The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: knowledge

How to Make a Contribution to Knowledge

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)

An Almost Total Want of Arrangement

Disciplinarity is a concept which the current blog has long found somewhat questionable. Nor does interdisciplinarity make the thing any more appealing. For interdisciplinarity presupposes disciplinarity, and that epistemological inquiry – or in outdated humanist terms, the pursuit of knowledge – must rest on the merging of disciplines is contrary to this blog’s stance, which calls not for the merging, but the dissolving of all disciplines. Disciplinarity is a function of the modern age. A function, perhaps partly, of the fact that we know too much. it was once conceivable to know everything. The position of The Last Person to Know Everything is one that has had many pretenders. It was often, and still is sometimes, said about Goethe (d. 1832), to give perhaps the most well-known example. Now, we are all agreed, it is impossible to know everything. Hence disciplinarity. Disciplinarity, then, needs to be historicized as a condition of knowing too much and of having developed technological and scientific methods of great complexity; not naturalized as the condition in which knowledge is found

We may still have something to learn from the Condition-of-England debate of the mid-19th century, one of the last occasions, perhaps, when public discourse transcended the disciplinary. And who better to exemplify that state of affairs than Thomas Carlyle, the writer who invented the term Condition-of-England in Chartism (1839), and set the terms for the debate in many other ways. What was Carlyle?

The range of Carlyle’s output and certain details of his life have evoked numerous attempts to categorize him as a Preacher, Teacher, Reviewer, Philosopher, Prophet, Poet, Artist, Man of Letters, Social and Political Commentator, Sage. None of these categories is fully satisfactory. At best they offer, and were often used by his nineteenth-century critics, as, a set of open-textured definitions, the merest starting points for reading particular texts. (Ralph Jessop, Carlyle and Scottish Thought, p. 17-18)

This is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be done in these disciplinary times. Is that wholly for the better? The complexity of systems built up in the social sciences and humanities for examining specific phenomena is impressive. But as humanity is always in a state of creating itself, and the complexities of society – or even the single individual therein – are so great as to defy systematization, it is necessary that we should leave a space for the undisciplinary. By that I mean not intuitionist approaches to knowledge, but the approach that takes all empirical evidence as its field, rather than setting out a methodology beforehand which prescribes what will be seen, and what will not be. If a methodology is a lens, then the undisciplinary process is an eye – less sharply focused, perhaps. but more wide ranging, more easily able to see peripherally and well as both up close and at a distance, and able to accept the input of the other senses before coming towards a composite picture of the affair. Just as the methodology is entirely open, so will the conclusion reached be far from full or exact.

Such a process is, undoubtedly, anathema to the more scientifically minded. The argument is that as we know our own thought processes to be inflected by social construction, we cannot simply trust our own judgements. This is true, but it is a double-edged sword, for our methodologies are also socially constructed, and we cannot trust them either. to consider these methods the more trustworthy of the two is an argument from authority. We must perform a constant dialectic between the two: the individual judgement versus the institutionally imposed method. On which side the balance should fall? At this moment, for this blog, on the side of the individual judgement. Ironically enough, I feel that I have found agreement to such a stance in Michel Foucault, the high-priest of methodologies in contemporary humanities/ social sciences. Foucault, we should remember, was a person. One, undoubtedly, who was and whose theories were socially constructed and whose personal interests come out quite blatantly in his social theories (not that I believe that should be held against him, but also it should not be swept under the carpet when we examine his theories, which do not arise from a personal vacuum – in other words, I believe in ad hominem). Anyway, quoth Foucault:

[A]t every moment, step by step, one must confront what one is thinking and saying with what one is doing, with what one is. (Rabinow, ed., Foucault Reader, 1991, p. 374.)

This is quite a contrary approach to adopting a methodology and applying it. And, I suggest, the humanities is just the place for such an approach to be defended. That is, indeed, how I would like to define the humanities, in practical terms: as a place where the methodological, the instrumental, the idea of the human as the wholly theorizable and predictable homo economicus, is absent. The methodological can be left with the social sciences – this is not a critique of these disciplines in themselves, but they are no longer in themselves – they have taken over humanities to an extent that leaves little room for the self-scrutiny Foucault called for. Instead, the space we need is one in which method is abjured, and progress is not mechanical, but is undertaken on a moment-by-moment basis, that accounts for the very specificity of the moment and the place. What would that produce? Would it be something like the following, a description of the work of the fictitious Professor Diogenes Teufelsdrockh:

Apart from its multifarious sections and subdivisions, the Work naturally falls into two Parts; a Historical–Descriptive, and a Philosophical–Speculative: but falls, unhappily, by no firm line of demarcation; in that labyrinthic combination, each Part overlaps, and indents, and indeed runs quite through the other. Many sections are of a debatable rubric, or even quite nondescript and unnamable; whereby the Book not only loses in accessibility, but too often distresses us like some mad banquet, wherein all courses had been confounded, and fish and flesh, soup and solid, oyster-sauce, lettuces, Rhine-wine and French mustard, were hurled into one huge tureen or trough, and the hungry Public invited to help itself. (Sartor Resartus, I, 4)

This blog says yes. History and philosophy are to be taken, not as disciplines apart, but as open-textured definitions, more or less useful in the given case for performing the fundamental task of the study of the Teufelsdrockhian Things-in-General. To be any more specific than Things-in-General would be to do the critical endeavor a disservice. It is time for knowledge to acknowledge itself as “some mad banquet”, not a set menu from which ingredients may be chosen singly or combined methodically. We will still have to choose our subjects, but we will answer for them on a moment-by-moment basis, in response to a world that knows little of disciplines, and does not arrange itself for the benefit of our categorizing endeavors.

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