and Nonaka. At the same time Essers and Schreinemakers point to the risk arising from a relativism in the scientific field. They seem to favour a dogmatic position in this regard, but a skeptic one concerning a company's goals and strategies. This reversal of Nonaka's apparent position is itself one-sided. A company can and must work under normal conditions – Kuhn's "normal science" as business as usual –, while at the same time it allows a paradigm shift with regard to theoretical questions. It seems as if these kinds of questions presupposes an analysis of different knowledge types and their role in a company's life, at least as far as not all criteria that can be applied to scientific knowledge prove to be adaptable to corporate knowledge. Nevertheless, knowledge based on good reasons or know-why plays an important role that is not of the same kind than the difference between implicit and explicit knowledge. This rises the question of  knowledge typology. 
 

II. Zahn and Aristotle on Knowledge Typology

In their contribution concerning the question about "competitive advantages through knowledge management" Zahn et al. (2000), following a distinction by R. Sanchez, distinguish between: 
- know-how or the knowledge about how different parts of a system (a product or a production system) belong together and how this system functions. Know-how is a practical knowledge used within a specific situation for efficient fulfilment of a given task. 
- know-why or the knowledge that provides a causal explanation of a given state of affairs. 
- know-what or "Gestaltungswissen" is the knowledge about how know-how and know-why should be used. This kind of knowledge is basic for the ability of companies to efficiently respond to changing markets (Zahn et al. 2000, 246-248). 

Zahn et al. point also to the difference between implicit and explicit knowledge and describe what we could call the knowledge management dilemma: if knowledge becomes explicit it is more perennial but more difficult to protect, if it remains implicit, it is easier to protect, but it is difficult to transmit. This explains the two different strategies of knowledge management as described by Hansen, Nohria and Tierney (1999). The first one is called the codification strategy is oriented towards explicit knowledge which is stored and accessible via data banks. Examples of this strategy are Andersen Consulting and Ernst & Young. The second strategy is the personalisation strategy. In this case knowledge remains bound to the person who acquired it. The computer is just a medium for knowledge exchange. Examples of this strategy are Bain, Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey. 

We can compare this typology with the classical Aristotelian one. At the beginning of his "Metaphysics" he writes: "All human beings strive naturally towards knowledge ("eidenai"); a proof of this is the feeling of happiness they have with regard to sense perceptions ("aistheseis")". (Met. 980 a). Aristotle and the skeptics agree on this proposition but for Aristotle there is not only this kind of perceptual or aesthetic knowledge. He also points to  knowledge we acquire through remembrance ("mneme") which is characteristic of animal life and he calls this knowledge also empirical ("empeiria"). Human beings owe also a knowledge about how to artificially produce things, which is called technical knowledge ("techne"). Knowledge which is the effect of logical reasoning is called science ("episteme"). Scientific and technical knowledge have an empirical basis. From a practical perspective, empiricists mostly make the right choice in contrast to the ones who know things only theoretically. Why? Because they have a knowledge of the individual case. According to Aristotle a good doctor must have both kinds of knowledge, the scientific and the empirical one (Met. 981 a 15-23), although we usually say that scientists and technicians are "wiser" ("sophoterous"). "Sophia" is a knowledge about the first principles.  

This typology is prima facie only slightly different to the one in the "Nichomachean Ethics" where Aristotle points to: technical knowledge ("techne"), scientific knowledge ("episteme"), practical knowledge ("phronesis"), knowledge of the first principles ("sophia"), and intellectual reasoning ("nous"), on the one hand, as well as to conjectural knowledge ("hypolepsei") and opinion ("doxa") on the other hand (EN VI, 1139 b 15-18). Practical knowledge has to do with reasoning about the best means to achieve good goals. It is not just cleverness but concerns the moulding of the character through ethical virtues as well as of the intellect through dianoethical ones. In other words "phronesis" has to do with what could be the best means in order to achieve a good life in a concrete situation (Rowe 1989). Aristotle keeps his distance from Plato's superhuman ethical goals.  

There is a difference between these two typologies concerning the relation between knowledge and truth. In the "Metaphysics" Aristotle points to knowledge acquired through sense perception ("aisthesis"). Such aesthetic knowledge is 'a-logical' and therefore not related to truth. Truth namely is an affirmative or negative way of 'discovering' phenomena on the basis of "logos". The typology in the "Nichomachean Ethics" does not include this kind of 'a-logical' knowledge. Within this last typology Aristotle makes a difference between the first five forms of knowledge that he considers to deal always with truth ("aletheia"), i.e. to always 'dis-cover' ("a-letheia") the phenomena, while the last two forms of knowledge, namely conjectural knowledge and opinion, may also conceal the phenomena and therefore be "wrong".

This is the reason why they do not belong to the dianoethical virtues. These knowledge forms can be distinguished with regard to the kind of phenomena they affect as, for instance, perennial phenomena ("episteme", "sophia", "nous"), or changing phenomena ("techne", "phronesis"). "Techne" is concerned with the production of material things ("poiesis"), while "phronesis" has to do with human actions ("praxis"). These different kinds of knowledge refer to different kinds of truth, namely 'theoretical', 'practical' and 'poietical'. 

With regard to the difference between implicit and explicit knowledge, empirical knowledge lets causality implicit while technical and scientific knowledge make explicit the particular and the general. Aesthetic knowledge remains implicit.  Practical knowledge ("phronesis") becomes explicit through the weighting process of ethical counsel but the changing "rules" that govern individual and social life ("ethos" written with Etha) may become only explicit in education ("didaskalia") while remaining implicit in their becoming "customary" ("ethos"  written with Epsilon) (EN II, 1103 a 17-18). 

We can prima facie correlate Zahn's and Aristotle's knowledge typologies in this way: 
- know-how: "empeiria"/"techne" 
- know-why: "episteme" 
- know-what: "phronesis" 
and, following a suggestion by Manfred Rohr (Stuttgart Academy for Technology Assessment), we may add: 
- know-where 
- know-when 
- know-who 

The correlation between Zahn's "know-what" and Aristotle's "phronesis" should not be misunderstood as an equation of a company's goals with ethical ones. Economic goals are not absolute and should be permanently re-considered within the broader question of what is good for an individual, a group, a society... in a concrete situation and in view of what Aristotle calls "good life" ("eu zen"). Otherwise it could happen that we forget the connections between wisdom, knowledge and information, or, to put it in T. S. Eliot's famous words: 

"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? 
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" 
(Eliot 1986, Choruses from 'The Rock', 1934, I) 

An echo of these differences is found in Dr. Johnson's famous dictum as he was in Mr. Cambridge's library looking at the backs of the books: "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries." (Boswell 1986, 186) Since modernity we have been concerned with the question of locating explicit printed knowledge within the space-time coordinates of a library or of an encyclopaedia. With electronic networks we got (in principle) a global availability of knowledge for everybody, at any time and everywhere. At the same time we are aware that we must develop some kind of mistrust with regard to the Internet in order to cope with its chaotic structure (Kuhlen 1999).

Moreover, we should cultivate a critical attitude about what is often proclaimed to be knowledge within an organization considering its implicit and explicit presuppositions, impact and goals. I call this attitude skeptical knowledge management. Within a larger view this attitude should lead to societal "knowledge discourses" (Nennen 2000). To clarify these issues is a matter of what is being called information ethics (ICIE; Capurro 2000b, 2002). 
 

Prospects

If we take a look at the question of knowledge representation within today's context of digital networks we become aware of basic metaphoric change with regard to the concept of 'circle of knowledge' or 'encyclopaedia' that was predominant in theory and practice, particularly in the library world, since Enlightenment.

This metaphor used by Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond D'Alembert is indeed older – the term "enkyklos paideia" goes back to Greek sophistic (Schalk 1972)  – but French encyclopaedists did a kind of paradigm shift as they changed, following Ephraim Chamber, from a systematic to an alphabetic order. In fact, this order is not any more encyclopaedic but, as we could call it, 'endictyopaedic' ("diktyon" is the Greek word for net). Ephraim Chamber's "Cyclopaedia or an universal dictionary of arts and sciences" (1728) was a success, particularly because it was, as we say today, user oriented.

Chamber presupposes that, as D'Alembert remarks, "the greater part of the readers" are educated in such a way that they search for the meaning of words with relation to the contexts in which they are embedded. Consequently the French encyclopaedia should have included different thesauri which was not the case. According to D'Alembert this would have created more disorientation with regard to searching procedures, making the product even more voluminous, and the economic success would have been in danger (D'Alembert 1997, 96-97).
 

The following development brought not just a fragmentation of scientific disciplines and their vocabularies but, as we see it today, a knowledge network that goes beyond the printing encyclopaedic and 'endictyopaedic' forms of knowledge representation. Not only documents but also human beings are linked within a digital and global endictyopaedia that is a the same time an information as well as a communication medium. Is this development an opportunity or a threat for skeptical i.e. critical thinking? Following Plato's famous criticism of writing (Phaidr. 275), every knowledge fixation means a de-contextualisation that has to be turned back or re-contextualised. In other words, the art of memory as cultivated by traditional libraries as well as by digital networks needs the complement of the art of remembering.

But in the same way as traditional libraries are not just book stores but also places where people meet each other, the interface has oral capabilities that cannot replace the face-to-face but that can displace and enlarge it in different ways. Given the danger of social, technical, economic, and cultural exclusion at a local as well as at a global scale ("digital divide"), skeptical knowledge management is a key ethical element of an information and knowledge society that may avoid becoming inflated and arrogant. Such a society is not part of the solution, it is part of the problem. 
 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Thomas J. Froehlich (Kent State University, USA) for critical remarks and corrections. 
 
 
 
  

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Last update: November 22, 2009

 

 
  
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