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Knowledge as Practice: Keeping Information Available

A new approach is thus not only desirable but apparent as soon as one specifies how a pragmatic philosophy of knowledge should proceed. It should not simply identify as true what proves useful (although a notion of use will indeed be important). It should ask how people act in contexts in which the concept of knowledge makes sense. The strategy just outlined has already been employed by Craig (1990), who introduced an additional reflection to make his point: What is called knowledge can be best constructed in contrast to a sociocognitive state of nature without or before it.

If what I shall say is along the right lines, the core concept of knowledge is an outcome of certain very general facts about the human situation; so general, indeed, that one cannot imagine their changing whilst anything we can still recognise as social life persists. Given those facts, and a modicum of self-awareness, the concept will appear; and for the same reasons as caused it to appear, it will then stay (p. 10).

I do not try to be equally transhistorical. But I do subscribe to Craig’s project to develop a “prototypical case” (p. 15) or a social core situation of knowledge use by spelling out what one could not do without it.

I am less satisfied with his answer. Craig (1990) constructs only a very basic original situation of knowledge, and he actively refuses to introduce necessary extensions. The basic problem he refers to is that reliable information is needed from someone else. It is this other person, not some presocial believer, to whom knowledge is typically (and prototypically) ascribed. This construction has two components. The first is unproblematic, but not sufficient: “To put it briefly and roughly, the concept of knowledge is used to flag approved sources of information” (p. 10). What is missing is, again, a specific way to distinguish knowledge from mere information, however approved its sources may be. Craig’s way of solving the problem brings in the second component: Although there are many possible sources of information, only personal informants are said to have and convey knowledge. Once again, the verb to know is employed to make the distinction plausible, but Craig’s text also includes a substantial pragmatic argument: Natural sources of information and even cultural artifacts cannot cooperate with the seeker of information; other members of her or his epistemic community can. The idea is most interestingly illustrated by books. Craig explains both why he does not want to attribute knowledge in this case and why some notion of knowledge still seems appropriate:

Books and the like [are] excellent sources of information, but never, even in the spirit of metaphor, said to know anything.. .Not that specialist knowledge of any kind is required to unravel their secrets—a large part of their point is to provide a perspicuous source, accessible to anyone with a command of the language they use. But they have none of the psychology of the prototypical informant: they have no beliefs, they do not act, they are not felt to co-operate with us, and they cannot empathise with us so as to anticipate our purposes. Besides, they have a special place amongst the sources of information: they are the evidence laid down by creatures that are prototypical informants precisely as the most perspicuous vehicle of their information. (p. 38)

This description is fine, but Craig (1990) seems to overlook an obvious conse- quence—the human practice of knowledge may require both personal informants and storage media like books. The result is that Craig’s prototype adds nothing substantial to the preconception of knowledge that has already emerged in social science accounts. He, too, could have defined knowledge as information (processed in human culture), and he may not even be able to give a satisfying account of culture. At root, an even vaguer summary seems adequate: “The human form of life demands good information, and the reliable flow of information. The concept of knowledge, along with related concepts, serves those needs” (Greco, 2009, p. 320).

This summary includes a minor mistake but it hints at a basic problem. Craig probably did not mix up the concept of knowledge with the practical structures it designates, but his account seems to lack important practical distinctions. In order to see what is lacking, one only has to ask whether the word flow applies equally well to both knowledge and information. As far as I see, both have different practical characteristics in this respect. Whereas information is typically transferred (and received as something new), knowledge is usually kept available over time. For example, one speaks of a flow of information when talking about communication technology but says that knowledge is kept in books and assembled in libraries. Even the information age could produce the sentence, “I store my knowledge in my friends.” It goes without saying that these formulations may all only be manners of speaking and that society has also developed huge infrastructures for storing potential information or data. But the idea that it is an essential feature of knowledge to be kept available for future use is consistent with many other characteristics discussed so far in this chapter: its higher degree of organization, its versatile employability, even the semantic connection between knowledge and truth. Above all, I think this idea gives a specific answer to Craig’s question of why there is occasion to apply the concept knowledge. It is because there are established practices of keeping correct beliefs or information available over time so that people can ask informants, use cultural sources of information, or just resort to their own mnemonic capacities when necessary.

Before I try and condense these initial reflections into a definition, I would like to offer my own footnote to Plato, who expressed similar intuitions about knowledge. When in Meno the question is asked what makes knowledge more valuable than mere true opinion, the answer is that it will not run away; reasons are ties that keep it fixed in the soul (Meno, 98a). One of Plato’s own examples helps show how this image relates to the proposed account. If someone just happens to have a true opinion about the way to Larissa, she can give me the right information. But if that person really knows about it (or, even better, about the location of the city), she will be a steady, reliable informant in this respect. This interlocutor will, for instance, first check whether the place from which I set out is near Athens or near Thessaloniki, then think about roads going northwards or southwards from there, and so on. My informant may, in non-Platonic spirit, even use a map in order to refresh her knowledge or, as one might also say, have recourse to the cultural knowledge laid down in maps and the like.

Which definition can be drawn from this account? First, one needs basic elements such as the correct, useful opinions, beliefs, statements, or indications that figure in the given examples. As most examined contemporary theories suggest, information is an adequate term for grasping their common core. In other words, the material of knowledge consists of transferable patterns that enable one to tell something about something in the world or that make a difference for operations of diverse systems in a changing environment. These patterns may be sentences explaining a travel route, a bee dance giving directions for collecting pollen, or even substances transmitting signals in an organism. The more exclusively human character of knowledge originates, second, when such information is assembled, integrated into a given framework, fixated, and stored for future use (practical or epistemic). None of these operations is redundant, but for the sake of brevity, integration into frameworks and fixation can be taken as implied in the exercise of assembly and structured storage. Most important, all operations are part of one process. They interact in the way information is organized, or reorganized, as a permanently available structure of orientation. Many versions of this interaction are conceivable. Assembling often includes generalizing and subsuming. Both operations usually occur within established logical or topical hierarchies. Fixation, too, involves ordering and aims at facilitating accessibility. Only where such organization takes place do books, experts, and universities, and not merely repositories or hard drives, have a role to play. Together, these considerations are sufficient for venturing a definition of knowledge:

Knowledge is information in the condition of being assembled and kept available for future use.

As a definition offered in pragmatic spirit, this formulation is open to empirical specification and maybe even substantial amendment. I immediately note the main variable aspects, indicating where I take them to be strengths and where I think additional reflection is needed. [1]

organization of permanently available information can be studied is, obviously, the institution of science.

  • 3. A less visible openness is implied in the perspective from which the definitional terms are chosen. As the notion of information exemplifies, they should work from the inside perspective of cultural participants as well as from an external focus on observable operations and causal relationships. The terms assemble, keep available, and use certainly have a participant bias—but they are nearly neutral, allowing for phenomenological, hermeneutic, semantic, and objectivist specification.
  • 4. Finally, the definition does not systematically include the idea that a language community takes knowledge per se to be true. It only suggests why people do so: Information that is kept available for future use is deemed worthy of being kept. What counts as knowledge, not just as guess, opinion, belief, or conviction in intersubjective settings is understandably a stock of preserved, cultivated, proven, and tested insights and orientations.[2] Whether we—individuals, groups, cultures—are right to rely on it is a different question. In some cases we have very reliable clues, sometimes whole cultures turn out to be wrong. Any further inquiry would also have to see whether it is really the same kind of reliance in which they may be wrong. Perhaps the key words episteme, scientia, and knowledge, or even knowledge, savoir, and Wissen, do not designate the same thing.

The last reflection deserves further comment; it brings up problems of relativism. To avoid them, one could add that the information kept available for future use has to be correct, or reliable, or even organized as a true account of reality. Yet this criterion would force strong presuppositions into a mere definition. I prefer to leave even this consideration open by referring to the different possible views indicated in point 2, above. A deeper analysis from the participant perspective would have to make sense of several conflicting facts: that people cease to treat beliefs and statements as knowledge when they prove to be untrue, whereas people also know they risk error when they state or believe anything at all; that they disagree with the truth procedures of other cultures and times and yet would not deny that those cultures had knowledge; and so forth. Solutions may be either relativistic or objectivistic. For research in which the observer perspective predominates, however, it is sufficient to know what counts and functions as knowledge (or something very similar) in different sociocultural contexts. Researchers in social science (and epistemology) cannot avoid coming back to their own life world, but they do not need to become mired in efforts to make it transparent. Moreover, only reaching beyond the horizon of one’s inherited language and practices may show just how much relativism is possible.

The proposed conceptual philosophical reflection thus allows me to come back to issues of sociocultural enquiry. This is precisely the desired effect. Yet the question remains whether a modestly innovative, pragmatic, philosophical definition of knowledge changes anything for the empirical disciplines.

  • [1] The most obvious and voluntary openness of the proposed definition is that itdoes not specify media of knowledge. Information may be assembled and keptavailable in the minds of people, in cultural artifacts, and in social organizations.One can even argue that artifacts and social cooperation are a necessary part ofthe knowledge process, for people generally keep information available throughsymbols. (The person who knows that she put something in the fridge thus turnsout to be a weak case, comparable to a squirrel that “knows” where it put thehazelnut.) This openness about media gives space for research on knowledgestructures in the social sciences and humanities. The only restriction is that thepractice of knowledge implies potential users of information. 2. What is also left open is the way in which information is actually organized, orhow assembling, fixating, and keeping available work together. Maybe furtherreflection could carve out a clear functional scheme in this regard (e.g., a schemeoriented to the telos of availability), but I rather think that there are culturally andhistorically varying possibilities. One paradigmatic context where the concrete
  • [2] A stronger formulation would be that information is filtered before it is kept: “Knowledge.. .is theconsequence of a filtering process; the process of filtering.. .facts through the ethical system or theintellectual system, or the system of scholarship.. .of the individual who receives it” (Shera, 1970,p. 96).
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