Tuesday 1 September 2015

Review: Epistemology ... After Roy Harris? (2015)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIII No. 2

Gustavo Fares


After Epistemology, by Roy HarrisPaperback: vi + 187 pp, Publisher: Brightpen, Gamlingay (2009), ISBN: 978 07552 1180 7

I have long maintained a special interest in the field of epistemology – under its ‘established’ conception as the examination of the nature, acquisition and scope of human knowledge.  The death of  Roy Harris, formerly Professor of General Linguistics in the University of Oxford,  in February 2015 recently prompted me to re-read and re-appraise one of his many books, After Epistemology.  I thought a new attempt to read and understand the book could provide me with some insights which had evaded me the first time around.

Harris attempts to undermine the nature and implications of the classical model of language – roughly the idea that each word has a meaning which is either a physical object or a mental concept. and its implications through a In a succession of chapters, each he  providing provides  a critical, and in some cases a hostile, treatment of the views of one or more thinkers who espoused the classical model of language, including Plato and Aristotle, Francis Bacon, and the empiricists Locke, Hume and A.J. Ayer. This culminates in a discussion of Ferdinand de Saussure, who is acknowledged as the earliest thinker to appreciate that the words speakers use to say something do not always or typically function as names, and that it is quite wrong to suppose that each word ‘corresponds’ to a particular thing or type of thing, independently of the context and purpose of the utterance.

A chapter entitled ‘Beyond Saussure’ provides a brief introduction to what Harris calls integrationism, which is a certain approach to linguistics which he himself helped develop. The integrational approach rejects the notions of telementation classical model of linguistic meaning and replaces it by the classical model by the following two theoretical axioms: (1) What constitutes a sign is not given independently of the situation in which it occurs or of its material manifestation in that situation. (2) The value of a sign (i.e. its ‘signification’) is a function of the integrational proficiency which its identification and interpretation presuppose.

The notion of integration, as it applies to the study of signs and their meanings, is not immediately clear. ‘Integration’ suggests the bringing together into a coherent and structured whole a set of diverse elements – but, it may be asked, what are these elements and what constitutes this bringing together? Another work by Harris, his essay ‘Integrationism: A Very Brief Introduction’, offers a clearer explanation of his fundamental idea. He writes here that:
“The term integrational alludes to the recognition that the linguistic sign alone cannot function as the basis of an independent, self-sufficient form of communication, but depends for effectiveness on its integration with non-verbal activities of many different kinds. These include all those [activities] that do not depend in any way on being able to speak or write; i.e. most of the basic activities needed for everyday living (eating, drinking, bodily movement, standing up, lying down, walking, fetching and carrying, avoiding obstacles, using elementary tools, paying attention to objects and happenings in the immediate environment, etc.). This ubiquitous prelinguistic substrate of behaviour is a prerequisite for the emergence and maintenance of verbal communication in all its forms”.
This remark seems to say that a sign, or better, the use of a sign on a particular occasion, takes its meaning or communicative content from its connection to the non-verbal activities which speaker and hearer jointly engage in. If this interpretation is correct, integrational linguistics bears certain similarities to Wittgenstein’s ideas about the way the uses of words are woven into the fabric of various human activities or ‘forms of life’

How do the insights of integrational linguistics bear on our understanding of knowledge? Harris makes the point that what people know is revealed by what they do and say. He writes that “knowledge is a form of creative activity. This involves being able to integrate past, present and future experience in a productive programme directed towards a goal”. Further, that “knowledge is intrinsically goal-directed and commonly involves interaction with others pursuing related goals”. He goes on to say that the integrationist approach to knowledge could be regarded as a version of reliabilism, i.e. the philosophical theory that knowledge is belief formed by procedures found to be reliable in the past.

On this view knowing how to do something is more fundamental than knowing that something is the case. Truth enters the picture only if success or failure in our programmes of goal-directed knowledge depend on it. We have to live in the here-and-now, and this forms the intrinsic context knowledge. What we know, Harris says, may be revised in the light of new discoveries or developments in future, but we can’t wait for humanity’s best judgment.

All this is appears at once familiar and also controversial. It is reminiscent of the American pragmatist tradition with its emphasis on knowledge as inquiry, fallibilism, the practical consequences of holding a belief and so on. However, other philosophers think that the uncertainties of scientific theory and speculation presuppose a base of certainty. Isn’t there a species of knowledge which is certain and indubitable, in that it consists in one’s sensory contact with objects in one’s environment?

In Harris’s view, saying ‘I see a birch tree’ goes beyond sense perception, since such knowledge begins by identifying what is seen, and this involves interpretation. This in turn involves integrating present visual experience with past visual experience and (mysteriously) future experience. This last point seems particularly obscure, if only because integrating words into non-verbal activities is different from integrating present and past and future visual data, and Harris does not provide any explanation of the psychological mechanism of sensory integration.

When I look for my car in a parking lot and in due course I identify it, my memory of what my car looks like – its shape and colour, together with the number plate – comes into play; but this is not all, since my understanding of what a car is, and my belief that the red car at the far end of the parking lot is my car, involve the application of prior knowledge of the function of cars in general and the workings of this particular vehicle. This consideration in no way justifies the claim that my identification of my car is a matter of ‘integrating’ present and past visual data brought under an interpretation which is by its very nature uncertain. If we choose certain other examples, it becomes even more difficult to find Harris’s position remotely plausible. When I see my friend, am I supposed to be making a risky interpretation of what I see? When I hear a tune which is very familiar to me and I identify it as Auld Lang Syne, am I interpreting something in the nature of auditory experiences?

Harris proceeds to argue that philosophers often reduce knowledge (said to be a creative activity) to information (an abstract reification of what is known). Conflating knowledge with information begins with writing, the systematic record-keeping and expansion of archives, and data in a computer memory. “Information is the static, inert residue to which knowledge dwindles when subjected to persistent and systematic reification”. When I know something, I can proceed with any of a number of relevant activities, which might include telling someone about what I know. If I tell someone what I know, I convert knowledge into information.
“That conversion requires a process of communication. Information, unlike knowledge, is always second-hand or third hand or umpteenth-hand. It is available in principle to as many people as are linked in any particular chain of communication.  Knowledge, on the other hand, belongs to the individual or individuals personally engaged in its creation”.
Harris seems to regard knowledge as not just a creative activity, but a mental activity. But what are the distinctive characteristics of this activity? It can’t be simply a psychological event or state like a dull pain in the shoulder which a person may find it impossible to describe accurately. If I know something, I know something, and normally I am able to say what this is, e.g. the birch tree in my garden is taller than the rose bush. The propositional content of an instance of knowledge enters into the character of this knowledge and distinguishes it from other instances of knowledge.

If you and I go on the website of National Train Enquiries, and you find that the first train to London leaves at 6 am and I find that the last train to London leaves at midnight, we get to know different things; if you and I find that there is a fast train at 2 pm, we get to know the same thing. We can transmit the different things we know to others, and this may be said to be information. The person to whom we provide information to may be said, equally well, to have received information from us, or to have got to know certain train times, just as you and I had acquired knowledge or information from the internet. To elevate knowledge above information on the sole grounds that the former involves a creative act and the latter is abstract and second-hand is to put forward a spurious philosophical thesis.

What seems to be most novel in Harris’s is the project of attempting to apply this kind of integrational linguistics to epistemology. Among the consequences of this view is that the words ‘knowledge’, ‘know’ and their cognates don’t have a single meaning each – they do not signify a single concept with a single set of condition for its application – but they are put to different uses in different acts of communication, e.g. to make inquiries, to inform, to acknowledge the validity of an information source. It is a consequence which Harris fails to draw explicitly.

On the contrary, he says in so many words that ‘knowledge’ signifies a creative activity, or possibly a type of mental activity comprising a range of sub-types, without explaining the import of the adjective ‘creative’. It may be observed that this adjective generally carries an implication of commendation, by contrast to ‘routine’ and ‘nothing of special value’ (e.g. a writer with a creative talent in contradistinction to a hack who writes to order). A creative activity takes a stretch of time and an inquiry or period of research may result in a discovery that counts as a contribution to knowledge. But if I see my neighbour and acknowledge him, what is the sense of claiming to be performing a creative activity? If my neighbour gives me a sour look and I interpret it as an expression of displeasure at the fact that I tend to park my car in front of his garden gate, then perhaps my interpretation has something creative about it. But even here, it makes poor sense to suggest that my interpretation of what I see consists in the creative activity of integrating present and past (let alone future) visual experiences.

Harris' project may help persuade philosophers that epistemological inquiry is best carried out without the assumption that ‘knowledge’ signifies a single concept, but on the contrary concentrate on the study of the uses of this word and its cognates in integrative relationship to human activities involved in acts of communication.

But there is still the problem of explaining what is involved in a situation where someone has correctly identified the species of a tree and correctly replied to another person’s inquiry:  'it is a birch tree', by contrast to another situation when the first has, let us say, mistaken the birch tree for a eucalyptus for and so gives false information to the other. In the former case he  knows something, in the latter he does not know what he thinks he does. Yet this crucial question of how we get to know things  - by using our senses and relying on oral and written testimony? - is hardly touched upon in Harris’s account of how language works. The deeper mysteries of language use remain unexplored.

Reviewed by Zenon Stavrinides

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