Epistemology Unleashed (Feb 2001)

Home Intro to the E.E. The Road Trip Writings from the E.E.

Incorporation Epistemology 

The traditional metaphor of knowledge is that it is like a mirror that reflects passively and accurately the real stuff of the world.  However, knowledge is now one of the most powerful forces of creation and destruction on this planet.  It moves mountains, selects species, starts whole economies and propels everything from styles to death sentences.  The distance between the innocent mirror of knowledge and this huge force of transformation is a measure of our confusion about what knowledge is.

The challenge of knowledge is an old story.  Think about the story of Adam and Eve in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition of the Bible where a serpent convinced Eve that eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil would give them the knowledge of the gods but where upon their eating it they found that they were banished from paradise.  Knowledge has been a dangerous blessing and curse for a long, long time. 

Today knowledge is still a problem.  Philosophically there is still no firm basis to know that what any of us know is definitely true.  Since the inception of science in the Seventeenth Century epistemology has focused on this question of certainty versus doubt in finding true knowledge. 

This was not the question of other non-Western cultures nor is this question the one we should be asking today.  It was the right question for a culture grinding through scientific facts.  It is the wrong question for a culture glutted in materialist victories that are mostly empty spiritually and that are uncontrollably destructive of cultural and ecological infrastructure.  The pyramid of truth has become a bonfire of information. 

There are two general criticisms of epistemology today neither of which concern themselves with the much debated questions of accuracy.  The first attacks epistemology for stripping knowledge of any of its social, embodied and spiritual aspects.  The traditional question of how does someone know that so-and-so is true is not the only purview of knowledge.  Another question is how does someone know what will make so-and-so feel better.  Or, rephrasing these questions, the traditional question asks what is it we know that is true while the new question asks what about ourselves is true when we know something.  The older question goes outward; the new one goes reflexively into ourselves and into our community.  As a test of preference between these questions consider that modern advertising has uniformly chosen to be interested in the second question of pleasingness at the expense of the first question about truth.

The second general criticism of epistemology is that the field is missing a changing tide of research in many fields related to cognition, brains and artificial intelligence.  These fields are bursting with new insights about how knowledge is actually formed in living beings and from the demands of artificial beings.  The tide is shifting strongly away from central processors of representational knowledge items and toward distributed models.  For example it is now considered routine to speak of memory's being stored externally in the environment as a computational cost-savings.  Yet, epistemology lumbers on in its time-honored propositional veracity analysis.

Critiques of epistemology in the modern period are not new.  All major philosophers since Nietzsche and Charles Pierce have decried its overblown claims.  But generally critique and repair have focused on the accuracy aspect (e.g. most recently Postmodernism).  This frontal assault on truth claims goes right to the strength of epistemology's truth analysis and offers no new standpoint for knowledge other than weakened truth claims.

What is needed is a different conception of knowledge than the holy truth ideas spotted from the infamous God's-eye-view that collectively map our world into a non-dynamic flatland of what-is.  As useful as this mapping has been for technical and global conquest, it is inimical to people considered as dynamic perspectives actively creating their environment and seeking conditions of satisfaction within this creativity. 

When we shift the vista from the large scale truth of this outer world to the actual living pespective of any one of us, a radically different picture emerges.  When I consider my own perspective, I see a neuron-like network of connections to the things and people in the world that I care about, need or rely upon.  It is a collection of relationships upon which I rely in some measure.  I rely upon my shoes to be shoe-like to my feet and to my closet; I rely upon my friend Vern to be Vern-like, and so forth.  I am frequently disappointed by my expectations of meaning (these shoes really hurt; come on Vern, don't act like that), but I also force these allied relationships to act as I expect them to (trip to shoe repairman, some coaxing of Vern to sing a tune I appreciate).

To go in this direction is to embark on knowledge as alliance, on meaning as relationship of expectation.  To go in this direction is to merely catalogue what our expectation relationships are.  It is the opposite of turning to external truth of which we probably store a corrupted, partial quantity.  To go in this direction is to know, for example - a butterfly, by having a relationship of expectation, of response and of having the possibility of changing this relationship.  That expectation relationship might include color, movement and other relationships such as flowers or warm weather. 

Now to travel along these relationships with others to increase our relationships by analyzing the parts of the butterfly (imagine, say, a proverbial butterfly scientist) is fine and often adds to our creative potential, but there is no need to deny the trail of dependent interrelationships that brought us to the refined relationship analysis nor is there a reason to deny others their actually existing butterfly relationships with a demand that only a full relational accounting of butterfly parts is acceptable.  The message is - you truth seekers can have your precision accounting but don't deny your relational dependence nor anyone else their own relational accommodation of butterflies.  Or again, a relational view of knowledge can include truth, but a truth view of knowledge cannot include any actually existing relationships.

To begin a treatment of knowledge as the actual existing relationships rather than our compliance with or inadequacy regarding ideal truths begins an unpacking of advantages.  One path takes us towards life in the shifting relationships of living communities.  This is the social tug-of-war, play and politics that was bypassed in the shoulder-to-shoulder gaze of solidarity at truth.  It is now in plain view in our perspectival relationships model because our knowledge as relationships calculus includes both relationships to others and common relationships of agreement to third parties such as objects which was the domain preferred by traditional epistemology. 

Another path takes us to the emerging sciences of actual cognition.  It is a rich field in full bloom.  A sign of the times is that it is actually respectable to talk about consciousness and consciousness studies.  This is, of course, only surprising if one considers how thoroughly scientists have held to mechanical models in the effort to avoid any mystifications.  Even though a new consensus has not emerged, there is a significant trend that epistemologists would do well to take note of.  It is a repeated discovery of the distributed nature of cognitive processing.

Neural networks are an architecture that mimics neuronal architecture.  It is a series of transformation rules between adjacent tiny processors without any central control aspects, and it has shown repeated success in its ability to learn input-output with feedback problems.  Another facet of this distributed trend is the recognition that often memory is stored externally to an organism.  You can recognize this aspect by considering how memory returns while being involved in an already-performed activity such as finding your way back to a place to which you have already been before.  If you had tried to explicate the directions before embarking, more blanks would ensue than if you gave directions as you searched and found many subliminal cues along the way.  Thus, the memory is both stored in your head and along the path in real place cues.  As researchers point out, this method is biologically cost efficient for the organism.

This spirit of a changing tide with a distributive character should be referenced to the words of an investigator in the field.  An example is this:

"The Rational Deliberator turns out to be a well-camouflaged Adaptive Responder. Brain, body, world, and artifact are discovered locked together in the most complex of conspiracies. And mind and action are revealed in an intimate embrace." ("Being There," Andy Clark, MIT Press, 1997, p. 33.)

To help you get your bearings as I press a radical approach, I will include a second quote more directly about knowledge that places it squarely as a biological phenomenon.

"How, then, can we make that connection between adaptation and knowledge? We do so through a two-track argument. The first is that the human capacity to gain and impart knowledge is itself an adaptation, or a set of adaptations. To the scientifically literate this may not seem to be a startling claim. But it does have specific and interesting implications. We simply will not understand human rationality and intelligence, or human communication and culture, until we understand how these seemingly unnatural attributes are deeply rooted in human biology. They are, I will argue, the special adaptations that make us special. What is unarguable is that they are the products of human evolution, whether adaptations or not. There really are no substantive alternative ways of understanding our extraordinary capacity for knowledge...."

"The second track of the argument is the one that many find strange and difficult, and one which has already been partially given in the Preface. It is that adaptations are themselves knowledge, themselves forms of 'incorporation' of the world into the structure and organization of living things. Because this seems to misappropriate a word, 'knowledge', with a widely accepted meaning - knowledge usually just being something that only humans have somewhere in their heads - it makes the argument easier if the statement reads 'adaptations are biological knowledge, and knowledge as we commonly understand the word is a special case of biological knowledge'." (Henry Plotkin in "Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge," Henry Plotkin, Harvard University Press, 1994, pages xiv-xv)

However interesting these research developments are and although I would like this site to follow the cognitive and biological leads, I am a spectator and this is not the place to arbitrate their results.  Instead, it is better to stay focused on the "Unleashed" part of epistemology and what potential a genuinely socially embodied epistemology would look like and give us.  This might seem like setting the cart before the horse to some since it is usual within the regime of finding what-it-is answers to what-is-it? questions to analyze knowledge as a breakdown into components.  However, the factfinder's regime condemns itself to begging its own question if it restricts itself to what-is answers from what-is? questions.  To find out what we don't know about knowledge we should also consider knowing it in ways that we don't know.  In this spirit I wish to make a new kind of knowledge plausible and desirable.  I want to invite you to test with me if new ways of using knowledge show us, in fact, new facets of what it is.  It is not an accident that the writer quoted in the first quote above does not mention "knowledge" among his list of "brain, body, world, and artifact."  Researchers cannot research knowledge; we are in it not above or outside.  It is us.  And we are our own guinea pigs.

For the rest of this article I will offer for our testing a model of knowledge that I am calling incorporation epistemology.  Both this model and the social gaps it will be used to highlight will be on display.  They do not have to stand or fall together nor do either have to hit their nails squarely on the head.  The socially embodied knowledge of which I am speaking is inherently collaborative and inherently contains an I-Thou component.  If this knowledge that appears in the cracks of our interactions is real and useful, then we will have to demonstrate it by collaborative work.  By reading, you are asked to join in this testing.

Now the model itself will be specified fairly precisely before we turn to the less precise social possibilities of demonstration.  The model then for this next section presumes several things about knowledge.  They are: 1) when I know something or someone my knowledge is the actually existing relationship and not some idealized facsimile of the thing itself; 2) when I know something or someone, it gains a relationship to me; 3) my knowing relationships carry a scaled quality of  importance to be considered as strength of conviction or degree of persuasiveness or degree of dependence; and 4) we are our knowledge, we do not get it; we grow as we add it to ourselves.  From this list it is easy to see why incorporation epistemology speaks of growing knowledge (Cf. "digesting an idea," "body of knowledge" or "food for thought") and emphasizes the mouth and developmental aspects of knowledge rather than the eye-in-a-tower frame.(1)

If this defining sequence is not intuitive, I hope that the following demonstrations of knowledge so conceived will be intuitive and easy to grasp.  Rather, now I will ask to be forgiven if the claims for such a knowledge seem overblown and overreaching.  However, if epistemology can be "unleashed," it is better to eschew fear of drama in order to be sure to reach the possibilities.

It can be said that our conception of knowledge frames our spirituality.  Eastern philosophies are renown for seeking peacefulness and harmony through a renunciation of the mind's graspingness through meditation.  The focus of knowledge is not on truth and accuracy but on the deceitful desire implicit in the mind's thinking.  This is in direct contrast to the Western tradition which fosters the intoxicating desire of knowledge for its object while attempting to refine the deceit out of it.  The first attempts to rid the mind of desire while the second attempts to rid it of deceit.  The spiritual intent of incorporation epistemology is to facilitate a melding strategy between renunciation and fixation in desire and between complete wariness and wagering everything on control of deceit.  Each of us from artist to scientist, from daydreamer to adventurer uses a mixture on two spectrums of graspingness and control. 

Contemporary epistemology chooses all control (coherence of truth by fit with other truths, experimentation) and no graspingness (independence of observer from thing to ward off the individual's corruption of the prized control).  An epistemology that would fulfill the promise of the goals of incorporation epistemology would demand that one at least acknowledge one's graspingness even if one's choice is to strive self-negatingly towards external coherence.  Such an epistemology would also give the world renouncers their place of retreat while not denying the outer world's properties of coherence.  To the rest of us enjoying the world's delights in the middle of both spectrums it offers a spiritual movement in life that fosters clarity and personal choice along both spectrums of graspingness and control.  To most of us in North America and Europe this involves the adding of graspingness (point 3 in the definitions of incorporated knowledge above) as dependence, importance and persuasiveness to our use of knowledge so that we are not always in only 100% true pretension mode.

In fact we use this sense of graspingness in little ways all the time.  When discussing something with someone we often begin to say something and then think better of it and drop it before we let it out in a realization that it is not that important or persuasive.  Our mind even seemingly automatically forgets things that are less important or connected to our main interests in the world.  It is time that this wisdom passes to our shared cultural field if we are to forestall a build-up of solipsistic truth-bashing characterized by a growing mountain of unread books.  On the optimistic side such an epistemology could allow us a kind of spiritual akido, an ability to let the reaching and letting go of our knowledge grasps be a source of unlimited play.  Both reaching and letting go, like life and death, are implicit in a living knowledge; to be caught in one without the other is to grow to a limit and ossify.

It is not as if this grasping aspect of knowledge has escaped our notice before.  It surfaces as personality or humors or some other subsidiary concept that is incidental or even inimical to knowledge and communication transfer.  Or, it surfaces as someone's insistence or indifference to some belief.  Or, it surfaces as the excitement and enliveningness of some subjects.  Or, today it appears as attitude.  But none of these derivative concepts join the shape of our aliveness to the living growth of our knowledge nor do they encourage us to use it as a form of social glue or intelligence.  Instead, having no clear use for the personal involvement in knowledge, our culture resorts to various forms of mental bullying or retreats to therapy there to belatedly and confusedly tease out some inkling of our knotted feelings.  Those who are not mentally bullying in the regime of prescriptive truth are pushed toward a toeing-the-line adherence which usually oscillates with an emotional outburst of rebellion.  The feelings are the surface shape of our mental bodies.  As some researchers now point out, mind cannot function without emotions; our actual living knowledge is propelled by the strength of its own prior growth.(2)  And feelings are the lived aspect of the relationships of knowledge.

Knowledge as external truth has denigrated the actual particular relationships of knowledge and not only pays for it in emotional costs but fails to take advantage of what could be a gift rather than a hindrance.  The possibility of this gift is known about; it is called music and dance; but it is assumed that these gifts of interactional harmony are not compatible with the serious business of truth.  They are for after hours or afterlife.  It is, however, the opening between the over earnestness of truth and the not-for-everyone idealization of music that an embodied epistemology would attempt to exploit as a way of living worth living.

A second test for this new conception of knowledge is in the domain of communication.  In the world of knowledge as ideals of truth, communication works as a kind of transfer of knowledge substitutes or words from one person to another.  The whole thing presumes nearly uniform sameness based on truth and truth correspondence except for the transfer of the new truth information to be added to the listener.  And it's boring.  Here, let me do a truth transfer on you.  Are you grateful or have you complied yet?  Besides boring it is a setup for failure.  If just small pieces of the assumed agreements about background truth or word correspondences are off, then the enterprise falls apart with the only remedy being more tedious and forceful truth messages being stuffed through the communication pipeline.  Its usefulness for command and exploration are, however, exemplary as has its military and scientific history shown.

What would a picture of communication within an epistemology as defined above look like?  Imagine now an encounter not between two truth machines but between two bodies shaped by their alliances and their actually existing relationships.  To initiate communication is to undertake to change the other.  For the "listener" to either absorb or resist is to adjust hisher boundaries of persuasiveness.  An encounter of power, importance, persuasiveness or play occurs at least simultaneous to any exchange of truth-like information.  This encounter shapes their relationship.  The subject matter of the encounter, in attempting to calibrate their mutual alliances to other things, becomes the mental food that is absorbed into their existing relationships.  Even if transfer does not occur, transformation does occur. 

Communication too is not an idealized and heroic exposition of eternal truths; it is a specific encounter in a specific situation that potentially partakes of more stable coherence.  This situation or context could be described also as the participants' extended body or even a new composite body forming at this junction of the two.  At this contextual union-in-making accuracy and faithful transfer are but two of many modes of interaction and being.  Humor, ignoral, expressing frustration and singing are other ways that could characterize the union-making.  Although slightly selfish as compared to the supposed selfless task of facilitating communication as information transfer, it is in fact less selfish than the usually implicit message of "Shut up and listen to what I have to tell you."  And by focusing on this slightly selfish view of how does one's own contextual body want to respond or transform with a communication encounter there is direct access to the terms of satisfaction so that, in a real sense, communication cannot fail.  I am a context in transformation, I meet in communication, I am still a context in transformation.  The body of my relationships is continually growing and finding out what satisfies it.  The gaze is turned towards what we have and are receiving rather than the opposite of ignoring where we are to stare at the distant and dubiously achievable verities.  By de-emphasizing transfer success as the only goal we gain satisfaction and encounter richness.

Let me make this less abstract.  Each encounter or even any happening can be treated as a communication.  It affects us somehow, even gestures, glances and pauses.  Accepting these changes and these results - whatever they are- is communication just as much as the transfer effort.  The focus of how to communicate can turn to making peace with and even being able to recognize the various changes that occurred - as well as the fabulous ways that we can affect the other parties.  The encounter changes the situation as well as the potential for further interaction.  Any joys or disappointments incurred are part of the new situation of the relationships of our knowledge which by this theory of knowledge is always both reaching and being disappointed.  Living as a knower is the forming of relationships which happen more intensely in communication encounters.  Communication is moving and adapting the relationships of our situations.  Using this frame of reference we do not fall into the trap of communication as truth transfer which leads to either the dubious, stuffy satisfaction of moving the goods along or the alienating aloneness of wondering where the goods of truth transfer got derailed.  The foreground of words and other signs is exciting but bound to fumble; the background of evolving actual relationships is always real.

To take this path is to return to the art of rhetoric but this time with the awareness that we now have of power, of privilege and of an opening to a complete set of our embodied relationships in the world.  This path still includes the usual communication path of knowing more vocabulary, subject matter, manners, grammar, gender roles and so on but plays with the actual context and shape of the communication relationship itself so that all this knowledge as information does not just become more glut to stuff up the transfer pipeline.  This old model of transfer by trafficking in alleged perfections can only occur in disappointment if not manipulation; to reframe communication as encounters between actual relational beings who transform these relations is to assure the success of playing with the shape of encounters while risking only the usual losses incurred in living.

Third on a list of arenas to test a model of embodied knowledge comes from the arena of conversation analysis.  There one speaks of conversational trajectories such as humor or anger.  Think of a conversational humor trajectory as several people each adding a little extra line that continues or jumps the humor through several stages of intensity.  Imagine, for example, the sequence in a TV commercial.  When these moments happen in our lives, they are very enjoyable, often relaxing (or escalating the tension), sometimes very informative about how others see us and often provide special bonding glue for friends.  The conjecture here is that traditional knowledge as truth cannot generate these trajectories since truth is intrinsically an inert concept.  They require ongoing prods from the participants in the form of connections between disjunct logical entities (e.g. puns), of role exaggerations ("so you think you're the king of ..."), of inadvertent slips, and of brushes with with taboo subjects.  In short small group emotional trajectories are made not of substantive transfer of veridical knowledge but of the jiggling with contexts and how we fit in them.  The assertion here is that knowing how to navigate in such social trajectories demands a type of knowledge characterized as the embodied knowledge above with actual existing knowledge relationships.  Almost tautologically, social knowledge is the knowledge of the movement, use and joy of social relationships and roles.  A myopic epistemology that concerns itself only with external verities risks deforming our social bodies and our social lives.  Gaining knowledge as social connectivity use is something that is needed today and that cannot be taken for granted as in centuries past with more firmly anchored social fabrics.

Conversational trajectories and unique social events are pieces of larger frames of social connectivity such as various types of ongoing cultural groups.  Insider/outsider boundaries are formed by a range of non-traditional knowledge practices such as frequency of contact, secrets, common beliefs (which are traditional knowledge but shaped not necessarily by truth considerations but especially by group relational needs and stances) and enjoyment of particular practices such as interactional trajectories.  As all of us have been witness during the multiculturalism debate, there is a fundamental discordancy between the new view of many cultures and the old view of one truth should fit all.  As both sides of the debate are presently conceived, they are not compatible.  The centrality of uniqueness in the truth paradigm and the balkanized claims of the multiculturalists for some means of legitimacy within a frame of truth lend themselves to constant friction or a resigned dilution of agreement in meaning.

An embodied theory of knowledge is conceived partly to finesse this incompatibility.  By acknowledging, making visible and attempting to make use of the social and personal relations of knowing an embodied knowledge opens up the rich territory that is the "stuff" of cultures.  Yet, such a theory can preserve a central role for the centrality of truth by acknowledging that the alliance relations of knowing that offer wide agreement among parties, logical relations and experimental relations should be granted a preferred community status.  What the existence of truth shows then is that the evolutionary timescale expansion of external relations of humans with stable elements of the environment, the agreements between humans into local folk knowledge and the clarification of various cultural patterns of agreement into reliable patterns of truth is a demonstration that the organism-environment relationship is inherently not part-whole but a dynamic part that becomes the whole.  Widespread agreements among humans and the existence of many strongly supported truths shows that our environmental relations have enveloped a world that is one.  It is not unique though since this rich cover of embodied relations of knowledge are pulling it and pushing it in different directions at the same time.  Artists, developers and us everyday creative types are constantly pulling and pushing the world with our choices, desires, obfuscations of others' ecological pathways, and other rearrangements.  The one world is aborning in many different directions at any moment from the labyrinth of our knowing embraces.

This picture is worth attempting to paint in simpler terms.  If knowledge is conceived as the sum of everyone's actual relationships with and to the environment, then the world is not just a large collection of objects but is a large collection of objects plus a lot of interconnecting, transforming relationships of humans and even other animals.  Now all these interconnecting, transforming relationships that form our knowing come together in agreements that sort into groups to form cultures and into agreements of widespread consistency to establish truth.  The agreements that form groups of similar relating humans are made principally of the knowledge relationships described in point three of the above definition of embodied knowledge.  They are of the type of agreements of importance, experiential exchanges, choices of alliances, aesthetic preferences and level of readiness to transform.

Knowledge, the prehending of elements of the world, is both the reach and the grip on the thing grabbed.  The reaching cannot be taken out of this act to pretend that only the beautiful true object is there independent of our very active environmental relating.  Cultures and groups are made not just of membership rules but of practices and agreements of how to do this reaching.  And even membership rules are shaped by the boundaries of who knows what; professional codes, secrets and events in common define groups.

And it is here among culture and among a group's choices and choosing of agreements that we find the locus of politics.  Group agreements about environmental relations require some tension and process in creating these agreements.  However unevenly this processing power is carried among members, all members are part of the fabric of knowledge relationships and have some measure of persuasiveness in the force of their relationships.  The domain of opinion and feeling others' opinions is active and dynamic.  However a group processes the changes over time of their reaching-for component of knowledge as its processing, it is this necessary processing that is politics.

The paradigm of truth, ever since Socrates turned away from the agora or the community's discussion center, has denigrated the messy world of politics in favor of the alleged superiority of eternal truths.  This denigration of direct contact with others and their opinions in a political trajectory of continuing community does not make it go away.  It only brings in a political process characterized by holier-than-thou truth carriers and more-Machiavellian-than-thou power and opinion manipulators.(3)  The promise of a fully embodied epistemology is that the recognition of the terrain of actually existing involvement in knowing relations will allow the expansion and exploration of its competent use.  Cultural group definition and cultural group dynamics could be an area of creative involvement and satisfaction rather than a mental Achilles heel of blinded frustration.  And using explicitly the valuated strength of conviction and of importance in our knowledge relationships between us offers human society the possibility of gaining the advantages found in the architecture of neural nets.  Understanding the inherently political nature of knowledge, the organism's survivalistic reach for useful alliances, opens up the social, the cultural and the political as opportunities of creative growth without having to give up the hard-won purchases of truth made over centuries. 

It goes further.  A realistic epistemology that includes rather than derides the idiosyncratic and involved aspect of knowledge points to a different economics, to a different community of people with things.  As the epistemology of truth has split culture into exalted truth versus low politics so it splits economics into exalted nature/art and the swapping of product facsimiles.  When actual things and our relations to them are nothing, then products are empty imitations of concepts.  When the real is fixed as true without our interpretive relations of creativity, then we are but compliant agents among the thing idols and our work is but a performance of energy and information in a circulation of dead objects.  Without being informed by our actual political relations and our actual grasp of things, the economic order becomes split into disjunct worlds of producer and consumer, both characterized by a performance of action on a fixed entity but separated by a crude politics of who is slave and who is master.  The economic factotum of fixed truth is slave at home and master at work. 

As with politics an embodied knowledge offers a restoration of the world from which value springs.  Value is an inherent relationship in knowing.  Appreciating our nature as ubiquitously valuing is to accentuate and develop a refined valuing mode of interacting in the alliances that surround us.  Coupled with a politics of taking seriously and enjoyably our rich relationships with each other including the valuing of each other, there is a vista of life formed in the rich interplay of actual relationships of which we are always part author.  These relationships include but are not restricted to either the brutish push-and-pull of 'dirty' politics or the points of truth laid out by the surveyors from the Socratic-scientific line. 

As we can contemplate social change from an epistemology that integrates its own complicity in knowing, so can one see the objects of our knowledge changed.  As point 2 in the definition of incorporated knowledge indicates, the realization of non-independence and reciprocity in knowing a thing shows how a thing gains a relationship in being known.  Just as our knowledge has domesticated animals, plants, pathways across the landscape, and natural phenomena in service to our economies; so does every knowing relationship place the thing known into a different probability of future trajectory.  Particularly important are huge changes in landscapes merely by subtle interferences passing from our valuations of what is good and bad.

To say that epistemology can be unleashed is to go to the actual personal and social relationships and gain among them terms of satisfaction for living.  It is a middle ground between the perfection of truth and the brutishness of politics as both are now conceived.  The challenge and test of an embodied knowledge such as incorporation knowledge is to explore the idiosyncratic and involved nature of our knowing and to use it to fashion satisfactory adaptations for our lives.  To the degree that we are able to exploit this relational and grasping ground and even bring it to descriptive awareness, then to this degree its validation and exploitation will be achieved.  Its reality must be tested by its use.  Beyond the confines of truth and its cohort objectivity lies the rich domain of the social, that is not the mere positioning of human pawns in the objective matrix but the rich involvement in every act of perception and knowing. 

To use such an epistemology is to set sail for a different kind of sociality, to play with care, to let love breathe.  It is to leave behind the relatively impoverished world of truth with its human confiningness where mind is seen as a feeble achievement of animals to lift up the periscope of consciousness to gain suddenly the God's-eye-view of the flatland of Reality only to have to go about the very mundane business of moving about objects in this dismal cause-and-effects only world.  When is-ness is no longer primary to becoming as we see the tremendous creative force of our own living knowledge, we realize that we humans are ourselves the force of becoming in a universe abloom.  And is-ness takes its place as temporary or provisional patches of coherence along with some very stable patches of coherence such as scientific laws.

In such a vision of knowledge the reach to grasp knowledge certainly has implicit in it the urge to overreach our grasp and attempt to seize the eternal.  The story of humanity since acquiring a developed environmental grasp in knowledge is likely a story of the joy of reaching and the misery of having this grasp not be always secure.  It is like the Fall of Adam and Eve from Eden where having extended the process of the organism to reach across time to hold a structured alliance of meaning only to have that extension fall apart.  Expectations, eternal truths, deceptions are all grips that can slip.  Like all living creatures with gains and losses we must have grips and slips in our attempts to ally ourselves with the other members of the world that is the characteristic of our interactions with the world, knowledge.  But in this world a philosophy of either just firm acquisition like the Western impetus to truth or of just readiness to renunciate and to let slip like the Eastern would seem to be less helpful than one that allowed us to use both grasping and slipping as a conscious and concerted practice. 

This is the opportunity for epistemology.  It is to leave behind the building of the pyramid of true knowledge which is really a kind of self-destruction of knowledge into a servitude to ontology or facts about things.  And it is to reclaim the knowing relationship as the field of nature upon which humans have entered, nomos to the Greeks.  And it is to develop this field with its graspingness and slips of expectation, with its love in the delight of cares and losses, with its play on the satisfactions and politics of community and with its creative and destructive embrace of material substances.  It is to turn from the universe as accidental wasteland to the mysterious flower.

My apologies to those of you to whom this article is too effervescent.  Being clear about objectives as well as attempting to offer others a glimpse of latent hopes within epistemology were deemed more important than mere caution!

1.  From Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature, University of Chicago Press, 1999, pages 71-2 (The subquote is from Erwin Straus, "The Upright Posture," in "Phenomenological Psychology," 1966):

"Though man remains a nourishing being, we now see clearly that his being-in-the-world is oriented not solely or even primarily as eater. He is, by natural attitude, a being whose eyes are encouraged to be bigger than his stomach.

'Animals move in the direction of their digestive axis. Their bodies are expanded between mouth and anus as between an entrance and an exit, a beginning and an ending. The spatial orientation of the human body is different throughout. The mouth is still an inlet but no longer a beginning, the anus, an outlet but no longer the tail end. Man in upright posture, his feet on the ground and his head uplifted, does not move in the line of his digestive axis; he moves in the direction of his vision. He is surrounded by a world panorama, by a space divided into world regions joined together in the totality of the universe. Around him, the horizons retreat in an ever growing radius. Galaxy and diluvium, the infinite and the eternal, enter into the orbit of human interests.'"

"As with upright posture itself, the contemplative gaze–or the transformation of seeing into beholding–requires maturation, and especially inner or psychic growth; small children do not have it and remain largely interested only in things that lie within their grasp.  Eventually, as adults, we are able to organize the visible world into things near and far or, alternatively, into those visible and even remote things we are interested in prehending (by bringing them near) and those we are content to let be and to comprehend, at a distance and in their place, against a background totality, a world."

2.  The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Antonio Damasio, Harcourt, 1999.

3.  Cf. The Closing of the American Mind , Allan Bloom, Simon and Schuster, 1987, pps. 187-8.

"The link is that culture is what makes possible, on a high level, the rich social life that constitutes a people, their customs, styles, tastes, festivals, rituals, gods--all that binds individuals into a group with roots, a community in which they think and will generally, with the people a moral unity, and the individual united within himself. A culture is a work of art, of which the fine arts are the sublime expression. From this point of view, liberal democracies look like disorderly markets to which individuals bring their produce in the morning and from which they return in the evening to enjoy privately what they have purchased with the proceeds of their sales. In culture, on the other hand, the individuals are formed by the collectivity as are the members of the chorus of a Greek drama. A Charles de Gaulle or, for that matter, an Alexander Solzhenitsyn sees the United States as a mere aggregate of individuals, a dumping ground for the refuse from other places, devoted to consuming; in short, no culture.
"Culture as art is the peak expression of man's creativity, his capacity to break out of nature's narrow bonds, and hence out of the degrading interpretation of man in modern natural and political science. Culture founds the dignity of man. Culture as a form of community is the fabric of relations in which the self finds its diverse and elaborate expression. It is the house of the self, but also its product. It is profounder than the modern state, which deals only with man's bodily needs and tends to degenerate into mere economy. Such a state is not a forum in which man can act without deforming himself. This is why in the better circles it always seems in poor taste to speak of love of country, while devotion to Western, or even American, culture is perfectly respectable. Culture restores 'the unity in art and life' of the ancient polis.
"The only element of the polis absent from culture is politics....
"The disappearance of politics is one of the most salient aspects of modern thought and has much to do with our political practice. Politics tends to disappear into the subpolitical (economics) or what claims to be higher than politics (culture)..."
 

Home Up Introduction Sources (Citations Library) Writings, History, Bio Site Map

Thoughts or suggestions; Email

Copyright © 2001 Jake Patrick Keenan