Thursday, September 22, 2011

Knowing & Writing

Jonathan's comment to Tuesday's post reminded that writing and knowing are not the same thing. On my pragmatic definition, your knowledge is the basis of your ability to write, and your writing therefore demonstrates that ability, but the text you write is not your knowledge. Your writing is an elaboration (a "working out") of what you know.

Consider the difference between the two words "writing" and "knowing". The first is most commonly used to name an activity (putting words together), while the second is just as commonly used to name a state of being (the state of having knowledge, "being in the know"). But "writing" is sometimes also a less active noun. "How's your writing going?" or "How do you like Simon's writing?" Interestingly, we don't talk about our "knowing" that way. In fact, we very rarely talk explicitly about the development of our body our knowledge, even at our universities. We talk about the work, namely, the writing. Or we talk about other actvities, like teaching. We might also talk about our research, and we might talk about our reading—mainly, that we just read something interesting.

But we don't talk about our knowledge as something we do. I can tell you (you can see) what I'm writing right now, but can we talk about what I'm knowing at the moment? Is this act of writing also an act of knowing? The act of knowing what I'm talking about, for example? Or does my writing merely demonstrate or manifest my knowledge?

There are similar verbs—owning, for example. Ownership is a state of being but we also own things, just like we know things. I can be an owner just as I can be a knower. I can hold ownership of something just as I can have knowledge of something. I can also acquire new ownership (come to own something), just as I can acquire new knowledge (come to know). Neither owning or knowing, though each is a gerund derived from a verb, are things we, properly speaking do. But it is not grammatically correct to say that they are things we are. Knowledge is something we are said to have.

Compare "dancing" and "writing". These are are certainly activities, things people do. They are also things you can well or not so well. They are abilities you develop with practice. Is there something like knowledge, understood as the basis of your ability to write, that lies beneath the dancer's ability to dance? Well, the dancer can rightly be said to "know how to dance". The dancing demonstrates mastery. But what kind of knowledge is that? What kind of mastery?

Dancing is often a very graceful activity. Dancers make graceful movements. Is it possible to be graceful in the same way that it is possible to be knowledgeable? Well, it's even possible "to grace" (as a verb), as in: "She graced us with her presence." But it is not common to say of someone that she entered the room and simply began to grace. Likewise, the teacher does not enter the classroom and proceed to "know" things. Rather, the lecture demonstrates (or fails to demonstrate) that the teacher knows something.

"What are you going to do this morning?" "Oh, I think I'll stay home and know that universities are going from being professional organizations to being machine organizations—in Mintzberg's sense." Well, you might just sit at home, but how are you going to go about "knowing" such a thing? There's the writing. The dancer does not just live in a "state of grace". She works on it. She becomes more precise in her movements by continual practice. Likewise, your writing is the outward and active manifestation of an underlying disposition, which we call knowledge. Scholars know many things; but writing is what they do.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Interesting slippage here between writing as verbal noun and as participle, as product and as activity.