Knowing


A SyndWich of #TWOK, #TSOT, #TAOK, #TFOP, #TLOPE, & more…

by Prof. Prathama Banerjee, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi

Trying to define Time, Augustine of Hippo famously confessed – I know what time is if no one asks me; but when someone does, I cannot say! Clearly, knowing and talking about knowing are not one and the same thing. And sometimes, talking is tougher than knowing, simply because it transports us to the limits of language. And the limit of language is precisely where poetry, philosophy and ‘rare events’ like solar flares and political revolutions occur.

What Augustine said about time over a millennium ago can be said today about knowledge itself – we know that we know but cannot always say what, how and how much. After all, the paradox of our modern condition is that with greater knowledge we have now begun to grasp the depths and stretches our ignorance. For it is with the appearance of advanced tools of knowledge – that allows us both to pan infinity and seek the big picture (such as the Hubble telescope) and to break reality down to bits and seek the elementary picture (such as the binary or the quantum) – that we realize how much we are yet to know. Hence talking about knowing is an essential supplement to knowing itself. (#TWOK)

There are three registers in which we talk about knowing. The first is the meta-level, inhabited by philosophy and metaphysics, where the question of truth raises its head. As we know, truth is subtly different from veracity and/or facticity. The latter are about proof and evidence, and about the sifting out of lies, falsities, errors and counterfactuals. Truth encompasses veracity. That is, truth cannot be irrespective of veracity, but it is not reducible to it.  For truth seems to claim a certain wholeness, singularity, eternity for itself – an unspecifiable charge – being always already more than the sum of all the facts of the world. This is why, approached epistemologically, the question of truth remains forever caught up in irresoluble double-binds. Can there be more than one truth? Is truth perspectival or absolute? Does truth change through time? Is untruth the same as lies and errors? Is being true identical to being truthful? The answer to all these questions is always ‘yes and no’, which to me is no answer at all. This compels me to say that the question of truth is not really a question of knowledge. (#TSOT)

Perhaps a more interesting question to ask of truth is not what truth is or is not, but what work truth does in the first place? It seems to me that the idea of truth forces a certain human striving and self-fashioning; a move towards the seemingly unreachable. In that sense the question of truth does have a connection, albeit once removed, to the question of knowing. Truth is that we seek to grasp and achieve as knowledge. Or to put the same thing differently, truth is an orientation towards the unknown. Thought in these terms, truth inheres in both religion and physics at their best. Truth is an injunction, both moral and aesthetic. I am inclined to say that truth is not knowledge. It is the limit condition of knowledge!

Very different from the question of truth, and this is the second register, in which we talk of knowing, is the question of discipline(s). Modern disciplines, as the name suggests, are knowledge protocols that call for obedience and conformity from its followers. Disciplines, unlike truth, are by definition plural, dedicated to different objects of study (society for sociology, economy for economics, nature for the sciences, etc.) and defined by different evidentiary procedures (ethnography, data survey, textual exegesis, laboratory experimentation, mathematical inference, game modeling, etc.). The assumption is that these different objects and methods of study roughly add up to a comprehensive understanding of the world, with no remainder as it were. And yet disciplines do change, die out and new disciplines appear. (#TAOK)

One way to account for the emergence of new disciplines is in terms of the emergence of new objects of study.  Of course, as Michel Foucault, Timothy Mitchell, and many others have shown, disciplines in fact invent their objects of study, reordering reality in the process, rather than vice versa. There was no society or economy or as Bruno Latour would say, nature (contra culture) that pre-existed the invention of sociology, economics, and the natural sciences.  There were only lives, things and intensities. While there is a great deal of truth in this view, I believe it does not fully acknowledge the recalcitrance of the world, which at times takes the apparently stable regime of disciplinary knowledges by surprise.  Take for example the rise of the environmental sciences in the twentieth century. It is not as if air, water, earth, animals or viruses did not exist before.  But it was only when they came together to produce an unanticipated crisis of the Anthropocene that the ‘environment’ forced itself upon human attention, demanding new disciplinary formations.

Equally the rise of new disciplines can be on account of the rise of new techniques and protocols of study.  A good example here is the emergence of digital humanities as a discipline.  With their digitization, literary texts and visual media are now searchable in a way that was hitherto impossible. The result is our current ability to break down, compare and recombine elements across different texts and media, enabling a counter-intuitive marriage of traditional hermeneutics with a novel kind of quantitative imagination. In a reverse kind of way, we witness today the rise of medical humanities where the hermeneutic study of lives lived and experienced is beginning to inflect the clinical approach towards the human body.

Which brings me to the most interesting way in which knowledge as discipline gets renewed.  This is by way of talking across disciplines, which can generate unexpected sparks akin to what may happen when strangers meet by the way side! Take for example what happens when the concept of ‘rare events’ is transmitted from its home in statistics or the earth sciences to the discipline of history, which in its commitment to causality and continuity flattens out the work of chance, randomness and contingency from our lives. What would history look like if it imagines political revolution, indeed the human condition itself, not as ‘necessary’ but as ‘rare’?  Or take for example the concept of ‘cognition’ as it gets transmitted from philosophy and linguistics to artificial intelligence, raising the question not so much of ‘how human can machines be’, which was the stuff of earlier science fiction, but indeed ‘what is the human in the first place’.

And then there is the third register in which we talk about knowing – that of facts, sensations, data, information, bits and bytes. This level, apparently the infrastructural or building block level of knowledge, is really its most volatile shifting ground. No one believes anymore, as did a few nineteenth century positivist gentlemen, that facts are objectively given and self-expressive. We now know that not only are facts socially constructed but also disembodied data is not inherently meaningful until it is reassembled either into a narrative or a hypothesis or a prediction. We have moved from an imagination of paucity to a super-abundance of (big) data, and in our keen awareness of the ‘noise’ surrounding us, reached the limit of human language (natural language, computer language, mathematical language, musical language, etc.) as the sole model of data processing and meaning making. Paradoxically, the discipline of data science, now encompassing older disciplines like statistics and newer ones like machine learning and artificial intelligence, displaces our focus from data itself onto transformative processes like clustering and prediction. All story-tellings by another name. (#TFOP)

The questions that arise then are as follows. One: Is repetition and repetitiveness – as opposed to singularities of form, content and disposition – today the basic criterion in terms of which we make algorithmic sense of the world around us? Two: What of ‘virtualities’ (in the sense that Gilles Deleuze meant it – namely, the world of possibilities and potentialities that exist without having been actualized as data subject to predictive sciences)? &, Three: Given that big data is by definition disembodied and disassembled, in what way are processes of decomposition different from processes of recomposition.  Can data even be imagined as ‘part of a whole’ or is the concept of a whole redundant?

But let me end on a tangent. Even as we talk of knowing, what of feeling, and its constitutive role in the acquisition of knowledge? In the modern imagination, emotion and affect are seen as the obverse of knowledge, the shadow that it wants to get rid of for the sake of objectivity and clarity. In earlier times, though, intuition had a central place in knowing, and the achievement of knowledge was often pictured as a flash of illumination or realization. In this earlier imagination, the scholar was not an autonomous and powerful subject-agent but more a receptacle of insight. To deserve knowledge, the scholar had to laboriously cultivate a receptive and sensitive self. This receptivity could be imaged as an ascetic disposition or a poetic temperament or even a madness without which counter-intuitive forays would be impossible.  Hence a Professor Calculus or an Einstein or an Althusser, strangely modern and mad icons of knowledge!… (#TLOPE)

(Prof. Prathama Banerjee is a historian, with interests also in political theory, philosophy, ‘languages’, and literature. She is currently Professor in the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. We have not had the opportunity of hosting Prof. Banerjee on a SynTalk episode yet, but hope that such an opportunity would arise sometime in the future. ‘Knowing’ was written on/around March 28, 2020)