Knowledge of the Present
The Secret Principles of a Postmodernist
The following was posted to the WSW E-mail list on 4 Sept 2004, in the middle of a recurring discussion of "postmodernism." It was objected by some that "postmodernism" was an inaccurate label for the other side. Not to get trapped in the endless maze of who said what to who, we proposed a substitute term, IKA. The result seems to have found favor with some of its recipients, and it is reproduced here accordingly.
The practice of history is currently being assailed by some who believe that the objects of historical knowledge can't be reached; that historical knowledge is impossible, that knowledge of anything outside one's own head is impossible. We can call this the IKA (Impossibility of Knowing Anything) position.
The term "history" is something of a distraction to the main argument; the question is at bottom epistemological. Can we know anything? Like, in the present tense? Not everything always, but anything some of the time? If we can, then history is merely a harder case (increasingly so as we work in distant times and alien cultures) of that possibility. Or impossibility, and which is it? I propose a test investigation.
One very prominent spokesman for the IKA position is Stanley Fish, famed Duke literary theorist, and until recently Dean at UI/Chicago. SF has never been shy about his Duke literary theories, nor, on the other hand, has he attempted to hush up his UI/Chicago Deanship (au contraire, he has written a regular column about it for the Chronicle of Higher Education). The question of sincerity doesn't interest me, but the question of applicability does interest me. I thus ask: Do the people who hold IKA views act, in practical life, as though they believed them? Or do they jettison them for something else that works better? And if so, what is that something else?
My short answer, given earlier, is The Latter. IKA theorists act in practical life like anybody else, namely, on the assumption that facts, and intentions, and interactions, are in principle ascertainable, and that the results of the ascertainment are in principle actionable.
In contemporary terms, public to all but not necessarily noticed by all, SF's Chronicle columns give us a peek at SF's UI/Chicago answers to the question raised by SF's Duke theories. I now intend to derive, de novo, the principles of knowledge which SF shows himself, in those columns, to be applying in practice. I will then compare them to the principles of knowledge which SF has stated in theory.
1. The Question of Fact
Can facts and objects be known?
SF (in the Chronicle): "Utility costs are way up, insurance costs (especially for university medical centers) have more than doubled, and the tab for constructing new buildings and renovating or maintaining old ones is out of sight. New security costs have been mandated (but not funded) in the wake of September 11. The cost of information systems -- barely on the horizon in the '70s, the report's favored decade and a time when student registration was still being done manually in the gym -- is now astronomical. The cost of materials and equipment, especially for the new technologies that come with the new sciences (nano technology, neuroscience, bio-everything) developed in the past three decades is soaring. And of course the cost of putting faculty members in the classrooms is higher than it used to be, especially in the increasing number of areas (like computer science, finance, management, engineering) where higher education has to compete for personnel with the corporate sector." (3 Oc 2003)
IMPLICATIONS: (1) Insurance exists, and has an ascertainable cost, and the trends in that cost are also ascertainable, and (2) so, mutatis mutandis, with a flood of other things. (3) In general, facts exist and can be ascertained, sufficient for purposes of efficient action or reaction.
Can the feelings of other be known, and even predicted?
SF (in the Chronicle): "Those are facts too well known to dwell on at length. What may not be so well known, at least to those outside the academic world, is the effect all of this has on that most fragile of commodities, morale. Morale is fragile because it rests not so much on present conditions -- although those are certainly important -- but on one's faith in the future. In academic life, as in the life of religion, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Many academics teaching in public universities have now concluded that there is not much to hope for (at least in the way of support) and that the only thing they are going to see in the future is a further deterioration of conditions of scarcity that are already appalling." (30 Apr 2004)
IMPLICATIONS: (1) The feelings of other individuals, and even of collectives composed of other individuals, including supercollectives composed of other individuals who may not be known to each other, are a proper subject for inference, report, and even action (though the action may take the form of a lament about the lack of possibilities for action). (2) Those feelings can be predicted, they are in the realm where causation can be assessed, and their future states known, sufficiently for present purposes, from present factors known to be affecting them.
Can the inner workings of others, including such intangibles as motive, be known?
SF (in the Chronicle): "Everyone knows why administrators, including myself, are doing these things: We don't have the money. / We don't have the new money we need in the face of higher enrollments and rising costs; and we don't have the money we used to have because a gradual reduction over the years in the support provided to public higher education has now been accelerated as state after state withdraws money from its university system in an effort to close its budget gap." (30 Apr 2004)
IMPLICATIONS: (1) Motives are assignable; some are based on economic factors; whence (2) Causation exists in the area of motives; eg, economic facts can affect institutional decisions.
Is knowledge limited to knowledge of objects (persons, rocks, trees) and their interior life, or can it also handle abstractions, such as institutions?
SF (in the Chronicle): "No one would say that about the parts of the body; nor should it be said of the university which, despite the fact that its conditions of possibility are exterior to it, does have an internal reality to which one must be attentive if you would hope to make observations that are relevant and (perhaps) helpful." ( 23 July 2004)
IMPLICATIONS: (1) A university, which is not an object, can be "perhaps helpfully" discussed as though it had conditions of possibility, and an internal reality of its own. By extension, (2) So can any other abstract or notional entity, such as a state government or an economic system or a village custom.
Is the pursuit of knowledge a viable undertaking?
SF (in the Chronicle): "The two anti-higher-education crusaders have now produced a Web site -- again at the taxpayers' expense -- and it earns all the adjectives I bestowed on their first effort plus one more: dishonest. / The centerpiece of the Web site -- College Cost Central: A Resource for Parents, Students, & Taxpayers Fed Up With the High Cost of Higher Education -- is a list of 12 yes-or-no questions to which those same parents, students, and taxpayers are asked to respond. Only three of the questions are real; that is, only three of the questions are framed with the objective of finding out something the researchers don't already know or think they know." ( 26 Nov 2003)
IMPLICATIONS: (1) The gathering of information with a view to increasing knowledge is possible and valid. (2) Those who pretend to pursue such an investigation but have already made up their minds about the answer or have stacked the question so as to elicit a desired answer, are "dishonest." Whence, (3) Since dishonesty in investigation exists, and since that dishonesty may be detected and indeed properly castigated in public, honesty in investigation is possible, and is implicitly recommended.
Summary of SF Practical Assumptions
- 1. Knowledge of facts is possible.
- 2. Knowledge of persons is possible.
- 3. Knowledge of intentions and motives is possible.
- 4. Knowledge of abstractions such as institutions is possible.
- 5. Causation obtains in the above areas of observation.
- 6. Extrapolations and predictions from knowledge are possible.
- 7. Actions may viably be based on the above knowledge.
- 8. The investigation of facts, persons, intentions, and abstractions is a viable enterprise, and it has its ethical guidelines; those who depart from the guidelines are "dishonest" investigators. Ethics obtains.
To these statements of what is possible, anybody with a decent sense of the difficulties would want to add such qualifications as "with difficulty," and "within limits," and "with due cautions for deceptiveness and incompleteness in the data" and "subject to the degree of skill of the individual investigator," and all the other warnings of the methodological handbooks in fact teem and overflow. With those prudent and necessary additions, there is nothing in the above theory to disenfranchise the enterprise of history. On the contrary, in this Eightfold Thinkable Path, everything is present which is needed for a theory of the viability of that enterprise. The IKA postion has been silently and completely abandoned.
After all, I am going to waive the comparison. I don't care about SF. I don't care about the theoretical accountability of SF; let those who do care work it out for themselves. I care about history. And I find that SF has given me, as theory deduced from SF's practice as reported by SF himself, everything I need to go on working at history. I notice with some satisfaction that the last of the eight implicit SF principles takes us right back to Ranke: "So do the simplest moral qualities govern, even in science" (1843). The underlying ethos of history has thus advanced not at all in 160 years, and surely it is all the better for not having advanced. It had already reached, in 1843, the point of maximum clarity.
There were responses on-line, and a few were singled out for comment. For that comment, click here.
2 March 2002 / Contact The Project / Exit to Methodology Page