The Gradual Formation of Knowledge in Discourse*

There is another interesting issue of translation in Kleist’s essay “Über die Allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden”. “Reden” is here usually translated as “speech” or “speaking”, but the standard translation of, say, Heidegger’s Being and Time renders it as “discourse”. Kleist is, of course, very focused on actual speech situations, i.e., talking, but we can extend the idea to written contexts as well. Somewhat trivially, for example, the process Kleist proposes could presumably be initiated also by writing a letter to a good friend that tries to explain the idea.

From here it is a short distance to a “discursive” conception of knowledge, as famously articulated by Foucault in his Archaeology of Knowledge. He talked about “discursive formations”, which comprised the formation of particular objects, concepts, “enunciative modalities”**, and strategies.

The individual scholar thinks something and perfects that thought in conversation with peers (including students). The scholarly community, meanwhile, collectively shapes the objects and concepts of their knowledge in discourse. Kleist says that “it is not we who know. It is a certain state of us that knows.” As I never tire of saying, knowledge is indeed a “state of mind”, i.e., “justified, true belief”, but that state should also always be thought of as a “stance”, a practical orientation in a social context. When we know something we are in a state of readiness to converse about it and write about it.

It’s important to keep in mind that discourse is made up of gradual, ongoing processes. And they are supported by a whole array of practices, from the very local practices of the college classroom, to the very global practices of the published literature.

It is ironic, if you ask me, that our increasing awareness of the embeddedness of universal, theoretical knowledge in particular, practical contexts, which Heidegger emphasized already in 1927 (in his description of “the existential conception science”), and which really took off with post-Kuhnian and post-Foucauldian “science studies” in the 1980s and 1990s, seems to have motivated initiatives that have largely eroded precisely those sites (the classroom and the literature) that were supposed provide occasions for the careful formation, and indeed “perfection”, of our thoughts.

We seem to have grown impatient with thinking. We might also say that we have too much blind trust in science. We no longer try to get our minds around difficult ideas. Instead, we imagine that “the facts are known” and that an expert somewhere knows those facts. All we have to do is listen and believe. It is the role of the scientist to confidently assert, not to “think out loud”. We’re unwilling to entertain a tentative formulation.

Fortunately, there is increasing awareness that the mere “communication” of research results in scholarly journals and their subsequent “popularization” in the media has very little to do with the growth of knowledge or the perfection of thought. In the language of TED talks, it’s merely about “spreading ideas”. On this view, it sometimes seems to me, we’re expected to believe things even if we don’t understand them. As long as the claims are supported by “science”, i.e., by a study conducted according to an accepted method and framed by a recognized theory, the “fact” is said to be established. We then let the Malcolm Gladwells of the world “get the word out”. It is considered “educated” to be receptive to them. To propose to subject a fact to further “thinking” (“after the fact,” as it were) is considered either quaint or rude, and in some cases outright dangerous.

Once again, it is important to let Kleist remind us that the spirit moves slowly. Just as importantly: it moves (gradually, gradually) towards perfection only when we are talking to each other, whether in speech or writing. And this is why it is so important to write as participants in a conversation about imperfect notions, not as public speakers of incorrigible truths. Peer review should not try to determine whether or not the result a paper presents is valid, but, rather, whether or not the result has been presented in a way that makes it possible to discuss it. To use Foucault’s language, it must be formed as a statement in a discourse, ready to be questioned.

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*This is a lightly edited version of a post I wrote in 2013 on my old blog with updated links. In the comments to the old post, there is an interesting exchange between Thomas Presskorn and me about the difference between “mental states” and intellectual stances that you might find interesting. I took the issue up in a subsequent post.

**He seems to use this phrase to avoid the loaded terms “subjects” and “styles”, both of which would perhaps be too easily understood, i.e., misunderstood. Specifically, just as he uses “discursive formation” to avoid the philosophical baggage of the term “theory”, I think he uses “enunciative modality” to avoid the baggage of “subject”. He’ll sometimes talk about the “position of subjectivity” (of a statement) essentially synonymously, however, and I usually read him as providing us with an account of “theories” that emphasizes the historical contingency of their objects, concepts, subjects, and themes.

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