Thursday, March 07, 2013

The Gradual Formation of Knowledge in Discourse

There is another interesting issue of translation in Kleist's essay "Über die Allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden". "Reden" is here usually translated as "speech" or "speaking", but the standard translation of, say, Heidegger's Being and Time renders it as "discourse". Kleist is, of course, very focused on actual speech situations, i.e., talking, but we can extend the idea to written contexts as well. Somewhat trivially, for example, the process Kleist proposes could presumably be initiated also by writing a letter to a good friend that tries to explain the idea.

From here it is a short distance to a "discursive" conception of knowledge, as famously articulated by Foucault in his Archaeology of Knowledge. He talked about "discursive formations", which comprised the formation of particular objects, concepts, "enunciative modalities"*, and strategies.

The individual scholar thinks something and perfects that thought in conversation with peers (including students). The scholarly community, meanwhile, collectively shapes the objects and concepts of their knowledge in discourse. Kleist says that "it is not we who know. It is a certain state of us that knows." As I never tire of saying, knowledge is indeed a "state of mind", i.e., "justified, true belief", but that state should also always be thought of as a "stance", a practical orientation in a social context. When we know something we are in a state of readiness to converse about it and write about it.

It's important to keep in mind that discourse is made up of gradual, ongoing processes. And they are supported by a whole array of practices, from the very local practices of the college classroom, to the very global practices of the published literature.

It is ironic, if you ask me, that our increasing awareness of the embeddedness of universal, theoretical knowledge in particular, practical contexts, which Heidegger emphasized already in 1927 (in his description of "the existential conception science"), and which really took off with post-Kuhnian and post-Foucauldian "science studies" in the 1980s and 1990s, seems to have motivated initiatives that have largely eroded precisely those sites (the classroom and the literature) that were supposed provide occasions for the careful formation, and indeed "perfection", of our thoughts.

On Tuesday I said that we seem to have grown impatient with thinking. We might also say that we have too much blind trust in science. We no longer try to get our minds around difficult ideas. Instead, we imagine that "the facts are known" and that an expert somewhere knows those facts. All we have to do is listen and believe. It is the role of the scientist to confidently assert, not to "think out loud". We're unwilling to entertain a tentative formulation.

Fortunately, there is increasing awareness that the mere "communication" of research results in scholarly journals and their subsequent "popularization" in the media has very little to do with the growth of knowledge or the perfection of thought. In the language of TED talks, it's merely about "spreading ideas". On this view, it sometimes seems to me, we're expected to believe things even if we don't understand them. As long as the claims are supported by "science", i.e., by a study conducted according to an accepted method and framed by a recognized theory, the "fact" is said to be established. We then let the Malcolm Gladwells and Jonah Lehrers of the world "get the word out". It is considered "educated" to be receptive to them. To propose to subject a fact to further "thinking" (as it were, "after the fact") is considered either quaint or rude, and in some cases outright dangerous.

Once again, it is important to let Kleist remind us that the spirit moves slowly. Just as importantly: it moves (gradually, gradually) towards perfection only when we are talking to each other, whether in speech or writing. And this is why it is so important to write as participants in a conversation about imperfect notions, not as public speakers of incorrigible truths. Peer review should not try to determine whether or not the result a paper presents is valid but, rather, whether or not the result has been presented in a way that makes it possible to discuss it. To use Foucault's language, it must be formed as a statement in a discourse. The conversation continues...

*He seems to use this phrase to avoid the loaded terms "subject" and "style", both of which would perhaps be too easily understood, i.e., misunderstood. Specifically, just as he uses "discursive formation" to avoid the philosophical baggage of the term "theory", I think he uses "enunciative modality" to avoid the baggage of "subject". He'll sometimes talk about the "position of subjectivity" (of a statement) essentially synonymously, however, and I usually read him as providing us with an account of "theories" that emphasizes the historical contingency of their objects, concepts, subjects, and themes.


Presskorn said...

A Wittgensteinian aside: You might not tire of saying it, but I don't wonder why you would even begin to say that knowlegde is a state of mind. And I don't know why you would connect such a conception to the notion of justified, true belief either (Beliefs are not states either). The whole thing seems un-grammatical.

States are things one is in, and while reading Napoleon's letters I might be in a state of excitement, but I am not currently in a state of knowning that Napoleon was a French Emperor.

Knowlegde lacks the "genuine duration" (cf. Zettel and Remarks on Philosophical Psychology) that characterizes states.

Thomas said...

I'm in a moderately good state of health. Does that also lack "genuine duration"?

I mean "state" in the sense of "mental state", but I should grant that I'm probably not distinguishing it adequately from a propositional "attitude", which is of course much more like a "stance".

I'm in a state of knowing that Obama is president. (And, sometimes, in the state of thinking, believing, fearing that he is actually emperor.)

I think belief is a mental state if there are mental states at all. Process ontologists will tell us there are no states anywhere, only processes, and so any alleged mental state is "actually" a process.

I can sort of grant that. An apparent state is actually a very stable, very durable process, like a standing wave in a river.

In ordinary language we can meaningfully say "I was in a state of disbelief" and we can, for a "genuine" period of time, "suspend disbelief". Knowledge is a highly durable, but not permanent, state of belief, "exalted" (as I sometimes say) by truth and justification.

Like a state of health, it grounds our stance, and gives us the strength we need ... in the case of knowing, the strength we need to assert facts.

Presskorn said...

I am not suggesting any sort of process ontology, but I would perhaps suggest that you reread your beloved Investigations, if you want to defend the thesis that knowlegde, understanding, intending etc. are mental states.

PS: But yes, "I know...", "I believe..." etc. are clearly propositional/intentional attitudes... Again, unlike states of consciousness.

Thomas said...

I think we're talking past each other. I don't mean "state" in anything but the ordinary senses I mentioned. I agree with W. that this can lead to philosophical confusion, but I think that's exactly what I'm avoiding by implicating those states in practices, forms of life, if you will.

Presskorn said...

But you have given no ordinary senses.

Any linguist would mark “I'm in a state of knowing that Obama is president.” with an asterisk in order to indicate that the sentence is abnormal. You can’t be quite serious about calling that sentence ordinary.

And while we do indeed say things like “I was in a state of disbelief”, it is important that we do not say “I was in a state of belief”. The phrase “a state of disbelief” and number of similar phrases is ordinarily being used to pick out the emotional effects of having certain beliefs changed – and these emotions are, of course, states of consciousness. The phrase “a state of disbelief” is however NOT being used to pick out a particular belief nor the absence of a particular belief. E.g., in the sentence, “Upon finding my wife in bed with another man, I was in a state of disbelief.”, the phrase picks out the state of emotional distress – it does not refer to the belief that my wife is being unfaithful or its negation. It is, quite simply, not a counterexample.

Also, I think you’ve missed a negation or something in your health-example; you seem to think that you’ve contradicted me, but it’s quite plain that you haven’t. I said: States are characterized by genuine duration. You said: Health is a state, and rhetorically ask me if health also lack (sic!) genuine duration. Where’s the contradiction? At least I didn’t know what to make of it.

That said, I am very much line with your overall point in this blog-post (and everywhere else): Namely, let’s stick with the traditional definition of knowledge as justified true belief, but let’s also combine it with a modern definition of knowledge as the ability to engage relevantly in a conversation about a particular subject. I agree and see the pedagogical point of this maneuver. What I don’t see is why partly sticking to justified true belief should commit us to seeing knowledge as a state.

Thomas said...

In my seminars I usually speak the following words: "the problem with JTB as a def. of knowledge is that leads us to think of knowing as an exalted mental state."

I think we agree on that. But I just don't mind thinking of it as a plaiim old mental state.

Thomas said...

That is, I mean "state" here in ways that shade into "stance". It's a state of readiness. A configuration of the apparatus if you will.

Presskorn said...

Well, well... I guess we agree about the conclusions, while disagreeing about the justifications.

Knowledge as readiness is alike to a disposition. A configuration of the "dispositif" if you will.

Thomas said...

Yes, when I was an undergraduate philosophy student I believed it was dispositions all the way down, ontologically speaking. I try not to have too many serious ontological commitments these days, but if you scratch me, that's probably still what you'll find.

But there's got to be an ordinary sense in which the dispositif is, at any given time, in a particular state. (The Foucauldian puns multiply here.) While knowledge may be a dispositional property, it seems also always to have a categorical manifestation.

C.B. Martin, my old teacher, used to talk about the depth and breadth of the mind's "disposition base array". Obama is killing people around the world according to his "disposition matrix". It's a national security "posture", a stance. And didn't I once hear Manuel DeLanda talk about "affordances", i.e., the way the surface of a lake "affords" a mosquito to stand on it, but not a bear. Dispositions for mutual manifestation, Charlie would say.

"The readiness is all," Hamlet would say.

You have a basis to assert something in a context. You state your views in a dispersion of other statements. They push against each other. You stand your ground. Your ability to do so is your knowledge.

Presskorn said...

Yes, but it is quite important to keep your grammatical cool. When you know something you are certainly in a position to *state* your views, but by doing so you are not stating the state that you are in.

Thomas said...

The statement represents the state you are in. (The fact and the proposition must have the same logical form.)

I'm enjoying this conversation. Thanks. This morning I've started writing Tuesday's post which will be about precisely this topic.

I never lose my grammatical cool! ;-)

Andrew Shields said...

You must have love your grammatical cool, Thomas B., because I found some grammatical cool today, and it had a little tag on it: "Please return to Thomas B."

Thomas said...

Okay, maybe I lost that cool, but I'm happy to have it back. Thanks!

profacero said...

I hereby commit to reading your blog more regularly.

Thomas said...

That'll have a positive influence on my writing. Thanks Prof. Z.