Underlying Skills

Your focus seems to be on propositional knowledge but there’s also procedural or embodied knowing (e.g. that underpins skills), tacit knowing (incl. instinct & intuition), collective or distributed knowing (how we operate and negotiate with others and the world) and metacognition?

Tim Fawns

I got a good response on X to my last post. Tim correctly notices that I think of “academic knowledge” mainly as “propositional”, i.e., as knowledge that can be made explicit in sentences whose meanings depends on what could make them true. In whatever way it still makes sense to say so, I’m a logical positivist, a verificationist of sorts. I like Herbert Feigl’s “two humble questions”. I also believe that academics should cultivate what like to call a “propositional attitude”; they should see themselves as a “stewards of the facts”; they should “know things”. But I completely agree that we can only maintain our system of propositional knowledge because we master a series of underlying skills. Indeed, those skills are what “inframethodology” is all about.

“It’s not the proposition but your intellectual posture that counts,” I once said. It’s not what you believe that matters, but how you hold your beliefs. It is not whether what you are saying is true, but how you respond when someone tells you that you are wrong, that determines whether you’re an academic (or at least what kind of academic you are.) The skills that support your explicit propositional knowledge were called “tacit” by Michael Polanyi because they are often unconsciously exercised after they have been acquired. (Tim is right to call them “intuitive”; indeed, I often get outright Kantian about them.) Like I say, we’re talking about your intellectual posture, here, your attitude.

I want to maintain my focus on our sources of knowledge this week. So my question is — even though Tim is right that there are forms of knowledge (or at least aspects of knowing) beyond the propositional — are there sources of academic knowledge beyond reading, reasoning, and experience? Here “experience” is going to be a very big category — but it is generally where I would locate all the tacit “craft” skills that travel under the banner of “method”. A good question is whether Tim’s “collective or distributed” knowing goes beyond the networks maintained by our literature, i.e., reading. Are our social interactions (living conversations) valid “sources” of knowing? Or are they merely occasions for truly learning something through the same-old reading, reasoning, or experience (e.g., replicating an experiment)?

For today, these will have to remain questions.

How Do You Know?

This question can be asked at different levels of generality. “It is raining,” you may say; or, “The climate is warming.” You may know it is raining because you have just been outside or you have looked out the window or you have checked your weather app. You may know that the climate is warming because you kept careful records of the daily temperature; have reviewed the scientific literature on climate; or simply because you have kept up with the news. Philosophers ask questions like, “How do you know you are not dreaming?” or “How do you know there is an external world?” Your answers here will be different and will often not satisfy the philosopher anyway. Finally, we may ask my question: “How do you know things?” That is, how do you go about acquiring knowledge. The answer may be, “Through experimentation and observation,” or, “through the reading and conversation,” or of course little bit of both.

When you are writing in an academic setting you should mainly be saying things you know. And, as Wayne Booth and Herbert Feigl remind us, you should try to explain to your reader how you know. You should give your reader the same reasons you have to believe, understand, or agree with your claims. That may not immediately work; the reader may not instantly believe you, or understand you, or agree with you. In fact, you should count on that not happening too quickly in most cases, but your job as a writer is to tell the reader what led you to think as you do. Tell your reader what what you’ve read and what you found there; or tell your reader what your data shows; or even just tell the reader how you proceeded from certain premises (that the reader, like you, thinks are true) to your conclusion. Those three sources — reading, experience, reasoning — are probably going to be the main ones. To be honest, at the moment, I can’t think of other ways of knowing at university.

Putting it that way, I think I may just have said something controversial. Maybe I’ll spend this week thinking out loud a little about that.

Two Humble Questions

The tradition they now represent has centered its chief inquiries around the two humble questions, “What do you mean?” and “How do you know?”

Herbert Feigl, “Logical Empiricism”

Christian Frankel sent me this quote the other day knowing it would remind me of Wayne Booth’s mythical Oxford tutorials. As a statement of the underlying attitude of the logical positivists, it’s quite nice, and I remember Steve Fuller once telling me that, whatever we may think of positivism as a philosophy of science, positivists were often excellent dissertation supervisors. Indeed, it’s not difficult to see how it might be helpful if your supervisor patiently and insistently asked you mainly, “What do you mean?” and “How do you know?” Imagine having someone give every single one of your paragraphs that treatment!

I’m going to spend some time this weekend reading Feigl and relating his ideas to the issues I’ve been raising this week. Have a great weekend also!

The Conditions Under Which the Objects of Human Knowledge Are Given

“To know anything in space (for instance, a line), I must draw it…”
Immanuel Kant

Why should you have a philosophy of science? It’s not just students who find it inconvenient to have to declare their epistemological and ontological assumptions, to decide whether they’re positivists or postmodernists, or gauge the depth of their realism or constructivism. Many of their professors, too, would prefer to just, as I put it yesterday, “drink coffee and know things.” Why all this thinking?

One way to answer this question is to say, simply, that philosophy is an inquiry into how things are given to us to know. What must necessarily be the case in order for the actual objects around to even be possible as things we can experience? This is important because it gives us something to do: if we want know something we’re going to have to establish those necessary conditions. We’re going to have find (or perhaps build) a solid foundations for inquiry. We have to get ourselves into a position to know things. Coffee may seem necessary. But it’s not going to suffice, I’m afraid.

Kant identified time and space as conditions of the possibility of our experience of objects. Foucault took a more historical view and tried to dig up the epistemic foundations of our discourse. Today, after the advances of Science and Technology Studies, we’re all more or less aware that knowledge is grounded in “social and material” conditions that shape our “communities of practice” and allow us “construct our reality”. Personally, I like to focus on the conditions provided by the university which I sometimes call the institution of our intuitions, the formative place where we shape our experience in such a way that things can be given to us “objectively”. In that sense, academia is the premier site of what is sometimes vulgarly known as “knowledge production”.

The point is that we can work under these conditions. We do it every day. Philosophy is just a deliberate attempt to reflect on them.

What We Talk About When We Know What We’re Talking About

with apologies to Raymond Carver

Ontology is, famously, the study of what there is. In philosophy, especially after Kant, this question has been approached by way of epistemology, so that we now ask what is there to know. As academic writers, it can be useful to distinguish the act of knowing from the facts we know, and so it can be useful to think independently about what there is and how we know it. That’s what I want to write a few words about this morning.

Willard Van Orman Quine has been cropping up a lot in my thinking and reading lately. He had a strong influence on me when I was younger (channeled largely through the work of Donald Davidson) and revisiting his writing has been a good way to gauge whether my own thinking has gotten deeper and richer with the years. I think it has. For example, Quine suggests that we think of ontology always in relation to a theory, not as some general metaphysical project of discovering what “the world” is really “made of” (though he’d be happy to let us do that too, relative to, say, our whole language.)

The other day, for example, I wrote about the ontology of the library, our archive of scholarly discourse. I said it consists of “sources” of particular kinds, like “books” and “periodicals”, “chapters” and “articles”, but also databases and their data and metadata. And when I talk about writing, I’m talking about words, sentences, paragraphs, essays, papers, dissertations, etc., which some would say are covered by the general term “texts”. The point (today) isn’t whether these terms are the exactly right ones but just that these are things I “know something about” as a librarian or writing instructor. They constitute the universe of my knowledge. They indicate my ontology. They are the “things” I can “refer” to because I am a “knowledgeable” person.

Notice I can refer to them without saying anything about them, without really making a knowledge claim. At best, I’m claiming that books and paragraphs exist. And that’s the whole theme of ontology. What things exist?

I said that Quine suggested we always relativize our ontology to our theories (or our language). We should ask, “What is this theory about?” when we are looking into its particular ontology. Notice that the two examples I sketched were not really theories, but what we could well call practices: archiving, writing. All we have to do now is realize that our practices can be theorized and that when we theorize our social practices what we’re actually doing is taking what people are doing as “subjects”, driven around by “necessities” (what they must and mustn’t do), and construing them as “objects” in a space of “possibilities”. We’re taking an “objective” view of “subjective” experience.

In so doing, we’re going to construct theoretical objects and these will constitute our ontology. At one level, we can say that we know something about “people”. But we might also be studying groups or classes of people, or we might be studying their motivations or their identities. Or we might not really be studying persons at all: maybe we want to say we study decisions in organizations (populated by members), or transactions on markets (for goods).

As a preparation to write key sentences for paragraphs I often suggest that people take a few minutes just to make a list of the things they know something about, without yet thinking about what they want to say about them. Just name the things that populate your world. The world you are studying. The objects of your theories.

Tomorrow we’ll think of things to say.