Monday, September 04, 2006

Out of Context

In the latest Critical Inquiry, there is an essay by Marjorie Garber, "Loaded Words". Having enjoyed some of her previous writing, I read it with interest – and only mild dismay. Garber's topic is epistemology, and her initial treatment is facile to the point of incoherence. As well as the standard flirtation with relativism, on utterly misleading grounds – "Facts can change. What was once regarded as fact can be disregarded or discarded." – there is the following passage from the opening page:
How can one distinguish between knowledge and belief? You could say that one is "truth" and one is "opinion," but that seems an unreliable gauge. President Bush "knows" that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He has good "intelligence" on this matter. It is for him a matter of firm conviction, of belief.
A prize will be awarded to anyone who can explain the relevance of the last three sentences to the question posed in the first and the proposal considered in the second.

More promising is Garber's assertion, a few pages later on, of contextualism about knowledge attributions:
Knowledge and belief are good (or bad) examples of what linguists call shifters: words like you and I, here and there, that change their meanings depending on the location and nature of the speaker.
In a paper in which "knowledge" and "belief" receive scare-quotes at least half the time, one would have welcomed the use of quotation marks where they are in fact required. And it wouldn't hurt to cite some of the extensive philosophical literature on the topic. But it's an interesting view.

Its connection with the rest of the argument is unclear. Garber's strongest points emerge in her expressions of frustration with the rhetoric in which knowledge is now clothed: "knowledge worker"; "the knowledge industry" – to which I add the most hated phrase, "production of knowledge". In anxious moments, I ask myself: how much knowledge have I produced this year? Could I be producing more? Is it possible to produce too much? Will it all fit in my office, piled up and shoveled like – well, you know what it's like.

What Garber is protesting is the hypostasis of knowledge, and the "banking model" of education. Her solution is to re-discover knowing as a process, "active, transitive and transitory". I respect the impulse, and even endorse it, but not the formulation. In Aristotelian terms, knowing is not kinetic: it is not a process of becoming, but a state complete in every instant. The right conclusion for her to draw is therefore not that we should re-conceive knowledge, but that we should spend less time worrying about its production, and more time thinking, learning and reasoning well.


Blogger Duck said...

Ooh, a prize! Let me try. Here's a paraphrase of the paragraph in paraquestion:

"How can I tell when I know something rather than (simply) believing it? After all, someone can believe something without its being true (and if it's to be knowledge it has to be true). You might say: I know something when (I believe it and) it's really true ["one is truth"], but I (only) believe something when it's only my conviction and not necessarily true in reality ["one is opinion"]. But this criterion can't really work, because any belief or conviction of mine (which thus falls into the second category) is ipso facto something that I would put in the first category as well – if I didn't think it was really true (justified, etc.), I wouldn't believe it in the first place. Here's an example: Bush has a firm conviction that [...], and thus takes [...] to be something that he knows. But we who are not so convinced of [...] can see it as a belief [of his] that does not amount to knowledge."

IOW I think the point she's making here (your link takes us to a subscription wall) is the same one you call "more promising" just below: that "belief" is ambiguous between "some proposition believed" and "some proposition believed by some particular agent (who may or may not be the speaker)". And indeed you have to say this at some point or you're got going to get anywhere.

But you're right that that seems distinct from (the issue of) the hypostasis of knowledge.

7:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A different thought:

Is it true that in ordinary talk of knowing we are concerned with propositional knowledge?

That's the assumption of the philosophical debate about the analysis of knowledge. Yet the Gettier cases show that logical relations between propositions don't track our intuitions about what persons would be said to know in the circumstances.

My feeling about the Gettier cases is that they show that are attributions of propositional knowledge are derivative on a more general sense of whether the agent knows the objects or subject in question, and it is the absence of that contextual factor that is the problem. And that context is left out of consideration when we start out by discussing knowledge as a relation to propositions, rather than something broader. (JN)

6:14 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Bravo, Duck! Garber's "unreliable gauge" is simply one that you can't apply to yourself. An odd use of "unreliable", but quite plausible as a reading of the passage.

Now I have to think of a prize!

6:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Long time fan, first time visitor.

I’m persuaded that Garber is muddled, but I think she might be in the neighborhood of an interesting hypothesis. Not knocking on the door, mind you, but maybe the hypothesis can hear her from down the street.

The problem with the banking model of knowledge is that the bank is awful reckless with the treasures we store there. I’ve lost, I’d say, 90 percent of my philosophical knowledge since graduate school. Kieran hasn’t. Why? Because Kieran, in the course of his week, is more or less constantly accessing his store of philosophical knowledge. (I, on the other hand, spend most of my week wondering what Justin Timberlake looks like naked.) Knowledge, famously, is one of those things that goes away if you neglect it.

So, let’s assume that human beings tend to forget pieces of information unless they are in the habit (we might say, in the process) of accessing that piece of information occasionally. That is, you will tend to forget that p unless you every once in a while remember that p, or are reminded that p, or say that p, or (consciously) think that p. Something like that.

Now, let’s take another much-discussed aspect of knowledge: Knowledge is, in some as yet undefined way, robust. Just what is meant by “robust” here has been a notorious sticking point for epistemology, but it seems to come down to this: We want knowledge to be substantial in a way that true belief isn’t. If calling something a piece of knowledge is a compliment, we want it to be a DESERVED compliment. But it’s not crazy to think that at least PART of what we mean by saying that knowledge is robust, or that knowledge is substantial is to say that a piece of knowledge is not likely to go away anytime soon. (This is what’s so prima facie compelling about, say, Nozick’s reliable tracking theory of knowledge) And if, as I hypothesized above, your knowledge is likely to go away if you aren’t in the process of recalling it occasionally, then it might be that going through such a process is a necessary part of knowing something, or at least a part of knowing something for beings with brains like ours.

So while I agree with Kieran that the semantics of knowledge ascriptions dictate that knowledge is not itself a process, it may intimately INVOLVE a process. That is, you may not count as being in the state of knowing that p unless you are in the process of paying a little attention to p every once in awhile.

A long shot? Yes. Loopy? No.

Okay, I have to go. It’s been five minutes since I’ve thought about Timberlake.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Anonymous TMI Justinfan sez:

"We want knowledge to be substantial in a way that true belief isn’t. If calling something a piece of knowledge is a compliment, we want it to be a DESERVED compliment."

I know I'm in the vast minority [!?] here, but for me that a belief is true is compliment enough, i.e. to count as knowledge. It is *change* in belief that must be justified - but in order to *do* it, not for the result to count as knowledge should it be true. But I wouldn't recommend this conception unless you know what you want it for. (Although this is not its main attraction, it does make the Gettier problem disappear in a puff of smoke. Just FYI.)

As for my prize, if wiring Krugerrands to my Swiss account is inconvenient, then perhaps you can post some of your papers for us?

3:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

[Duck wrote:]

"I know I'm in the vast minority here, but for me that a belief is true is compliment enough,[YAY!] i.e. to count as knowledge. [BOO!]

It is *change* in belief that must be justified. [Who let Gilbert Harman in here?]

[I second Duck's request for some Setiya papers.]

[Brackets by Justinfan]

12:21 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I see my "prize" - thank you!

10:49 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

My papers can be located with the aid of google, but I'm afraid they constitute a pretty meagre reward for such excellent comments.

(Duck - you're welcome!)

7:27 AM  
Blogger Shawn said...

I wonder what linguists use the term "shifter" to refer to those expressions? "Deictic", sure. "Indexical", somtimes. Googling "linguistic shifter" results in 54 hits, none of which seem talk about stuff by linguists. I'm not familiar with the literature that says "knowledge" and "belief" are good examples of indexicals, but there is a good article by Stephen Neale arguing that they are very bad ones. Paradigmatic indexicals essentially express a perspective or an orientation in subjective space and "knowledge" and "belief" don't do that. They don't even seem to shift. All in all, she wrote an odd little paragraph there.

12:44 PM  

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