Conditions of Possibility (1)

Scholars use writing to present what they know to other knowledgeable people. So it should almost go without saying that the things they talk about should be knowable. The actual, after all, is generally possible; if you actually know something then it is possible to know it. Philosophical platitudes aside, the idea becomes a bit more interesting when we consider the position of the reader. When scholars put something in writing, they are implying that you, dear reader, are capable of knowing what they’re talking about too. Ideally, you can come to know what the writer knows merely from reading their book. That is, the writer presumes that you are working under “conditions of possibility” that afford you means to know things about the subject of the book. I want to say a little bit about what that might mean.

It is easiest to see how this works in the highly technical papers of the natural sciences. Here a “result” is presented along with the procedure that produced it. The writer obviously presumes that the reader is capable of understanding how the experiment was done (after reading the methods section) and how the result bears on the current state of the theory. Indeed, the writer should presume that the reader is capable of replicating the experiment, i.e., carrying out the same procedure and arriving at a comparable result. In this way the reader could come to know the result as well as the writer. In practice, however, and on the assumption that there has been no fraud (i.e., that the writer does indeed know what they’re talking about), we usually grant that the reader “knows” the result after reading the paper, even without carrying out the experiment themselves. The assumption is simply that the paper is an honest presentation of what happened in the lab.

This doesn’t mean that we assume that the result is true. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong in an experiment and until many labs reproduce the result and extend the findings into other areas we will not consider the matter settled. The point is simply that there is no difference between the writer and the reader on this point. Whatever knowledge the experiment produced, with whatever degree of certainty, is now equally available to both researchers. After all, even the original researcher will do well to do a replication at some point in the future — and the result of a replication is never given in advance. The reader is in the same position. The reader knows as much as the writer on these questions.

This might seem a very strong position, especially when we consider the social sciences. Imagine a researcher who has spent three years doing an ethnography of a particular company. At some point they write a book on the subject. Surely, we want to say, they know much more about the company than the reader could ever hope to. But let’s think about this more carefully. The reader is defined by whatever book the researcher writes. The claim is not that all researchers know as much about everything as all the others. The claim is merely that the reader of a scholarly book has the capacity to know what the books says as well as the writer. The writer must provide the reader with enough information to support the specific claims made about the company that was studied. It is those claims, and only those claims, that the reader can hope to master as well as the writer.

That’s what qualifies the reader to be a critic of the writer’s work. The reader doesn’t have to just believe everything the writer says. Even though the book is reporting on field experiences that the reader doesn’t have, the claims that the writer is making have to make sense to someone who understands how field work is done and what sorts of claims it can support. The reader (who is a peer) can imagine going into some other organization, observing similar behavior, and drawing similar conclusions. Or not. Or the reader can perhaps remember an organization where exactly the same behavior did not imply exactly those conclusions. The writer cannot simply dismiss this counterveiling experience or imagination by saying “I was there!” To defend the original claim, to deal with the objection, the writer must present more evidence. The critic, then, is criticizing the absence of that evidence in the book.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant proposed to delineate “the conditions of the possibility of our knowledge of objects”. How must the world be, and how must we be, if we are to know things? How must experience be constituted? His analysis was “transcendental” and these days, I suppose, mainly of interest to philosophers. But we’ve come a long way since Kant’s “a priori” conditions and we can now talk about how our “discourse” must be organized, how readers must be related to writers, so that the “order of things” can be known. (Yes, I’m alluding to Foucault’s “historical a priori”.) The important thing in academic or scholarly writing is that these conditions are shared by the reader and the writer. Scholars do not have privileged positions among other scholars from which to stake their knowledge claims. Their peers are qualified to tell them they are wrong.

To be continued…

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