Saturday, 8 March 2008

Language and knowledge

Here's an interesting thought. Do you think you can understand any concept, providing that it is explained clearly enough? Sometimes (I won't say how often) when I am reading things I struggle to make sense of what the author is trying to get across. Is that because I am unable to grasp the concept, or is it because the author is failing to communicate clearly enough? When I have asked people this question I am surprised how much faith we have in our own intelligence. Most people think they can grasp any concept provided that it is explained clearly enough. So if people only wrote better books we would all be experts.

I am not convinced. Yesterday whilst I was killing time before my flight I was reading a section of AC Grayling's Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction where he sought to get across a point about different 'language games'. I must have read and re-read those few paragraphs about six times struggling to get the meaning, and I still don't quite grasp it (maybe I'll have a cuppa and another go later). I would put money on it that AC Grayling is smarter than I am, and that he is quite capable of explaining things clearly. So I have to assume I am (or was being) a bit dense.

What's more, I became aware that in trying to get my hands on the meaning of the passage I was trying to find something familiar in it. In other words I think I was trying to understand the concept by sort of sub-dividing it by something I do already 'know'. Of course it's partly mental laziness. In fact someone I posed the original question to said that yes you can grasp anything, provided that you want to. I am sure that your attitude must play a role but don't quite agree. My view is that it's about familiarity. It's hard learning new things, it's much easier sort of 'spotting' concepts you already get. People seem to derive great enjoyment from doing well what they know how to do. Maybe the same process is at work when we try to understand something - it's more enjoyable to think about it in a way we already know how to think. We enjoy the familiarity.

In epistemology one of the big theoretical divides is between "knowledge that" and "knowledge how". Here's how the Wiki article on epistemology explains it:

For example: in mathematics, it is known that 2 + 2 = 4, but there is also knowing how to add two numbers. Many (but not all) philosophers thus think there is an important distinction between "knowing that" and "knowing how", with epistemology primarily interested in the former. This distinction is recognised linguistically in many languages, though not in modern English except as dialect (see verbs "ken" and "wit" in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary).

I guess in this instance "knowledge that" is what I describe above as "familiar". So what surprises me is that even in an area like philosophy "knowledge that", or maybe our desire for "knowledge that", can play a big role. And it leads me to question whether maybe a lot of what we take to be "knowledge how" is actually "knowledge that". Because it is very familiar to us we think it is more conceptual than it actually is.

The caveat is of course that maybe this is just the way my mind operates, maybe other people approach knowledge differently. Indeed I do think that people have differing tastes for certain "forms" of concepts, and that these can be developed. But I think generally we are more similar than we are different and as such others must suffer from the same failings that I do.


Tom Freeman said...

To add a bit of babbling: there's another view, in keeping with a Wittgensteinian take on 'language-games' and 'forms of life' that 'knowledge that' is really a form of 'knowledge how'.

So grasp of facts means you 'know how' to answer questions on the subject, to acquit yourself well in conversations, etc.

(I think W may well have explcitly made this point himself - it's been a long time since I last read any of his stuff and I can't quite remember.)

Tom P said...

Hola other Tom

hhmm... interesting one. maybe it's because I am very sceptical about the extent of my own knowledge that I think a lot of "knowledge how" is "knowledge that".

I am also very taken by the idea that narratives are a big part of knowledge. Stories are a lot easier to remember (and indeed you can make it easier to remember things you need to by build them into a story). We might become increasingly skilled at knowing when to deploy a narrative (which may have the appearance of analysis, or understanding) but is deploying it in essence more than what a dog does when it sits when told to 'sit' because it know it will get a biscuit.

In appearance the dog 'knows' what the 'sit' command 'means', but I think most of us would agree that it is simply familiar with the format.

I really ought to read more in this area as I find it really intersting (if a bit hard work sometimes!)