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Perspective on Knowledge: The we of knowledge

This article appears in the issue January 2016, [Volume 25, Issue 1]

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I gave a talk recently on how our idea of the future is changing. We’re beginning to think that the future isn’t like blah blah blah but instead is going to be more like yadda yadda yadda. We’re beginning to see through whatever, and we’re coming to appreciate the truth of something else. The usual opining and bloviating.

It went fine until a woman asked at the end, “So, who is this ‘we’?”

Who are we?

I apologized and said that I usually begin a talk by scoping it to the West, and probably to America. But her question was more probing than that. I have not done fieldwork to see what people across economic, gender, age and racial lines think about my topic, so I should not be mindlessly clustering them into a single Western “we.” Don’t I ultimately mean by “we” people who are like me—aging, over-educated white men with good Internet access and too much time on their hands?

Yes. This is a weakness of much of what I write and a weakness of much of what we all read, think and say. We should be aware of it and try to counteract it. But we cannot avoid it entirely. It’s only as a “we” that we can make sense of our world—even while we need to use methodologies that help us see beyond our own horizons.

As a writer I am essentially a phenomenologist—a six-syllable rationalization. Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that wants to help people see free of at least some of their baked-in assumptions. It’s like seeing, say, a Rothko painting without layering onto it theories about what art is supposed to do or what you’ve read about Rothko’s theory of color. Instead you try to see it as what it is.

But, of course, you can’t. For one thing, because it’s framed and hung, you already know it’s an artwork and not, say, a paint spill or wallpaper. You probably know it’s valuable and esteemed. You might well know that it was painted after Picasso and Jackson Pollock, and you know that Rothko knew the work of those painters. You can’t ever see something without some prior understanding of it. It just doesn’t happen. Things show themselves to us in light of our historical, cultural and linguistic situations.

So, suppose I were to say that the point of our interest in knowledge is not knowledge but understanding, and then I fill up a column based on that idea. (If that sounds familiar it’s because I wrote a column about that recently.) This is not the sort of statement I can support with facts and stats. So, suppose it doesn’t sit right with you. I have little recourse. It’s much like my pointing to the Rothko and saying, “You see how the colors complement each other in their hue but clash in their intensity, bringing a feeling of creative stress?” and you reply, “Actually, no I don’t. I see a failed harmony.” I can maybe try to explain it differently, but if you don’t see it, you don’t see it—and I, likewise, just don’t see what you’re pointing to.

There is always an implicit “we” in such conversations. We both care enough about modern art to stand in front of a Rothko. We’re speaking the same language. We share some basic ideas about what it means to talk about an artwork. We may share important cultural, educational, gendered, ethnic and demographic qualities. Even strangers in a museum need to be a “we” if they’re going to talk.

The trap of we

But that “we” can trap us within what we have in common: If you and I agree, that might close off other ways of seeing the painting. And if I point to the world in some way and you just don’t see it—whether it’s the aesthetics of a painting or a writer’s pronouncement that “We’re coming to understand the future as X”—we have little recourse.

For writers, the danger is more acute. The people who persist in reading

what I write are a self-selected group who see things the way I see them, at least to some extent. They nod, I feel affirmed, and so we’ve constructed an artificial “we” that may have nothing to do with people who see the world differently. Writing attracts such we’s. In that one-way conversation, it is too easy to forget that we are never fully We.

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