Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Relational knowledge: We discover what we know in our relations.


Some of our knowledge resides intangibly in our relations with others. On the one hand, this relational dimension poses limitations upon the degree of reflection and distance one can assume in a conversational or interactional situation. Strictly speaking, one’s mind is not quite one’s own when one is actively involved in social interactions such as conversing. “Minding someone,” or “to give someone a piece of one’s mind” are not just empty expressions. The opportunity to reflect on what one says and does while one is saying or doing these things can only be seized at the cost of a certain authenticity of the relation in which one is involved at the time.


On the other hand, relational knowledge can also surprise us. For example, who is not familiar with the peculiar phenomenon that in the presence of one person we may feel totally stupid while in discussion with an other person we may feel really smart? In interactive relations our words seem to be tied up in the total conversational structure of our relation with the person with whom we speak and to whom we listen. It may happen that we are saying or telling something –and as the words fall from our tongue we hear ourselves speak, and we think, “Not bad!” We may be surprised at our own thought and eloquence. “Did I say that? That’s good, I should write it down!” Thus, Merleau-Ponty can say, “my spoken words surprise me myself and teach me my thought.”