Perspectives on Knowledge II

Defining knowledge by absences

This is a guest post by Dr Emanuela Spanò, a post-doc researcher at the University of Cagliari, Italy. Together with our Irish co-researcher, we have formed a writing group scoping literatures on European Higher Education to identify ecologies of knowledge. This project began in July 2019 following our attendence at SUSEES (Summer School in European Education Studies).

Knowledge is an analytical concept ridden with confusion and conceptual controversies. Simply put, the essential problem is that every thought can in some way be conceptualised as knowledge and the distinction between knowledge and action is not always clear cut (Hochschild, 2006). A key step in defining this concept is thus to constrain and circumscribe what we consider as “knowledge”.

As opposed to the standard commodified view of knowledge – whereby knowledge is understood as a product produced and transferred similarly to physical objects – we firstly see knowledge as embedded, produced and reproduced by particular fields (Bourdieu, 1984; 1989; 1993) such as academic disciplines, practitioner communities, or expert groups. In addition to explicit knowledge, we argue that tacit knowledge (including professional knowledge) can play a crucial role in governance and knowledge transfer. But one of our main aims is to focus on the absence of knowledge or of some types of knowledge. In our view, it can reveal, by contrast, the dominant forms of knowledge produced and reproduced within a specific field of practice. For this reason, we will try to map the specific forms of knowledge which emerge (or lack) in the specific field of educational research educational research, paying special attention to the presence/absence of resistant voices or counter-narratives that try to “decolonize” the field and find new research attitudes and new research methods.

Kitchen Stories (2003) – On the paradoxes of sociological knowledge

Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls “abyssal line” the frontier produced by capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy, which separates what happens in metropolitan society from what happens in the suburbs, just as before it separated what happened in the metropolis from what happened in the colonies. The latter conceived no longer as territorial colonies, but as social colonies, epistemic colonies. Our hypothesis is that “metropolitan knowledges” can creates the conditions for carrying out the “epistemicide” of other forms of knowledge not included in the scientific winner paradigms. In his view, we need an epistemological break in order to change mentality, methodologies, theories, and even university as institution that rules organize the social production of scientific knowledge.

First of all, the Eurocentric thought – which is obviously a thought of great wealth – must begin to dialogue with other knowledge in the world, in what de Sousa Santos calls ecology of knowledge. The proposal for ecology invites us to think that our knowledge, no matter how rigorous, is not the only one. It is a proposal that does not go against science, but against the monopoly of rigor on the part of science. There are other forms of rigour with which we will have to measure ourselves in order to arrive at integration between scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge, other knowledges. The objective is to articulate scientific thought and popular thought, without ever believing that scientific thought is the only valid one (de Sousa Santos, 2018).

Today we must pay more attention to the different forms of knowledge that there are in the world, to the cognitive diversity of the world. We must begin another type of dialogue with the world, through an epistemological break. Many types of knowledge circulate in the world: artisan, vernacular, popular; the knowledge of women, men, natives, and peasants. All of this knowledge – says de Sousa Santos – is contained in the struggles, circulates and is forged in the struggles. The “epistemologies of the South”, according to de Sousa Santos, consist of procedures to validate knowledge produced by the efforts of those who fight against the systemic injustices of colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy.

These exhortations apply particularly to those of us who are involved in social sciences. So, de-colonizing our social science and our university (Mbembe, 2016), also means bringing out the forms or knowledge considered as “legitim” or “not-legitim” in a specific moment, and in a specific context. However, to approach other knowledge in the belief that there is only one valid form of knowledge, and that other knowledge is worthless, is to behave as an “epistemic extractivist”. Already Paulin Hountondji, philosopher of Benin, had approached the question in the 1997. In the book Endogenous Knowledge, Hountondji (1997) speaks of a global division of scientific work, born under colonialism but which persists in the post-colonial world, for which data collection and data collection and data analysis and practical applications of knowledge can occur in the periphery, but concepts, methods, equipment, training and recognition of research are formed predominantly in the metropolis.

Instead – according to de Sousa Santos – one can get to know “with” the people, while at the same time one gets to know a given social reality. It is possible to know by creating subjects, instead of establishing a subject-object relationship. As Orlando Fals Borda already said in 1995:

Do not monopolise your knowledge nor impose arrogantly your technique, but respect and combine your skills with the knowledge of the researched or /grassroots communities, taking them as full partners and co-researchers. Do not trust elitist versions of history and science which respond to dominant interests but be receptive to counter-narratives and try to recapture them. Do not depend solely on your culture to interpret facts, but recover local values, traits, beliefs, and arts for action by and with the research organisations. Do not impose your own ponderous scientific style for communicating results, but diffuse and share what you have learned together with the people, in a manner that is wholly understandable and even literary and pleasant, for science should not be necessarily a mystery nor a monopoly of experts and intellectuals” (Orlando Fals-Borda (1995, April). Research for social justice: Some North-South convergences. Plenary address at the Southern Sociological Society Meeting, Atlanta, GA. Retrieved from http://comm-org.wisc.edu/si/falsborda.htm.)

All in all, in our article we will try to be conscious of the “epistemic abyssal line” which separates it from the social and epistemic “colonies”. In this way, practicing and mapping the “ecologies of knowledge” which emerge in the specific field of higher education research, for bringing out the “epistemologies of the South”, that try to “decolonize” the field and the academia, more in general.

Emanuela Spanò is a post-doc researcher at the University of Cagliari, Italy. Her work mainly focuses on gender, evaluation policies, lifelong learning, narrative research and the construction and representation of space in education. She is on Academia.edu (https://unica-it.academia.edu/EmanuelaSpanò) and on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/emspano) Mail contact: emanuela.spano@unica.it


Perspectives on Knowledge I

Defining knowledge

I begin 2020 with one of several reflections on ‘knowledge’, an age-old concept the meaning of which is being disfigured by ill-intentioned and disingenuous leaders, most notably during the highly toxic and xenophobic UK-US political discourses of 2019 and debates on the climate crisis.

Inevitably, ‘western’ academia is concurrently being forced to question its own ontological and epistemological grip on reality.

SRHE 2019, Plenary Panel (left to right: Professor Neil Harrison (Oxford University), Dr Foluke Adebisi (Bristol University), Dr Ibrar Bhatt (Queen’s University Belfast), Dr Elizabeth Hauke (Imperial College London), Dr Kathy Lukett (University of Cape Town)

I need to keep up with these debates, mainly because my research is on academic writing and how it claims to ‘shape knowledge‘, but also because I am increasingly identifying philosophies of higher education, values and social justice as fertile sites for making sense of the epistemic crisis. These sites seem to hold the shifts in perspective and language needed to make sense of epistemic toxicity and self-doubt.

Knowledge and true belief

Knowledge is a concept that is slippery and hard to define. A very flawed but intuitive definition consists of understanding it as follows:

“There is a way things are that is independent of us and our beliefs about it” (Boghossian, Fear of knowledge, p. 3, 2006).

This is hugely problematic, yet frequently invoked by default across all disciplines and in every day life (arguments with teenagers notably spring to mind here – it’s not my opinion, it’s a fact!).

Papineau (2019) claims that a better way of thinking about knowledge is in terms of being ‘open to a fact’ because, presumably, this gets rid of the trouble we run into when we invoke the notion of ‘things being independent of us’ (but he then argues against this position on the grounds I outline below). This way of thinking about knowledge, i.e. being ‘open to a fact’, is based on lines of sight: agents are assumed to know about what lies in their direction of gaze when nothing is in the way. This discriminatory ability can provide a foundation for the concept of knowledge. Those who have this ability can divide agents into those who know some fact and those who are ignorant of it. Basically, I can be said to ‘know something’ if I can see it clearly.

One of several problems with this understanding of ‘knowledge’ is that it doesn’t distinguish it from ‘having a true belief’ about something. For example, by believing ‘that I can see something clearly’, I get the same result as knowing ‘that I can see it’. By eliding the difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘believing’, Papineau concludes that we may as well do away with the concept of ‘knowledge’ and replace it with the concept of ‘true belief’.

‘Belief’, however, is a mental state that requires a ‘self’ (i.e. someone has to be believing), so knowledge in this sense of ‘belief’ can’t be ‘independent’ of us, either. This still doesn’t rule out the possibility of the external world being independent of us (in a Kantian sense), but it does mean that our knowledge of/belief about this world depends on us. This indicates that facts can be defined ontologically (i.e. we can say there is an objective/real world that is independent of us) as well as epistemically (i.e. in terms of how we come to know the world, including the normative value systems that we use to describe it).

Knowledge of this world can, therefore, only ever be our knowledge. It is not ‘knowledge’ that is independent of us. In this sense, knowledge can only be epistemic, not ontological, because it requires a ‘self’ to orient how we come to know the ontology.

Knowledge is mediated by the ‘self’

The history of science and philosophy have highlighted that the ‘self’, including its technologies (Foucault), mediates between us and the external world. Kant famously posited that the world appears to us as it is because of the subjective categories of space and time that we project on to it. Hume, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Foucault also questioned what it means for things to be ‘independent’ of us.

Thinking of knowledge as ‘things that are independent’ of us is, therefore, untenable (and I hereby pledge to stand by this claim, even whilst arguing with my teenager).

Knowledge as ‘epistemic virtue or vice’

Once we accept that knowledge of the world involves knowledge of our ‘selves’ or of a ‘belief’ about how things are, we begin to notice that, rather than facts, it is a series of values (virtues and vices) that underlie the way we talk about the world. In other words, we pass judgements on the ‘way things are’ and are actually unable to talk about these ‘things’ as if they were ‘independent’ of us.

When we talk about the world being ‘real’ or ‘true’ or ‘objective’ or ‘relative’ or ‘just’ or ‘diverse’ or ‘structured’ or ‘stratified’, etc., we are judging it to be one way or the other, we are never describing it ‘as it is’.

Daston and Galison (2007) provide a fascinating historical perspective of epistemic virtues, of how ‘objectivity’, ‘truth’, ‘idealisation’, ‘pedagogic communicability’, ‘certainty’, ‘precision’, ‘replicability’ are human values rather than facts about the world. They show how these epistemic virtues and vices have played different roles at different times in shaping the Western concept of knowledge. They also show how virtues morph into vices as a result of human judgment, not facts.

The tension between self (including its technologies and extensions) and object are at the heart of the epistemic virtue lens.

The history of knowledge highlights diverse epistemic virtues (EVs), which I list below. These do not replace each other but evolve into each other. From truth-to-nature approaches that reify general idealised types; to mechanical objectivity that reifies individual objects devoid of relations and structures; to relational invariants that try to communicate structural objectivity; and then family resemblances that can only be detected via trained judgment.

 The book traces 3 epistemic virtues (EVs):

  1. Truth-to-nature (pre 1800s), when artists and scientists worked together to depict an idealised/sanitised/selective paradigm of nature/reality.

Artists and scientists worked together with ‘four eyes’ to capture the ‘essence’ of nature, drawing it but also stylising and sanitising it for pedagogic purposes and selecting what features were considered typical of a species and airbrushing out anomalies. Tensions sometimes arose between how the artist saw the object and how the scientist saw it.

Truth-to-nature was a ‘self-centred’ epistemic virtue, not an ‘objective’ one.

  • Mechanical and structural objectivity (18-1900s), when the ‘self’ was eliminated. This project failed, even though it still lingers in how we think about science.

Machine-mediation gave the impression that objects could be seen ‘as they were’ with no mediation of the self, no airbrushing of anomalies. Sight was now considered a vice, not a virtue, and the virtues of denial and restraint of the self became paramount for science (from ‘four-eyes’ to ‘blind eyes’).

But mechanical objectivity posed several problems, one being that it depicted objects in a way that was now ‘too real’ and therefore difficult to communicate pedagogically. What could be seen under a microscope or how structures were related, (eg snowflakes), now needed interpretation. A ‘scientific self’ was needed to mediate between the world and how it could be communicated.

This ‘scientific self’ manifested several virtues. He [sic] was patient, persevering, slow, methodical, reasonable and diligent. Newton is an example.

But this self was still too interfering in mediating reality. He was not objective. Nature needed to be ventriloquised (ie separated from the self). But this still required a ventriloquising ‘self’, namley someone to speak on behalf of nature.

Structural objectivity was invoked as the way to continue eliminating the self and to ensure that knowledge of the world could be communicated unequivocally and universally (cf analytic philosophy and the Vienna Circle). According to analytic philosophers and mathematicians, eg Frege, ‘objective is the law-like, the conceptual, the judgeable, what can be expressed in words’ (p. 267).

Clearly, however, this, too, was a subjective stance since only a ‘self’ can do the ‘judging’.

Structural objectivity failed, as did the analytic philosopher’s project because the world is substantial (cf Toulmin) as well as structural. Biology is a science of substances and properties (eg blood, colour, flesh, organic matter, environments) as well as structural relations (eg physics).

  • Trained judgment (1900s and beyond), where the self is needed to make sense of (judge and interpret) reality.

The expert and trained judgments of the scientist bring the ‘self’ back into play to make sense of ‘family resemblances’ between objects, not ideal types. The need to classify, manipulate, interpret patterns, graphs, electroencephalograms, etc. requires a ‘self’.

Concluding reflections

The post-truth era requires a Self that is trained to judge and is transparent about their values. This does not make them infallibe ‘experts’, but it does make them more qualified and informed than others to make judgments that are concurrently explicit about the values that orient that judgment. When judgments are trained and values are explicit, others can, in turn, make their own equally trained judgments in accordance with their values.

So, what might today’s epistemic virtues look like? What virtues and vices underscore the key epistemologies of this century’s humanism: post-humanism, Big Data, post-truth, ecologies of knowledge, climate change, gender, standpoint theories?

What role does the ‘self’ play and what responsibilities does it have in today’s educational landscape?

How can we reclaim confidence in knowledge without transcending into irreality, hubris and vice?

And, crucially for me, what role do academic writings have in shaping epistemic virtues and vices?