Different theories of knowledge

There have been a number of postings on the Giraffe blog, a blog of one of the working groups of the Information and Knowledge Management Emergent (IKME) project which struggle to come to grips with what we might mean by ‘knowledge management’. In some of the postings, authors draw on management theorists, describing them as ‘gurus’, in order better to understand what it is they are dealing with. In doing so, however, there is no attempt also to draw attention to the theoretical assumptions of these ‘gurus’, or probe how their conceptual schemes give rise to and shape their recommendations.

So it is a broadly taken for granted assumption in many of the postings that there is a difference between information and knowledge, that knowledge can be managed or even ‘leveraged’, and even a suggestion that it is possible to put a monetary value on making tacit knowledge explicit (drawing on Michael Polanyi’s ideas of tacit and explicit knowledge).

Many management theorists write from a position that might be called extractive: in other words, their explicit intention is to instrumentalise human interaction for the good of the company, to bring about better performance or enhance efficiency, and to help managers with tools and techniques for doing the same. In doing so they privilege a certain understanding of scientific method, assuming that methods which are so powerful when used in the natural world are equally applicable in the social world. This can lead to considering knowledge to be a ‘product’, a tangible and fixed commodity which can be ‘captured’ and utilised unproblematically by others.

When staff in not-for-profits which have an explicit moral purpose of doing good with and on behalf of others borrow from intellectual traditions which are extractive in this way, it might be worth pausing to reflect a while on whether the methods these traditions recommend help achieve the ends that they seek. Methods are constitutive of ends: in other words, the way that you work directly affects social outcomes. It is worth pausing to consider to what extent extracting knowledge products from the objects of our humanitarian intentions begins to undermine those very intentions.

In this and subsequent postings I will explore different ways of understanding how knowledge arises in order to set out a more social understanding of knowledge, one which arises in social processes of interaction and power relating. Rather than construing knowledge as something that is fixed and unchanging and something separate from the people among whom knowledge arises, I will explore theories that privilege the social, dynamic and contingent nature of knowledge.

The hermeneutic philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer makes the case that scientific enquiry always tries to make knowledge an end itself, it is teleologically driven, and as such creates ‘an illusion of experience perfected and replaced by knowledge’. By doing this, Gadamer argues, it robs human experience of much of its value, which is to be found in its historicity and the process of dialectic. The idea of scientific enquiry is to create universal and timeless products that enable us to predict and control nature. In contrast, Gadamer idealises not the product but the process of enquiry; to be experienced, he argues, means that one is open to more experience. He draws attention to conversation, and latterly the conversation with a text, with the aim of pointing to the Socratic process of questioning, the opening up to otherness, to the dialectic of negation, that is not about being in control but about being increasingly undogmatic and questioning further:

‘The art of questioning is the art of questioning further . i.e., the art of thinking. It is called dialectic because it is the art of conducting a real dialogue. .To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented. As against the fixity of opinions, questioning makes the objects and all its possibilities fluid. A person skilled in the art of questioning is a person who can prevent questions from being suppressed by the dominant opinion.’ (Truth and Method, 1993: 360/361)

This is not to say that Gadamer is uninterested in truth, merely that he is less interested in truth as a fixed product rather than the truth that is manifest in an ongoing cycle of enquiry. Drawing on Socrates and Hegel, he believes that knowledge arises in the process of question and answer in a way that is driven by the movement between engaged discussants.

This is a very different understanding from considering knowledge to be a ‘product’ which can be ‘leveraged’. Rather, for Gadamer it is a process of social engagement through which we better understand ourselves through our encounter with others. Knowledge in this sense, is an expanding knowledge of the self.


5 thoughts on “Different theories of knowledge

  1. Rob McCormack

    As an educator who is also very interested in Gadamer’s rendering of the notion of experience, I appreciated your insightful exposition.

  2. reflexivepractice Post author

    Thanks Rob. Have you come across much John Dewey? Also very interesting on the nature of experience.

  3. Rob McCormack

    Actually, strange as it may seem, I have never read any of Dewey’s key texts. Long ago I scanned some lectures he gave on the history of philosophy, and I have read a couple of short popular things on schooling.
    I don’t know how this happened. Maybe I will find time to remedy it someday.

  4. reflexivepractice Post author

    The first chapter of Experience and Nature reminds me very much of what Gadamer was trying to say.

  5. Rob McCormack

    Thanks for the pointer, although I did read a few paragraphs from one of his texts the other day and was fairly repulsed by the highly nominalised language.


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