The Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Literature of Knowing

I’m working on a cheat sheet for my definition of academic knowledge. In its current form it probably only makes sense to people who have attended my standard lecture on academic writing. (Fortunately it is available on YouTube.) I sometimes imagine that I have completely solved the so-called “problem of knowledge”, but I do understand that my solution will not satisfy everyone. In an important sense, I’m suggesting that we can’t solve the problem unless we work together across disciplines and by this I mean specifically that knowledge cannot be completely understood within the confines of philosophy, rhetoric or literature. If philosophers, rhetoricians and literary theorists work together, however, I think some real progress can be made. My cheat sheet is a sort of schema of the solution that might emerge.

Recently, I’ve been presenting it more humbly as a mnemonic aid for people who are listening to my lectures. I don’t like using slides–but I’m not always sure my hour-long monologue is as tidy and coherent as it feels to me when I’m speaking. So now I tell my listeners that I want to tell them three things that each have three parts, and that the last three of them each have a further three. Depending your level of attention (or abstraction), you’ll learn three, nine or fifteen things about the nature of academic knowledge. Rewatching the video I notice that I give each item about 3 minutes on average, leaving about 10 minutes for introductory remarks and a concluding parable. It seems pretty tidy. (Maybe I’ll animate my cheat sheet at some point and edit it into the lecture. Maybe one day I’ll trust technology enough to project it above me as a I speak. We’ll see.

In this post, I just wanted to summarize the three main competences that, in my view, most usefully characterize what it means to be “knowledgeable”. By this I don’t just mean knowing particular things, of course, but having the ability to know such things. Being knowledgeable, then, also puts one in a good position to learn things. So this is a competence that a student has a particular interest in acquiring.

Philosophers have long pursued the idea that knowledge is “justified, true belief”. They’ve never really been satisfied with this definition, but it seems intuitively plausible that in order to know something you have to form a belief, that this belief should not be false, and that you should have a good reason to believe it. Knowledgeable people don’t just happen to believe true things, they do so deliberately, they understand why they believe as they do. Being knowledgeable, then, means being good at making up your mind. When faced with a situation or a set of materials, knowledgeable people are able to come to decision about what is going on. They are able to do this more efficiently and more accurately than ignorant people. While they are not infallible, of course, they have trained themselves to arrive at justified, true beliefs within a particular subject area more reliably than people who have not studied their discipline. This is a valuable cognitive competence.

But we should not be satisfied with thinking of knowledge as an exalted mental state. It is necessary but not sufficient to hold justified, true beliefs if we want say we are knowledgeable. We also need to be able to hold our own in conversation with other knowledgeable people. Being “conversant” implies a package of abilities and sensibilities, of which three strike me as emblematic. The first is the ability to articulate and recognize a good question. Among knowledgeable people there are, in fact, good and bad questions; bad questions are precisely those that come out of our ignorance — an ignorance that the relevantly knowledgeable person has already conquered. Related to this, good conversation depends on a shared sense of humor; knowledgeable people are capable of seeing the humor in things that go over the heads of people who are not “in the know”. Finally, if you are knowledgeable about a subject you know what can cause offense or provoke debate. You can then produce these effects on purpose rather than cause rhetorical accidents. These are all valuable communicative competences and are part of what I call “knowing” something.

Lastly, to know something is to have the ability to write a coherent prose paragraph of at least six sentences and at most 200 words that support, elaborate or defend it. This ability is rooted in your understanding of the difficulty the reader faces with the key point: will the reader find it hard to believe, to understand, or agree with. Sometimes the reader will need evidence before accepting your point; sometimes the reader needs you to define your terms or clarify your concepts; and sometimes the reader needs you to address their objections on a matter about which they have already made up their mind. It’s important to appreciate your finitude when thinking about this competence. Anyone can write a paragraph given unlimited resources. If you know something today, I suggest, you can write the paragraph tomorrow in under 30 minutes. If you can’t do this, it’s best just to admit to you don’t know it. The important thing is to count your textual competence–your facility with the written word–as part of your ability to know things. It’s not just for show.

Academic writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. Scholarship, broadly speaking, is the ongoing conversation in our culture that is carried out by it most knowledgeable people. So to know something is to be able to open your beliefs to the criticism of your peers, testing their truth, strengthening their justifications. This conversation happens in the head (perhaps also in the heart), in the talk, and on the page. It takes the combined efforts of philosophers, rhetoricians and literary types — or our combined philosophical, rhetorical and literary talents — to make sense of it all.

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