How to Make a Contribution to Knowledge

by Mark Wallace

This is the apportioned task of all doctoral researchers. Its difficulty lies in the post-modern problematization of the concept of knowledge. We have to argue that we are contributing to knowledge, even if the argument withinour thesis involves an assertion that knowledge is merely contingent, therefore our attempts to add to it are doomed to partiality and dependent on circumstance, i.e. a postmodern argument. Another view of knowledge, which is neither the classically rational nor the postmodern, is that of Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend puts it as follows:

Knowledge […] is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges towards an ideal view; it is not a gradual approach to the truth. It is rather an ever-increasing ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives, each single theory, each fairy-tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of competition, to the development of our consciousness. (Against Method, Verso, 2010, p. 14)

Here, then, knowledge can be added to, but without the rationalist presumption that knowledge can be perfected by a singular path to truth. Rather, a new path may come into existence with any individual thesis (which is what we are talking about here), which may be incompatible with other theses, may appear outlandish and sui generis, or even plainly wrong, but yet it may be treated as a contribution to knowledge, and may have that effect.

It is the notion of right and wrong that need to be relegated in doctoral studies in the humanities. The idea that a thesis has to “prove” something. “What have you set out to prove?”, you will be asked. This, I submit, is the wrong question. It is not the proven that is of sole importance, and humanities above all need to recognise this. All world religions have been not proven, but their importance is inestimable. Marxism, itself, in so far as it was verifiable, has been debunked by the failure of a dictatorship of the proletariat to arise. The “logical force” of Marx’s argument has given way to this empirical fact, but the “material effect” of Marxism has remained massive, and its attraction to academia similarly. Feyerabend insists on the virtual inextricability of “logical force” and “material effect”, such that one should never simply talk of an argument’s logical force, but also include the material effect from the beginning – not so neat, but if we wish to understand the development of consciousness, and contribute to it, necessary (Feyerabend, p. 9). The provenness of an argument may be quite secondary. So when a humanistically inclined scholar sets out to write a thesis, they should set out, I submit, not to “prove” any one thing or the other, but to add an alternative, which then enters into play with the many other alternatives already floating round the ocean of knowledge.

The strange couplings that will ensue between this and that alternative are not wholly foreseeable, historical circumstances being as chaotic and ever-changing as they are, but the addition of a new alternative is in itself dynamic, and, even if it is an alternative we feel sure is fundamentally wrong, disagreement is in itself a stimulus – further, we do not, unfortunately, know that this alternative is wrong. The last instance in which knowledge is finally exactly defined and contributions to it specified and isolated never comes. Proof is a posture: when we analyze texts and historical moments and movements, we prove little. Only the relatively mundane is capable of being proved. To limit ourselves to the provable is wrong, and to declare those complex social, cultural and historical configurations that we study to be provable is also wrong.

We are not proving, we are simply adding, creating connections and creating the possibilities of further connections, which may or may not come to pass. Rather than trying to prove, I suggest we should try to introduce – introduce concepts, ideologies, and theories to each other. Perhaps they will hit it off, create a spark. We cannot know, can only produce the written form of our investigations. We don’t judge these investigations by their provability, but firstly, by the process as we experience it: understanding is produced by “playful activity”, Feyerabend says (p. 10), like children; secondly, by how others can work with it – can it create engagement? If we can do these things, we will be more productive, creative, and, of course, happier. If we seek to prove the improvable, we condemn ourselves to intellectual torment, we bore ourselves and others, we twist the available facts and select what we can use, we are always vulnerable – even, perhaps, to our own conscience. Only the greatest openness to the ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives can keep us engaged with knowledge, rather than ossifying in some self-validating theory that explains all the world in a certain number of pages, and closes of all of history that contradicts it. I will close with Feyerabend again, on scientific education:

It simplifies “science” by simplifying its participants: first, the domain of research is defined. The domain is separated from the rest of history (physics, for example, is separated from metaphysics and from theology) and given a “logic” of its own. A thorough training in such a “logic” then condition those working in the domiain; it makes their actions more uniform and it freezes large parts of the historical process as well. (p. 3)