Knowing with Others

What impact should what someone else knows have on your life? That sounds like a pretty big question, but let’s think about this in epistemological terms, as a problem of the theory of knowledge. I want to show that this ultimately tells us something important about specifically academic knowledge and, even more specifically, about academic writing.

First, what does it mean to say that someone knows something? Philosophers often begin with the idea that to know is to have a “justified, true belief” about something. We might want to dispute that, but if we play along for a moment we can consider our original problem as one of deciding what consequences someone else’s true beliefs should have for me. The fact that these beliefs are true tells us that something specific is the case. So, at first pass, we should live our life in accordance with other people’s knowledge on pain of being “unrealistic”. True beliefs, after all, are accurate representations of reality.

Notice that this does not imply that we should believe what other people merely believe. It’s only if they have knowledge that we need to get in line with them.

But a great deal of knowledge doesn’t have immediate practical implications. Astronomers, for example, know that Andromeda will collide with our own Milky Way in a few billion years. Not only is that a long time from now, I’m told it’s not even going to be particularly inconvenient for life in either galaxy when it happens because it will happen very slowly. But astronomers do, in fact, know that this is going to happen. And the consequence for me, I’m happy to admit, is that I believe it. And I think that’s really the first and most important impact that other people’s knowledge should have on our lives. If someone else knows something, then we should believe it.

I mean this “should” in an essentially logical sense. If I say, “Astronomers know that Andromeda will collide with the Milky Way but I don’t believe it,” I am contradicting myself. I can say that astronomers “think” or “claim” or “speculate” or “argue” or, of course, “believe” this, and then declare my own skepticism about it, without contradicting myself. But I can’t claim both that they know it and that I don’t believe it. Why, after all, would I not hold a belief myself if I believe it is true?

But can I say something like, “Astronomers know that Andromeda will collide with the Milky Way but I just don’t understand it”? There’s often something mind-boggling about astronomy and physics and mathematics. We want to grant that astronomers and physicists and mathematicians “know what they’re talking about” but this doesn’t always make things clearer for us, and I’m inclined to take a hard line on this. We should not here say that they know it. We should say that they “say” it and that until we ourselves understand what they’re saying we’re not going to believe it. After all, if I believe something I don’t understand I might not, in fact, be adopting the belief of the people who know it. Maybe we mean two different things by “collide” and in their sense the belief is true but in my sense it is nonsense.

I’ll develop these ideas in subsequent posts this week. But I want to declare my intentions clearly at the outset. I believe that academia should be a place where we are able to believe things that other people know, and where this way of forming beliefs, i.e., on the basis of other people’s knowledge, allows us to claim this knowledge of others as our own. It’s not a place where we believe everything we’re told. It’s a place where people present what they know in a way that opens it for criticism from other knowledgeable people. And the specific ways in which we do this, especially the way we use our writing to foster criticism, means that when we make a claim, and cite our source, we can, at that moment, say we “know” what we’re talking about.

It’s not perfect knowledge. Sometimes we merely believe something that will turn out later to be false. But, within the critical environment of the university, it should be okay to call it knowledge. We are not fools to believe in this way. Or, rather, we expect our peers not to make fools of us. This trust is an important part of what it means to be a scholar, an “academic”. It is sometimes violated, of course; but it is, in fact, the norm.

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