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The Craft Beneath the Discourse

In my last post, I invoked Heidegger’s distinction between the logical and the existential conceptions of science. Heidegger makes this distinction in Being and Time, where he distinguishes between approaching science as “an interconnection of true propositions” and a “mode of Being-in-the-world” that discovers truths (H. 357). He is interested in the ontological conditions of “the theoretical attitude”, we might say.

He emphasizes, however, that it is not merely the opposite of a “practical” attitude. Science (“theoretical exploration”) is not a matter of “hold[ing] back from any kind of manipulation”. On the contrary, Heidegger says, science requires a great deal of practical activity: setting up experiments in physics, preparing slides for observation through the microscope, digging up artifacts for archaeological research. Here, already in 1927, Heidegger is heralding the emergence of what we today call “science studies”, i.e., the interdisciplinary study of science as variety of social and material practices. These practices are of great interest to me as an “inframethodologist”.

Writing plays an important role in them. “Even the ‘most abstract’ way of working out problems and establishing what has been obtained, one manipulates equipment for writing, for example” (H. 358, my emphasis). In fact, Heidegger defined human existence by rereading Aristotle’s characterization of human beings as “rational animals” as “that living thing whose Being is essentially determined by the potentiality for discourse” (H. 25). In this sense, then, Foucault’s early work on “discursive formations” can also be considered an “existential” analysis of science. as well an important part of the transition from the philosophy of science to science studies.

While writing is not the only practical aspect of modern research, it may be the most straightforwardly “existential”, as the slogan “publish or perish” reminds us. Indeed, Heidegger was sometimes uncannily prescient. In “The Age of the World Picture”, he describes what might be called (to play on the title Lyotard’s famous book) “the modern condition”, in which he sees a shift away from “scholarship” and towards “research”:

The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine with him which books must be written. (QT, p. 125)

I think that, today, we all recognize ourselves at least partly in this description.

At the heart of Foucault’s theory of discourse — his “archaeology” of the human sciences — is something he called the Archive, which resonates nicely with the passage I just quoted from Heidegger above:

[The archive situates] a practice that causes a multiplicity of statements to emerge as so many regular events, as so many things to be dealt with and manipulated. It does not have the weight of tradition; and it does not constitute the library of all libraries, outside time and place; nor is it the welcoming oblivion that opens up to all new speech the operational field of its freedom: between traditions and oblivion, it reveals the rules of a practice that enables statements both to survive and to undergo regular modification. It is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements.(AK, p. 130)

This is why I read Foucault’s Order of Things and Archaeology of Knowledge as detailed empirical and theoretical elaborations of Heidegger’s “The Age of the World Picture”. Both thinkers were trying to show how “modern” or “classical” representation was contingent on historical processes, and that history appeared to be moving on. The “postmodern condition” is, perhaps, precisely expressed in this image of an archive, operating somewhere between Bolzano’s book of “the totality of all human knowledge” and Borges’s famous “Library of Babel”. It is the craft of making “statements” to be collected in this archive that I’m interested in.

What is inframethodology?

We all know what meta-theory is, right? Although the Greek word “meta” actually just means “after” (“metaphysics” is just the book that Aristotle dictated after his Physics) we generally think of “going meta” as taking things “up a level”, going “above” or “beyond” whatever we were currently talking about. Meta-theory is the theory of theory, a metatheory is the theory of a theory, i.e., it is a conceptual framework for describing another conceptual framework, like a meta-language is a language for talking about another language (the “object-language”). Meta-theory, we might say, is the application of the philosophy of science to a particular scientific theory,  asking, “How is this a theory?” although sometimes it’s also simply a branch of the philosophy of science, one that answers the question, “What is a theory?”

In order to understand what “inframethodology” is we have to first notice that there’s a difference between method and methodology. Scientists have theories and methods, and they use method-ology to reflect on their methods just as they use metatheory to reflect on their theories. Inframethodology is an account (“logos”), not of our methods, but of that which lies “beneath method”, it investigates the subtle joints of the craft we call research. One way to illustrate it is by noting the difference between the methods astronomers use to analyse images the have collected from telescopes and the skills with which they operate those telescopes. “Method” guides the decisions they make; “inframethodology” is about how they execute those decisions. Inframethodology also includes the art of keeping records of data and taking notes from reading, as well as library and presentation skills. Not least, it includes the craft of writing, i.e., of communicating your results to your peers. An inframethodologist is interested in the rich array of informal practices that support our formalized methods.

In an important sense, inframethodology is the study of the care the we take in doing our research. High-quality research depends not just on sophisticated theories and methods, or expensive equipment or many hours in the field; it depends on how we make use of those resources. It involves the careful reading of other people’s work and its accurate representation (and citation) in our own; it involves the careful observation of empirical facts and their accurate representation in our prose. Inframethodology is the study of how that care is taken and how we learn to be good at practicing it.

If Heidegger is to be believed, this makes inframethodology an “existential” matter. Indeed, I would argue that it is part of what he called “the existential conception of science”; science becomes a “mode of care”, a way of being-in-the-world. But, while I do like to think of myself as a philosopher, at least on some days, I think I should admit that inframethodology is perhaps more closely related to the rhetoric of science than its philosophy proper. It is very much about how discourse of science is maintained and transformed. But the stakes are grave enough, profound enough (i.e., deep enough, i.e., “below”) to justify an occasional philosophical excursion. At the end of the day, however, we are truly thrown into it. It’s very practical problem.

I’m going to be talking about this at the BALEAP/ALDinHE conference on Academic Literacies and EAP at the University of Essex in a couple of weeks. So I’m going to rehearse some of my thoughts here in the coming days. Your questions and comments will be very much appreciated.

Good Taste in Knowledge*

“The aim of education or culture is merely the development of good taste in knowledge and good form in conduct.” (Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, p. 393)

What’s so good about knowledge? Why is it better to know than not to know? Indeed, is knowledge always a good thing? Is it sometimes better not to know? Certainly, we cannot realistically pursue a goal of knowing everything there is to know, even about a specific subject. And whatever we do know derives its value, its virtue if you will, from its contribution to the important business of living. Life, we might say, has an “epistemic” component, which suggests an epistemological issue.**

I worry about the epistemic component of the problem of living. That makes me an epistemologist, just as an ethnographer is interested in the “ethnic side” of life, if you will.** The ethnographer is not interested in becoming a better native, a more upstanding member of the community; the ethnographer wants to understand what it means to be native to a particular land. Likewise, I’m less interested (or at least I sometimes tell myself I’m less interested) in actually knowing something, than in understanding the difference that knowing it will make to our lives.

I’m not really very curious person, perhaps. But I am obsessed with what happens when we satisfy, or fail to satisfy, our curiosity. When I consider carefully how our research and teaching environments are organised (my experience is mostly with universities) I sometimes worry that we let real curiosity go unsatisfied, and glut ourselves with trivia instead. Sometimes, I think I’m against curiosity altogether. I suppose that’s a bit like an ethnographer who has a low of opinion of nationalism. You can understand something well enough to be afraid of it.

It seems life would be easier if we were less naturally curious. Or perhaps the problem lies with how easily we let ourselves be satisfied. Maybe I just think we have poor taste in knowledge.

I’d like to try to affect our taste in knowledge. In particular, I think we need to have a much more refined taste for social science. We’re much too eager to learn how society works, how people live together. We’re much too ready to believe what social scientists tell us, what some recent “study” has “shown”. We need to hold claims about the society in which we live to a much higher standard. After all, what we think is true of our society is very much a part of how that society works. If you think you live in a democracy your political activities look very different from how they’d look if you thought you were living in an oligarchy. If you think people’s decisions (including your own) can be manipulated by “priming”, your negotiating tactics will probably show it.

I’m interested not just in how we practice what we know, but in how we go about our knowing. What sorts of practices lead to better kinds of knowledge. Our knowledge will never be perfect, but there must be a sense that we’re striving to improve. What criteria, then, can we come up with for “good” epistemic practices? This is a somewhat different question than the one philosophers classically raise: what are the criteria for knowledge? Instead of asking how we can know that we know one thing or another, I want to describe a set of practices such that, if we practice them, what is likely to result is “good” knowledge. I think it’s much less important to believe the right things than to cultivate the right attitude about our beliefs. I think epistemology should be about that attitude, not about the beliefs that emerge at the end of it.

More later.


*This post was originally published as part of a series on my old blog.

**It should be possible to distinguish between “epistemic” and “epistemological” as easily as we distinguish between “ethnic” and “ethnographic”. Knowers have have epistemic traits just as people have ethnic ones; our interest in these traits is epistemological and ethnographic respectively. When they produce “an ethnography” of a group of people (sometimes called “natives”) ethnographers delineate their “ethnicity”—the nature of their particular humanity, or what we call culture. When epistemologists produce “an epistemology” of a group of knowers (sometimes called “scientists”) they delineate their “epistemicity”—okay, that’s not a word, but epistemologists do delineate the nature of the knowledge, sometimes the nature of the knowledge that belongs to a particular group of knowers. Ethnos just means “people” in Greek. Episteme means knowledge. Foucault talked about epistemes in part to avoid talking about “sciences”. He preferred to talk about “field[s] of scientificity” over talking of “scientific theories”.


Inspired by Bill Evans, I recently came up with a pretty good metaphor for receiving feedback. Imagine that you are a piano student and your teacher asks you to “play something” for her. You play and afterwards she tells you that she likes the melancholy way you played “How About You?” (“I like New York in June…”)

Now, imagine that you weren’t trying to play “How About You?” but were just improvising whatever came to mind, and you didn’t have any particular mood in mind. Your teacher’s feedback wouldn’t mean very much. But suppose, instead, that you were trying to play “How About You?” in a lighthearted way. Now you’re getting some real information from your teacher. She’s telling you that you have something to work on. You are not getting your musical idea across in your playing.

The same goes for getting feedback on a paragraph you’ve written. If your only goal was to fill half a page with words then you’re not going to learn very much about how well you write from your reader’s interpretation. But if you decided on a simple, declarative key sentence the day before, and you spent exactly 27 minutes supporting, elaborating or defending it, then you can ask your reader to identify the key sentence and the rhetorical posture. If they get it right, you’re doing something right. If they get it wrong you can try to figure out what went wrong. The key sentence here is a bit like the melody — what are you trying to say? The rhetorical posture (support, elaborate or defend) is a bit like the mood — how are you trying to say it? They specify your intentions.

That’s the important thing. If you want to learn something from the feedback you are getting, you have to be doing something specific. You have to have an intention. When your reader tells you how they interpret your words, there has to be a “right answer” to compare that interpretation to.


How to Speak Your Mind

To be knowledgeable on a topic is to be able to make up your mind about it, to speak your mind about it, and to write it down. I want to look at the second of these competences today — the ability, if you will, to hold your own in a conversation with other knowledgeable people. As a scholar, you can’t be satisfied with just holding a great many “justified, true beliefs”; you have to be able to discuss them intelligently with people who are qualified to tell you that you are wrong. This openness to criticism is an essential part of being a good scholar, a holder of distinctly “academic” knowledge.

I’m sure you’ve been told at some point in your life that there’s “no such thing as a stupid question”. The person who told you this had the best of intentions, of course, but I’m sure you discovered long ago that they were, for lack of a better word, lying to you. There is very definitely such a thing as a stupid question; you’ve asked stupid questions, and you’ve been asked stupid questions. Indeed, what distinguishes a knowledgeable person from an ignorant one is, in part, the ability to distinguish between good and bad questions. Some questions come out of simple ignorance of the subject, while others are informed by the shared body of knowledge that guides work in a discipline. As a knowledgeable person, you want to be able to articulate and recognize good questions and deal with them appropriately.

You are not, of course, obligated to be able to answer every good question. “That’s a good question!” isn’t just an ironic dodge you use when you’re stumped. It is a recognition that, even given everything you know, even given everything we know, it is reasonable to have questions. The important thing is to be aware of the shared body of common knowledge that determines whether a question is good or bad, relevant or irrelevant. Also, do note calling someone stupid is obviously not a competent way of dealing with a question that seems to reveal ignorance of a field’s common stock of knowledge. Your conversational competence here will be displayed in your ability to politely guide the conversation onto more fertile ground, perhaps even discovering the kernel of wisdom that the question does contain. Just make sure that you and you interlocutors don’t waste too much time on matters that have long been settled.

Scholars also have a shared sense of humor. The members of a specialized knowledge community will find certain things amusing that others don’t. Knowledge, after all, plays a central role in establishing the boundary to “the absurd”. An Austrian economist’s reference to a “gale” can be witty in a way that someone unfamiliar with the work of Schumpeter might not detect at all. A sensemaking’s scholar’s allusion to your “map of the Alps” will not make sense to you if you aren’t familiar with Miroslav Holub’s anecdote and the role it plays in the work of Karl Weick. This familiarity with the comedic potential of the concepts and characters in a discipline of course also sets a relatively high standard. Some jokes are told and retold so often that telling them only reveals that you are new to the field. Some jokes ellicit no more than a groan.

On the other side of this boundary there is of course a series of subjects and claims that your peers will have little or no sense of humor about. These are the things that it is “not okay” to say, or what are sometimes called “politically incorrect” utterances. They do not expose your ignorance so much as your malevolence. To put it as plainly as possible, they identify you as a “bad” person. This is something that Thomas Kuhn pointed out half a century ago by suggesting that a scientific paradigm is organized, in part, around a shared set of values. Enforcing those values is a far from trivial part of the conversations that scholars must be able keep their footing in. Understanding the boundary of offensive speech in discourse is therefore an important part of being knowledgeable in an academic context.

Now, you may think I say that as a warning to stay away from offensive speech. But in fact I’m saying it to encourage you to learn how to manage provocations constructively. Just as you must learn to deal with the occasional “stupid” question politely, you will have to learn how to handle the occasional offensive remark. Indeed, just as an apparently stupid question may not, on closer inspection, be inappropriate after all, a remark that offends you may turn out to express an idea that the conversation needs to address in order to move forward. If we are always afraid of offending each other, or too quick to take offense ourselves, our conversations will not be able to tackle difficult subjects and help us learn (or teach) new truths. And one reason we may be afraid of controversy is simply that we lack the rhetorical skills to leverage it as part of a fruitful argument. We’re scared to engage because we feel weak or clumsy. We worry that we’ll get hurt or, worse, that we’ll hurt someone else. This worry is not conducive to interesting, intellectually challenging conversations.

All three conversational skills — a feel for the good question, a sense of humor, and a sensitivity to offense — are acquired by scholars through years of practice. Just as you can’t learn French merely by watching French movies, you don’t master a discourse merely by attending lectures. You have to speak up. You have to risk asking a stupid question, telling a bad joke, or offending the person you are speaking to. The academic system of schooling is generally forgiving of new entrants to a field in this regard, and being a student should, ideally, provide a context in which to make and learn from your mistakes. Like some others, however, I’m watching the developments on university campuses these days with some concern, and I would understand if you told me you were a bit anxious about speaking your mind. Still, it is very important that we learn how to do this. At a university, people who don’t know how to speak their minds can’t, properly speaking, consider themselves knowledgeable.