Theory vs Practice [FILM-PHILOSOPHY]

William asks:

“if there is still a perceived lack of theorist-filmmakers, then perhaps
someone could clarify what it is that they think is missing.”

We can begin with Gilbert Ryle’s distinction between knowing that (propositional knowledge) and knowing how (practical knowledge).

For Ryle, knowing that names systematically organized propositional knowledge: it is explicit, declarative, deductive, theoretical, and resides in the mind, in cognition. In contrast, knowing how (for Ryle) is practical knowledge: it is implicit, procedural, inductive, tacit, and resides in behaviour.

Ryle argued that knowing how cannot be reduced to knowing that, that know how is a distinct form of knowledge. He privileged know how, and argued that propositional knowledge or cognition has little influence on it.

In a similar vein, we can argue that film theory is a form of knowledge (knowing that) distinct from filmmaking (knowing how). We could follow Ryle and argue that film theory generates a series of propositions and ideas that do not overlap with knowing how.

One significant issue, though, and contra Ryle’s position, is whether any film theory propositions (knowing that) do overlap with knowing how. Are there film theory concepts that can and do inform knowing how? This isn’t their primary purpose, since film theory is a distinct body of knowledge from filmmaking. (Film theory can of course explain filmmaking; the issue here is whether is can influence filmmaking. I’m reminded of Alan Parker’s quip when he said, in the days of celluloid filmmaking, that filmmakers need theory like they need a scratch on the negative.)

We can therefore turn this debate into an explicitly philosophical issue, by not presupposing that knowing that and knowing how simply overlap; they are two different types of knowledge whose relationship needs to be thought through. It is the theorization of the link/overlap between the two types of knowledge that seems too be missing.


Warren Buckland
Reader in Film Studies
Oxford Brookes University


  1. Why theorising a ‘link/overlap’, when the collaborative element between practice & theory is still unclear, and when practice seems to be so poorly described.
    Whether it is in conceptual art, filmmaking or crafts – practice requires and stimulates cognition, evaluation, behaviour at its source. Practice allow for mind and body to be involve. Theory doesn’t belong within the process of practice – unless we are discussing science – it belongs with the finished object (film, art etc.), when methods and processes are concluded – only then that theory finds its missing limb, opening up a new dialogue, leading to new work.

  2. Frances

    I have really enjoyed reading this and can’t stop thinking about the relationship between these two kinds of knowledge, ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’. Yet my thoughts are scrambled and contradictory whilst simultaneously making sense (to me anyway), so thought I’d write them down.

    Despite the fact that any description of the brain will often fall short of its ever complex and baffling nature, it is possible to divide it into two hemispheres, the left and the right, which operate in very different ways. The left hemisphere can be described as descriptive, ordering, linear, logical, defining, and secondary, where as the right is immediate, sensory, non defining, absorbed, intuitive, and primary.

    So attempting to understand an instruction or a process aimed at the right hemisphere with the left is going to be problematic, because If ‘knowing how’ is a process that is holistic, creative, and intuitive, it is in a state of flux and flow that cannot be pinned down, ordered, and explained. Language (and theory) attempt to put in a polarised sense that which is not polar, squashing reality into arbitrary designations like you and me, beginning and ending, practice and theory. If our minds are too busy trying to explain what we are doing before or whilst we are doing it, it slows down, becomes less efficient, and perhaps even seizes altogether when seriously overfilled. This is why the mind needs a sense of space from which creativity can flow.

    Calmness conditions connection. If we try too hard to explain, to grasp and grip at understanding or knowledge, there is a danger of shutting down altogether. Therefore, if when ‘knowing how’, we are receiving the right hemisphere instructions with the right hemisphere, the left will naturally follow the right and describe, memorise, and systemise the constant flow of immediate intelligence of the right brain, creating a harmony where intelligence grows through experience. Although on a physical level the two hemispheres of the brain are almost entirely separate, they do connect and communicate to each other at the corpus callosum, so really, they are ultimately connected because surely we can only truly understand (completely, or holistically) through direct experience?

    The only problem is that the system we live under prioritises language and theory over process, the finished (saleable) object/commodity is valued more than the experience and process of making/writing/painting it. This pressure to produce takes us further away from the integration of our minds and bodies.

    This is not an argument against thinking, language, or theory, because this would be a polarity itself, and I happen to love a bit of theory! Furthermore, when we approach systems of knowledge reflexively, we understand that they don’t provide us with a definitive answer, a “truth”, because there aren’t any grand truths. Theoretical approaches are systems of reason, tools with which to construct an argument about meaning, whilst always acknowledging that meaning is open to endless interpretation and that knowledge itself is always in flux and process. It is simply an argument that ‘knowing how’ tends to use other faculties, such as touch, smell, sight, movement, etc., to relate to the world at least as much as thinking about it.

    I am now thinking of dancing, that when I am truly dancing I am immersed in the present and feel free, neither reflecting, criticising, or evaluating myself or others. If I were to reflect on my dancing in that moment, analyse how I am moving or how I might be perceived, my joyful experience would be transformed into an object of thought and I would cease to be dancing. But that does not mean that I am not aware that I am dancing with a culturally specific body that perceives and understands the world in a culturally specific manner, and that this is politically important because my experience cannot speak for all bodies, only this body. Therefore, I can reflect on my experience after the experience, otherwise I wouldn’t have the experience at all because I would be thinking about it rather than doing it. This process can then help me to understand why I love dancing.

    This is why, for me, there is a relationship between knowing that and knowing how, but knowing that can paralyse knowing how, and knowing how should be followed by knowing that in order to avoid universalism and to respect and celebrate difference. I can, then, reflect upon my felt bodily experience whilst considering the social, cultural, and historical processes which shape them.

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