Overview, June 2002

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The Following is a Brief Statement of Purpose Written for a friend and academic in the Spring of 2002


You asked for me to give you a synopsis of the current direction of my work. It centers on reconceptualizing epistemology. Many have been the criticisms of epistemology stemming usually from the existing nowhere dualism inherent in the current formulation, and now much good work in augmenting the traditional foundational model such as the feminist epistemologists’ invocations of embodiment and situatedness has taken place, but I would like to think that my focus is toward a re-oriented approach to knowledge.

The easiest and most direct picture that I often use to invoke a different possible direction for epistemology is the radical claim that everything we know is part of ourselves and that thinking is an extended form of eating and digesting to this enlarged body of relations that is each of our personal incorporations of the world. Equally, knowing is not copying reality into an internal bank of ideas but is a joining by enlargement or by spreading relationships. One could say that we “know the universe” by being an organism that has grown out into the universe.

Let me now give a narrower albeit brief overview of such a direction for epistemology. Roughly, my work is interested in a shift in epistemology from ideal-based systems to biologically based systems. This trend has started but has not nearly opened up the possibilities nor the social consequences. Formally this trend is seen within philosophy as the exploration of naturalism in epistemology where foundationalism is yielding to such currents as cognitive science. As such the trend from classical epistemology to cog sci is generally considered somewhat of a defeat for humans and for the heritage of reason since the territory of reason itself is considered to be giving into the mere machinations of matter. The new trend is seen to have little normative value in the classic sense of epistemology as an informer of truth statements and to be a kind of mopping up action for the mechanistic view in tracing how biological mechanisms roughly approximate reason with error-overcoming systems.

My bet is just the opposite. It is that this ceding of reason to biological machinations and processes is not a defeat for the glorious side of the human endowment but only the defeat of an impoverished view of knowledge as ideal concepts. And, it is an opening to a much richer terrain of knowledge sustained by a vast array of specific patterns that each human and organism is continually developing with features of their environments. In this view reason is not the apex of a fragile, error prone chain of machinery but is a robust subset of a very large array of feedback loops of all sorts and on many scales. The very large array can be considered as the complete set of relationships that each of us has with the world from memories, idiosyncratic perceptual filters, aesthetic preferences, situational scripts, relative weights and so specifically on. It is a very large set of overlapping, idiosyncratic relationships formed by each and summed over all of us in all our erroneous and life-historically rich ways. Now each of these relationships is a fact on its own before any social or educational normative machinery gets involved. The whole array could only conceivably be catalogued by imagining an army of therapist-anthropologists and neuroscientists listing all memory and perceptual facts of each person on the planet. “The very large array” should also include what is known from a biological angle about the relations of individual organisms to their environment. Each organism has the external relationships of developmental cues, perceptual regularities, niche regularities, group bonds and the specifically developed manifestations of each aspect of these.
Now in the usual view of reason this large array of individual specifics is merely a huge source of noise. The problem is that by removing this array of specificities to build the dialogues of reason as a commerce of well-shaped categories we end up having to socially recover it later for such things as the meaning of life or the “little things that make life worth living” or the sources of therapeutic insight into our personal cares or the nuances of communication. My contention is that many social institutions and practices are hurt by this rush to normative machinery and would be greatly improved by going directly through the initial idiosyncratic ground while borrowing the conceptual regularities of reason.

Think of the way communication proceeds today. Pragmatic communication studies reveal how communication situations are infused with a complex underlayer of role negotiations, body languages, conceptual stretchings of common meanings and so forth before we begin distinguishing between communication as goal-oriented activity and an activity of social pleasure. Yet, communication theories routinely invoke grammar, vocabularies, clarity and trafficking in truth–the normative dimension. Meanwhile, the results of communication in our society are often a shambles of anger, misunderstanding, misinformation and withdrawal. The alternative to this self-defeating two step of escape to reason (Enlightenment) and then escape from the reciprocal social battering of reason (Freud and aftermath, e.g. Deborah Tannen) is to switch our focus from the foreground of concepts to the background of context. When context is considered not as noise but as the rich, idiosyncratic actual state of each of us, then communication is the interaction of these specific contexts that begin and end in differences even when negotiating on the stage of commonality. The point is that if idiosyncracies are wished away and communication proceeds directly through the idealized territory of samenesses–meaning, truth, rightness, codes, then there is a tendency for actual people to be either brutalized toward conformity or toward social withdrawal. On the other hand, if the idiosyncratic richness of knowledge is foregrounded more relative to the ideal common concepts, then human interactions are fostered that are richer for those involved from the beginning without giving up the individuals’ access to the unified concepts. My hope is that studies of actual knowledge relationships will foreground this complex field more clearly and allow us to see better how we make social (and material) ecologies within it.

Parallel to this search to demonstrate how knowledge functions as an ecology of use agreements in a very large array of specific social interactions I am also interested in a larger inquiry about the even larger array of inter-organism relations. This contemplates a biological study of external processes of organisms. My contention is that just as epistemology has collapsed social diversity into well-labeled concepts from well delineated human agents so has biology treated organisms with similar reification by focusing too heavily on primary boundaries such as the skin. It is difficult to shift from the agent-in-the-world-with-some-perceptions/knowledge-traffic perspective, but I will try.

Stuart Kauffman in his latest book “Investigations” moves the theory of organisms along from the previous conjecture among the complexicologists that organisms are “collectively autocatalytic wholes” or closures of autocatalytic cycles to a next step emphasizing not just internal consistency and reproducibility but the harnessing of external energy by defining an autonomous agent as “an autocatalytic system able to reproduce and able to perform one or more thermodynamic work cycles.” He goes on to claim that “the autonomous agent must be an open thermodynamic system driven by outside sources of matter or energy–hence ‘food’–and the continual driving of the system by such ‘food’ holds the system away from equilibrium.” Now such harvesting of energy determines ways of earning a living among organisms, and these ways are further differentiated not only by energy sources but by the refinements in harvesting. Chief among these are feedback loops dedicated to the alignment for harvesting energy as in such processes as direction of readiness to receive energy or as pursuit. Now switching to my takeoff from his work, my supposition is that this alignment functionality contains the organism-boundary-crossing sources of knowledge where regularities and responsivities are utilized. External relationships are many, subtle and not trivial.

When one conceptually distinguishes within an organism between energy harvesting cycles and alignment processes, then it stands out how much evolution (at least in the animal kingdom) has developed refinements in alignment processes relative to the more modest gains in types of energy processes. For crude example, a cat can be considered to dedicate possibly half of its processual networks to alignment processes (motion, perception, coordination) as opposed to energy harvesting or reproduction. The alignment processes are closed loops acting across the presumed usual physical boundary of the organism and force the conception of an organism as including all these cross boundary processes so that “inside” is a continuum of energy engulfment. (Hierarchy Theory provides a more robust theory of boundaries by defining surfaces by the number of media that are deflected at certain points and to certain degrees.) Organisms are not just incorporating energy as food but also alignment relationships themselves are consumed to transform the alignment context in what is usually referred to as learning. In the vernacular and to repeat the earlier metaphor, knowledge as alignment novelty is readily conceived as “food” (for thought) that we digest into new ideas or really new selves. In the long view and continuing the thread from Kauffman and my supposition above, it would seem that the step humans took in the evolution of alignment processes is a step of closure of external relational circuits where the environmental nodes of alignment processes (i.e. things) became parts of loops to other nodes.

The advantages of this type of epistemology, in a wide view, are more for social concerns while retaining technical accuracy of arbitrary degree. In a sense it cuts through the realism vs. constructivism debate by acknowledging that knowledge as union is both. In turn the power of the social advantages stem from the shift in focus from knowledge quantum conquests by acquisition to actual acts of knowing where appropriation is an act of going to the object and of creating by enlarging the world of relationships. Instead of the disappearing subject/everywhere knower in a materialist universe, a rich overlay of webs of relationships generated by life is treated as a generated addition.

More generally, I am interested in many questions stemming from such an epistemology such as the border between ecology and economics where values are created or the appreciation of culture(s) and how we enact/are embedded in them. The results so far are very exciting. Enough. Hopefully this gives some impression and an opening to further talk.


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Copyright © 2001 Jake Patrick Keenan