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Variation in Reasoning

The case material presented in this chapter can enhance a general model of abduc- tive inference pertaining to dialogical knowledge formation as it emerges in contemporary philosophy and logic. An explanation of variation surfaces when one realizes that both the type of dialogue through which reasoning takes place and the partners with whom it takes place are likely to vary across situations. The prototypical forms that the dialogue of explanation takes in the philosophical literature are those between teacher and student, between judge or prosecutor and witness, and, more recently, between a user and an expert system of artificial intelligence through an interface (Walton, 2004, p. 88). None of these three examples resembles that of a group of foragers determining whether they should move or not.

  • • Forager decision-making on any matter (as exemplified by the San ethnography) differs greatly from the typical teacher-student relationship. As Hoymann (2010) reported, asking inquisitive questions is not encouraged among foragers. Young people are expected to learn by observing and trying or by being told at the appropriate moment, not by prompting adults as in a typical teacher-learner situation.
  • • Communal talk among foragers is also very different from the hierarchical setting of court proceedings in that communal talk among foragers has no fixed leadership roles and no clearly delimited sequences or groups of speakers. Indeed, their communication makes heterodoxy possible and sometimes even encourages it. People in these settings may stick to their decisions and explanations. Because they are supported by others, they also have “the freedom to be wrong at times” (Liebenberg, 1990, p. 162). When hunting, for instance, individuals may maintain rather different views as to what the tracked animal is likely to do next. When it comes to moving camp, anyone may decide not to go with the majority, but there are other options, such as being on one’s own or splitting up the group.
  • • Expert systems today commonly take the form of multiple digital circuits of yes/ no decisions. Research specifically on questions established that San speakers have a preference for not posing yes/no questions (Hoymann, 2010). In contrast to speakers of many other languages, they do not seem not to use requests for confirmation that would press the interlocutor to use yes/no. In contradiction to the most typical form of questioning used in expert systems (Widlok, 2008), they avoid cornering their interlocutors and seem to take care not to infringe the autonomy of others. When they draw on the knowledge of others, it seems very unlike the process of consulting an expert machine.

What the forager cases suggest is that the dialogic nature of reasoning is compatible with a variety of equally competent forms of dialogue: inquisitive, circumspect, digital, open, bilateral, multilateral, unilinear, and multistrand. In fact, I argue that the different practices of dialogue may produce different forms of reasoning and a spectrum of rational outcomes. It is neither one rationality only nor anything goes but rather a limited spectrum of possibilities describable in terms of the dialogical practices in which reasoning takes place.

The form of dialogue is not the only entity that may be broader than what the philosophical literature usually covers; the dialoging partners, too, may have a wider range. Reasoning is usually thought to take place either in an experimental mode between individuals and nature (as in much of the research on infants) or among investigating humans pursuing their own individual decision-making strategies. The aforementioned example of light bulbs that had gone out could include interaction with objects (e.g., shaking the bulb, checking the fuses) or interaction with other subjects (e.g., the neighbors, people in the room, or the electric utilities company). The peculiarity of the case about foragers on the move is that the boundary between nature and other persons is drawn in a particular way and differently from what nonforagers may expect. Personalization does not necessarily mean that natural objects are treated as persons, although such anthropomorphization occurs as well. In many Australian examples, Aborigines do not just talk about the land and its features but may address it directly, as when expressing their respect or even their pity when the land has not been cared for properly. In Aboriginal Australia, a typical indication of a country1 that has not been cared for is that no one has set fire to it and that it should be visited (see Rose, 1995). Cases differ as to what is subject to personalization. It could be animals, various supernatural beings, sacred places or—most commonly—a combination thereof (as in the Australian case of totemic Dreaming beings that involve animals, superhuman creative beings, and places). The main and more general point is not that a certain set of beings (animate or inanimate) can feature as personalized subjects, as partners with whom one may reason. Rather, it seems that anything can become personalized if it is treated as a person, by which I mean that this some-thing is taken not as a thing, an instance of a category, but rather as a unique subject with which one interacts. By contrast, many phases of decision making in present day economics, for instance, entail processes of depersonalization and isolation. The procedures of reasoning are regarded not as a dialogue between persons but either as the interaction between users and computational systems or as abstract systemic processes devoid of personal relations, aspirations, and apprehensions.

Therefore, both the style of the dialogue and the partners in the dialogue may be much more variable than is apparent. Beyond this case of foragers on the move, it may be wise to consider procedural rationality broadly enough to allow inclusion of variations in how procedures unfold as particular forms of dialogue and how partners in this dialogue are personalized or depersonalized. Rationality would thereby cease to be a purely mental phenomenon. Instead, it would reside partially in forms of social communication and interaction as well as in features of the environment that western philosophy and science tend to discount as irrelevant but that can be important triggers or partners in the procedure of reasoning. Why does abductive reasoning describe my ethnographic cases so aptly? I do not think its capacity to do so is coincidental. Rather, it is because this mode of inference is not a stand-alone mode but one that is tied closely to the interacting, corporeal, and relational social beings that we humans are.

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