Conditions of Possibility (2)

What conditions need to be in place in order for you to know something? What makes it possible for you to know things? Philosophers look for very general, and therefore very abstract, answers that question. They want their conditions to apply to all cases of knowing, any object of knowledge. That’s understandable since they want to know what knowledge is. But researchers can be a bit more concrete because their question is how to know specific things. We can ask how their social and material environment must be organized to support their knowledge of particular facts.

Here, we should distinguish between the conditions needed to discover a fact and the conditions that are needed simply to know it. Most of us have access to conditions needed to know the age of the universe, for example; but few us are in a position to discover it for ourselves. We don’t have access to the necessary equipment and our theoretical understanding doesn’t indicate a proper place to start. What would we even be looking for? But if an astronomer with the proper credentials tells us the universe is around 13.8 billion years old, or about four times older than the Earth, we’re likely to believe her. We’ll even let her explain how she knows and let her recommend some books to read so that, after a little effort, we can be reasonably confident that we, too, know the age of the universe. We’ll have a justified, true belief about it. In this sense, it can be much easier to know a thing than it is to discover it.

You can do this with with your own research, or, if you’re a student, with your own subject. What sorts of things within your area of expertise are you qualified to produce new knowledge about, and what sorts of things are you merely in a position to know if someone else makes the discovery and tells you about it? This will go a long way towards identifying the sorts of things that can be communicated in a classroom setting, keeping them distinct from the sorts of things that will require original research, fieldwork, experimentation, etc. In fact, the classroom provides a set of conditions that are very similar for both teacher and student: this is where we learn things that can be taught. So both teachers and students have to be mindful of what their conditions allow. A great deal of frustration (on all sides) can arise from trying to teach (or demanding to learn) something in a course that simply doesn’t provide the relevant “conditions of possibility”.

Obviously, academia presumes that a great many things can be known by these means. One of the most important functions of the university is to conserve the knowledge that we have accumulated as a species by transmitting it to coming generations. It is not sufficient to write everything we know down in books and put them in libraries (or on the Internet) for everyone to access. Much of the knowledge we need is “tacitly” stored in the bodies of scholars and scientists and must be passed on through social interaction. (Yes, I do think this means that in-person, face-to-face, contact between faculty and students is important, but I’m not here making a topical point.) The university provides conditions under which the things that can be learned in books and lectures (and laboratory instruction) can be known. More generally, it provides conditions under which the things that are already known to some people can be known by others without having to find out for themselves.

To be continued…

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