The knowledge delusion: What changes and what stays the same

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An interesting discussion took place between two prominent e-thinkers who both agree that the 'nature of knowledge' is changing but disagree on how and what the implications are. Stephen Downes summarises the notion of changing knowledge as follows.

Half an Hour: The New Nature of Knowledge

From the work just cited, we can identify three major points (and those who care to look will find those points repeated throughout my own writing):

1. knowledge is not an object, but a series of flows; it is a process, not a product
2. it is produced not in the minds of people but in the interactions between people
3. the idea of acquiring knowledge, as a series of truths, is obsolete

These point to a conception of knowledge dramatically from the Cartesian foundation or the Platonic form, a conception of knowledge that challenges even the Aristotlean categpry and the Newtonian law of nature. In particular, what seems to me to be relevant, is that the knowledge thus produced is:

1. non-propositional, that is, not sharp, definite, precise, expressible in language
2. non-discrete, that is, not located in any given place or instantiated in any particular form
3. non-objective, that is, independent of any given perspective, point of view, or experience

Well, this is almost entirely wrong! I should probably pussyfoot around this in a false display of academic modesty, hedging my bets left and right with 'I thinks' and 'in my views' but that would really be dishonest. This is just wrong. First, what is incontrovertibly right: knowledge is a process and not a product and it is produced in the interactions between people (points 1 and 2 above). That doesn't mean necessarily mean that 'it is not produced in the minds of people' but I'd be willing to concede this point as one where interesting debate could be had. But almost all the conclusions that flow from this essentially correct observation are not borne our by a close study of what knowledge is and how it works. The root of the confusion is nicely summarised by one of the commenters' questions:

My question is; is it actually the nature of knowledge that has changed, or it is the massive change in how knowledge is tangibly represented that makes it look like its nature has changed?

Yes, both Bates and Downes use 'knowledge' in two related but separate senses. 1) Knowledge as a human trait, that is a way (rather than a thing) in which humans know things and come to know things. And there is no doubt that this knowledge is mostly dynamic and processual (although it has to have certain stability that is however socially negotiated). 2) Knowledge as a label describing what people know and how they come to know it. This is the kind of knowledge that appears in entertaining little buzzwords like 'knowledge economy' or 'new knowledge'; or entertaining old cliches like 'true knowledge' or 'precise knowledge'; or even things like 'scientific knowledge' or 'intuitive knowledge'. The first knowledge is what it is, it is universal and has not perceptibly changed in the last X thousands of years just like our feet, livers and brains have not noticeably evolved. What has changed is 'what' we know, how we talk about what we know and whose knowledge gets to have seat at the discussion table. And even this has changed much less than we might think.

Thus saying that "the idea of acquiring knowledge, as a series of truths, is obsolete" is talking about a different meaning of the word 'knowledge' than "knowledge is not an object, but a series of flows". But the problem lies deeper, it is one of  a (perhaps inevitable and certainly not new) historical myopia. In some respects, knowledge was never acquired as a series of truths (otherwise, how could it change) and on the other hand even the most radical innovator in education cannot stay away from presenting some knowledge as a series of truths (even if the only truth were to be that knowledge is not a series of truths - just like the internet is not but in many ways is a series of tubes). Even if we look at the scholastics or the monastic orders annotating the works of the great Greeks, that knowledge was talked about as a 'series of truths' and introduced to students as such, but it was treated in pretty much the same fluid and dynamic manner that knowledge is by its very nature in any historical context. Thus the following conclusions about this 'knew knowledge' make almost no sense:

1. non-propositional, that is, not sharp, definite, precise, expressible in language
2. non-discrete, that is, not located in any given place or instantiated in any particular form
3. non-objective, that is, independent of any given perspective, point of view, or experience

ad 1. All knowledge as a propositional and non-propositional (imagistic, fuzzy) component. It is never sharp and precise (see the 'Century of the Gene' by Helen Keller or Bart Kosko on Fuzzy Sets) but its sharpness and precision is constantly sought after by people in conversations (and internal monologues). Nothing in the 'new environment' of the internet can change that. In fact, this is precisely what I'm finding in my research on frame negotiation.

ad 2. Pretty much the same applies here. Knowledge as such is not discrete (viz prototype theory of categorisation) but it is presented through language as discrete (even if the underlying system is different). Even Downes' own writing on knowledge constantly strives for discrete (separating new knowledge from old) and locationality (knowledge online and offline). We simply have no way of accessing and processing knowledge that is not tied to a place and a form. There might be something that Lakoff calls 'preconceptual' cognition and that I would call 'pre-ethical epistemology' but that is never the whole picture of knowledge as we know it.

ad 3. Knowledge independent of a perspective or experience is about as likely to occur in real life as a circle that is at the same time a square. We can, and constantly do, try to file off the sharp edges of the squares of our context-bound knowledge but what we end up with are squares with round edges (knowledge that is free from some contexts) but not circles (knowledge that is context free altogether).

Downes is right to criticise Bates for confusing what is known with how it is known but he obviously commits the same error himself and ultimately, it is Bates who clinches the argument by saying:

Thus while values regarding what constitutes ‘important’ knowledge may be changing, this does not mean that knowledge itself is changing.

Downes' conviction that something has changed in how knowledge is treated in general and as a result in academia is simply based on an anachronistic fallacy:

Did, in all these developments - the internet, biotechnology, and the rest - did academic contribute abstract, rigorous and timeless knowledge? Certainly, there was some point at which it did. Newton's three laws were classical instances of such. The laws of thermodynamics equally so. And even in the last century, Einstein contributed to the paradigm with E=mc[2]. But recently?

I would argue - and this is a matter for empirical investogation - that the research paradigm based on "abstract, rigorous, timeless" knowledge has stalled, and that what reserachers have in fact been harvesting over the last few decades is something much more like network knowledge, as I have described it above. This is a distinct form of knowledge that is not based on simple causality, laws of nature, objective perspectives, and the rest. It is (in the words of Polanyi) tacit and ineffable.

First, just because Downes is ignorant of significant advances in scientific theory does not mean that there were none: quantum physics, incompleteness theorem, complexity theory or even punctuated equilibria or string theory come to my social scientists' simple mind almost immediately. And there are probably more that we cannot appreciate without the perspective of time. But an even graver error is in assuming that Newtonian or Einsteinian advances were ever 'rigorous' or 'timeless'. Descartes objected to Newton almost immediately and his objections to gravity as a mysterious magical force were not overcome until Einstein and in some respects linger still. We learned them as truths in school but that's how school works, not how the academic world works or has ever worked (Kuhn's, Holton's, or even Gould's historical investigations illustrate this quite clearly). To say "what reserachers have in fact been harvesting over the last few decades is something much more like network knowledge" is just beyond riddiculous. Not because it's not right as a perspective on how knowledge is created but because there's nothing new or special about it. In this year of Darwin adulation, there are plenty of books that illustrate how the now sacred theory of evolution was not born in a single treatise of a disconnected genious nor was it ever in existence without an elaborate network of knowledge negotiation.

But the root of the confusion is in that labels such as precise, rigourous, abstract, good and bad are those that apply in the discourse on knowing things but have no place in a hermeneutic entreprise. There is nothing new about claiming newness for the knowledge of our time and certainly nothing unique about concluding this or the other as a consequence for the 'modern' educational system. We see it in Rousseau, Dewey and many much less retrospectively prominent thinkers of any age. But the nature of human knowledge remains. It is what it is, we still have the same bodies and brains that have to store it, live in the same kinds of social environments within which the relative merrits of particular contents are negotiated, and we still have to deal with the predilections of our essentially unchanging cognitive systems. What we know changes (a bit) but how we know it, how we come to know it and what we can do with what we know stays the same. Writing did not change it, print did not change it, CD-ROMs did not change it and the internet will not change it either. I would really really like to say that we must learn to recognise the unchanging principles from the parameters, forever in flux, but that would be foolish. I would in general subscribed to the following sentiment by Bates:

The difficulty I have with the broad generalisations about the changing nature of knowledge is that there have always been different kinds of knowledge. Does technology change the nature of knowledge? | Tony Bates

But then he goes and says something like this:

In a knowledge-based society, knowledge that leads to innovation and commercial activity is now recognised as critical to economic development.

So the moral of the story should perhaps be: you cannot say much about the nature of knowledge if you at the same time accept the notion of 'knowledge-based society' or even God-forbid 'knowledge economy' as in any way epistemologically relevant.

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