Tag Archives: epistemology

How Things Are Between Us, 2

As I wrote in a recent post, it’s reductive and misleading, but all too common, to think about conversations as mere transactions. I ask and you bid; I have my say and you have yours. But in conversation with another person or a group, I can’t be indifferent to how things are between us. If I am actually and persistently indifferent, then I might be a sociopath or another kind of dangerous person. If I am a relatively decent person and happen to lapse into indifference, you can justly complain that I am neither respecting the standing and authority you and others have, nor am I seriously committed to our conversation, which amounts to the same thing.

Grice writes about conversation as “talk exchange,” and that formulation worries me a little, but he clearly has in mind something more than the transaction we entertain when we talk about “an exchange of views.” The phrase, which might suit diplomatic occasions where distinguished persons stand up and make speeches to let their official positions be known (before retreating from public view to have a conversation about what to do), falls short of capturing exactly the point Grice invites us to make: talking things over, figuring out what to do, making meaning, reaching agreement or finding out where we disagree — all of that is a cooperative undertaking, a joint activity.

Cooperation doesn’t mean we set aside differences; even the most charitable interlocutors can be deeply and persistently antagonistic. Like all good collaboration, conversation tends to bring differences to the fore. It puts them out in the open, we sometimes say; and it’s worth pausing over that expression and considering where that open ground might be, and why we regard it as open. But if we pretend we are just trading or trafficking in (different) views, we are ignoring the common ground already beneath our feet. This ignorance opens to the door to all sorts of abuses and indecencies.

Charles Taylor goes much further in this regard:

…language serves to place some matter out in the open between interlocutors. One might say that language enables us to put things in public space. That something emerges into what I want to call public space means that it is no longer a matter for me, or for you, or for both of us severally, but is now something for us, that is for us together.
Let us say that you and I are strangers travelling together through some southern country. It is terribly hot, the atmosphere is stifling. I turn to you and say: ‘Whew, it’s hot.’ This does not tell you anything you did not know; neither that it is hot, nor that I suffer from the heat. Both these facts were plain to you before. Nor were they beyond your power to formulate; you probably had already formulated them.
What the expression has done here is to create a rapport between us, the kind of thing which comes about when we do what we call striking up a conversation. Previously I knew that you were hot, and you knew that I was hot, and I knew that you must know that I knew that, etc.: up to about any level that you care to chase it. But now it is out there as a fact between us that it is stifling in here. Language creates what one might call a public space, or a common vantage point from which we survey the world together.
To talk about this kind of conversation in terms of communication can be to miss the point. For what transpires here is not the communication of certain information. This is a mistaken view; but not because the recipient already has the information. Nothing stops A making a communication to B of information already in B’s possession. It may be pointless, or misguided, or based on a mistake, but it is perfectly feasible. What is really wrong with the account in terms of communication is that it generally fails to recognize public space. It deems all states of knowledge and belief to be states of individual knowers and believers. Communication is then the transmittal, or the attempted transmittal, of such states.
But the crucial and highly obtrusive fact about language, and human symbolic communication in general, is that it serves to found public space, that is to place certain matters before us. This blindness to the public is of course (in part anyway) another consequence of the epistemological tradition, which privileges a reconstruction of knowledge as a property of the critical individual. It makes us take the monological observer’s standpoint not just as a norm, but somehow as the way things really are with the subject. And this is catastrophically wrong.

Dennett on Sunlight

Here’s my transcript of what I consider one of the more striking moments in the conversation with Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett moderated by Alex de Waal at the “Unlearning Violence” conference held at Tufts’ Fletcher School in February. (A video of the discussion in its entirety follows.) Daniel Dennett is speaking:

Something’s happened, which is absolutely unprecedented in the history of civilization, which is a major — I think a major change. And yes it’s the internet and electronic communication. But what it has done, it has rendered the epistemological atmosphere in which we live transparent in a way it never was before.

There’s a lovely book — speculative book by Andrew Parker, a zoologist in Oxford, who [in In The Blink Of An Eye: How Vision Sparked The Big Bang Of Evolution], argues, very plausibly, that the cause of the great Cambrian explosion, this huge outpouring of new life, that the trigger for that was the transparency, the sudden, relatively sudden growing transparency of the oceans and the air, making sunlight available and making vision possible for the first time. And it was the immediate evolution of eyes which changed everything, because now predator could see prey, prey could see predator, and if you didn’t have eyes you were sunk. And this set off a five million year arms race of sort of guerilla warfare enhancements, defense and offense, and that’s what created all the remarkably different body types and behavioral types and defense types that mark this great explosion.

Well, he may or may not be right about that, I — I — it’s one of those evolutionary ideas that I am very fond of but I haven’t committed to it because it hasn’t been shown yet. But it’s a plausible and pretty well researched theory. Whether he’s right or wrong, I think something exactly like that has happened now.

All the institutions in human culture, not just religions but armies, governments, banks, relig- uh, corporations, clubs — they have all evolved in a relatively murky epistemological atmosphere where people could be relatively ignorant of things at a distance around the world and even about a lot of their own, the features of their own organizations. And organizations evolved to exploit that ignorance, cause it was — you could rely on it. That ignorance is evaporating at a colossal rate, and we see it, we see it in Edward Snowden. We see it where the security experts are now saying there’s no such thing as a firewall, um, because people, you have to rely on people’s fidelity, because people’s fidelity is infinitely malleable by memes, by all of the information that is floating around in the internet.

Religions: what this new transparency does is, it renders knowledge not just widespread but mutual: it’s not just that everybody knows that p, it’s that everybody knows that everybody knows that p.

Fifty years ago, I’m sure, there were millions of Catholics that knew of a priest who had molested some boys. Millions of them. But nobody knew there were millions of them. Now, millions of Catholics know that millions of Catholics know. And that changes everything. Now, you have a Bishop giving a press conference where he makes a big point of saying you’ll note how I never, whenever there’s a young boy around I’ll always have my hands in front of me. Can you imagine a bishop of the church saying anything like that fifty years ago?

This is an awkward and gauche and ineffective response to the new transparency. Well I think that in itself is going to force every institution in the world to evolve very quickly or go extinct.

And what that does for violence is — it’s not clear. In some ways it may be a great diminution in violence; on the other hand it may unleash forces that we don’t even imagine yet, and make new inroads into violence more likely.

Walleye and the End of the Known World

Since the 1970s, Lake Superior temperatures have risen an average of five degrees Fahrenheit and ice cover has reduced by fifty percent. This makes the lake less hospitable to the fat siscowet or lake trout that favors its cold depths and more susceptible to invasive predators like the lamprey.

Walleye can now live in more areas of the lake than ever before. The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, who run commercial fishing operations on Superior, have been raising walleye at their hatcheries since 2005, according to an article that ran last week in Scientific American.


A canny adaptation, but it’s clear from the same article that continuing change will require something even greater — a whole new orientation.

“With the changes in temperatures,” the article says at its most thoughtful moment, “the intimate knowledge of the lake that tribes and other anglers have cultivated over the years no longer jibes with reality.” Evelyn Ravindrian, a KBIC natural resource specialist, puts it this way: “people used to know, ‘Well, whitefish will be here this time of day, this time of year.’ Now they have to look around.” This is the bit that stuck with me.

The lake that fishermen came to know intimately is vanishing. It is undeniably a loss, and I found myself wishing the article had more to say about it: the end of a long intimacy, a bereavement, a disorienting absence — the kind of thing one feels after divorce, death or displacement. The end of the known world. I suppose an article written along those lines wouldn’t have had much chance of making it into the pages of Scientific American; but it would have gotten much closer to the heart of the matter.

As the new environmental reality takes hold, a social and cultural reality slips away: all the things “people used to know” about the lake, the seasonal and circadian knowledge that they cultivated and shared and that bound them together, as a people, or simply as Lake Superior fishermen.

They probably took most of those things for granted: that’s the nature of cultural habits, local knowledge, familiar ties — all the things that make up our sense of place. We know where we are without even trying. Now people will have to “look around,” as Evelyn Ravindrian says. They’re in a new and unfamiliar place, even though they have lived around Lake Superior and fished its waters for as long as anyone can remember.