Tuesday, March 12, 2013

State and Stance

"...it is not we who know. It is a certain state of us that knows."
Heinrich von Kleist

In the comments to my last post, Thomas Presskorn has been grilling me about the notion of knowledge as a mental "state". It's always invigorating to defend my approach as a proper "philosophy", so I thought I'd try to make the issue explicit in a separate post. If I understand him correctly, Thomas is insisting on a strict philosophical distinction between "states" and "stances". I, on the other hand, am willing to use these words in ways that let their meanings overlap, shading off into each other.

In my seminars, I define knowledge, in part, as "justified, true belief" and then emphasize that this definition should not lead us to think of knowledge merely as some "exalted mental state" that it is the purpose of research to get us "into". It's not enough to be in a state of justified, true belief, I argue; you also have to be in a "state of readiness", as I put it last week. Specifically, you have to be ready to talk about it and write about it.

This idea of "readiness" jibes nicely with Foucault's notion of an "apparatus" (dispositif). Our minds, when they are knowledgeable, are "set up" to "stand in readiness". They become a kind of instrument, a disposition to think about certain things in certain ways. They are sensitive to certain thoughts and impressions, and they also offer resistance to them. (There can be no particular sensitivity without other sensitivities being reduced.) Someone who knows a great deal about something is in one sense better able to think about them, but in is also precisely unable to think certain things, or to think those things only with great difficulty. If I know something, I'm ready to think about it in particular ways, and not others. Ready and able. We sometimes refer to this as having "chops".

At a deeper level, I would argue that "state of mind" in general is always also a disposition to act in certain ways under certain circumstances. If I'm irritable, for example, I'm "in a state", and this state conditions my responses to whatever is going on around me. I think Thomas would agree with this; he allows that there are "emotional states". Now, I want to say that being "knowledgeable" is not very different from being "irritable". If I'm knowledgeable about something, I'm disposed to engage with it intelligently. I'm disposed to assert particular facts and defend those assertions in the face of criticism.

When I assert something I adopt a "propositional attitude". I mean this as a pun on the philosophical notion of such attitudes, namely, believing, thinking, wishing, hoping, etc. A belief is always a belief in something, a belief that something is the case. That is, a belief is mental state that is essentially related to some "propositional content" (propositions are those peculiar entities in the world that may be true or false).

So I've been presuming that a belief is a mental state. And this is something Thomas is quite sure Wittgenstein would reject (and I agree with Thomas that if Wittgenstein would reject something then we should at least consider it carefully before accepting it). My view is that he would reject any philosophical problem that arises simply because we think of it as a state. That is, I think he would agree with me that the problem is not its "statehood" but its "exaltation". Beliefs are states but they are not states in some special philosophical sense. Calling them states does not accomplish anything philosophical.

There is no particular glory in achieving a state of belief or even knowledge. It's not an end in itself. What is impressive is being able to adopt an epistemic stance. Feet squarely on the ground and well spaced. Able to absorb criticism and return it. There is no particular providence in the acquisition of belief. The readiness is all.


fjb said...

2nd to last sentence of 2nd to last paragraph. You mean "special philosophical sense," not "special philosophical state," right? (I agree w/ your point in this post, btw.)

Thomas said...

Yes, thanks for catching it. I've fixed it now.