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Friday, October 26, 2007

proximity and unknown knowledge

There are known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns (a nearly infinite set) and unknown knowns. To restate, there are things you know you know, things you know you don't know, things you don't know that you don't know and things you don't know that you know. When I consider the relationship between proximity and knowledge, the wily unknown knowns inevitably start revealing themselves.

Where do unknown knowns show up? Remember the first time you went to a foreign country? When you're in a foreign country you often know the locals know something that you don't know that they don't know they know. Often the unknown knowns relate to non-verbal things or subtleties in language.

Even in England (we recently visited for the first time), where people speak our same language, the use of particular words and the way people say things is quite different. The Americans who have been there for a while know there were things that took a while to get used to when they first arrrived in the UK but often they don't even know what specifically to tell us as first time visitors. They picked up unknown knowledge and don't know how to articulate it but they do know how to use it. There are also known knowns that people might have and relate to you like "oh, a bap is a roll" when the girl at the counter asks if I want a bap or a toastie (what's with the constant use of the diminutive over there, anyhow?). But along with the knowledge they're aware of, there's a whole set of knowledge (in this case cultural) they're unaware of that they use every day. Although some knowledge might be passed explicitly (known knowledge), unknown knowledge is usually passed implicitly and a required ingredient for this passing of knowledge through experience is proximity. How's this for a formula:
proximity + time + a proper human = unknown knowledge
Note: I would say "a properly functioning human brain" but what's a brain without a human attached?

So... if you pick up a book about Africa you might get a lot of known knowledge but if you want unknown knowledge about Africa you probably need to go there.

Confused yet?

PS1 - I usually like to write about a slightly different class of topics -- those things you think you know but you don't know (falsely perceived known knowns) but I know you're all tired of hearing that sort of discussion from me and we all know how it goes.

PS2 - yes I'm having too much fun with language at the expense of clarity

PS3 - don't try to track down unknown knowns unless you intend to make the set extinct

PS4 - are there other, better arguments to be made about why we expect our "experts" on Africa or the Middle East to have actually spent some time in those places? But even there I guess it isn't so often a problem with the expert as much as it is with the decision maker (dilbert).

PS5 - Nods to Donald Rumsfeld here btw ;)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

two important philosophical questions

Maybe the task of philosophy is not to answer philosophical questions as much as it is to figure out the right questions to pose. Asking the questions gets me focused on the area of thought I'm concerned with and good dialog can contribute to personal progress. With that in mind, here are the questions:
"What is the relationship between proximity and knowledge?"

"What is the relationship between risk and the meaningful life?"
I'm planning to dedicate some time to each question and ask some friends to do the same. Some thoughts (from a recent conversation) on the first question:
  • proximity can relate to time, place, causation, etc.
  • globalization seems to push us into a predicament where we're often making decisions without proximal knowledge
  • can adopting a pre-packaged worldview be a means of avoiding seeking proximal knowledge?
  • might we judge the truth/usefulness of a worldview based on the extent to which it advocates seeking proximal knowledge?
  • what are some texts which address this question in one way or another (e.g. Hume's argument against miracles, conservationists advocating "buy local")
  • do particular political points of view advocate proximal knowledge? States' rights? No child left behind?
  • the legal system takes a point of view on this topic, is it fair?
  • are there types of knowledge that have no relationship to proximity?
on the second question:
  • people have different definitions of risk and meaning
  • as humans we're fragile but it's hard to accomplish much in life without risk
  • better to live deliberately than to be driven by fear
  • to live at all is to take some risks, but a lot of these aren't perceived
  • how is our perception of risk formed by society/culture/religion?
Those are just to get ideas flowing, we're all pretty busy at the moment so this conversation may take place over a number of months. Any direction you want to go with an answer I think would be worth while.

Other thoughts?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Nussbaum's ethical theory

The previous post reminded me of this Nussbaum quote. Is this in line with Rawls? I guess they aren't quite attempting to answer the same questions.

The conception of ethical theory on which I rely, as I base this philosophical inquiry on the exegesis of historical texts, is, roughly, an Aristotelian one [...] It holds that ethical theorizing proceeds by way of a reflective dialogue between the intuitions and beliefs of the interlocutor, or reader, and a series of complex ethical conceptions, presented for exploration. (This series, as Aristotle puts it, should ideally include the views of both 'the many' and 'the wise'.) Such an inquiry cannot get started without readers or interlocutors who are already brought up as people of a certain sort. Its aim is to arrive at an account of the values and judgements of people who already have definite attachements and intuitions; these must, ultimately, be the material of the inquiry. And yet this does not mean that the outcome of the inquiry will be a mere repetition of the account of his or her view that the reader would have given at the start. For, as Aristotle stresses (and as Socrates showed before him), most people, when asked to generalize, make claims that are false to the complexity and the content of their actual beliefs. They need to learn what they really think. When, through work on the alternatives and through dialog with one another, they have arrived at a harmonious adjustment of their beliefs, both singly and in community with one another, this will be the ethical truth, on the Aristotelian understanding of truth: a truth that is anthropocentric, but not relativistic.* (In practice the search for truth is rarely complete or thorough enough; so the resulting view will just be the best current candidate for truth.) To bridge the gap between belief and theory, it is frequently valuable to work from texts, leading the interlocutor through an elucidation and assessment of someone else's complex position – or, better, of several alternative positions – on the problem in question. This gives a degree of detachment from our theoretical prejudices; and if we make our selection of texts carefully enough we can hope to have explored the major alternatives.

*[footnote from text] Both Aristotle and Socrates believe that the best articulation of each individuals internal system of beliefs will also be an account shared by all individuals who are capable of seriously pursuing the search for truth. This is so because they believe that the outstanding obstacles to communal agreement are deficiencies in judgment and reflection; if we are each led singly through the best procedures of practical choice, we will turn out to agree on the most important matters, in ethics as in science. I believe that this position is substantially correct. Although I shall not argue directly for it here, examples of the method at work and further discussions of the method as Aristotle defends it should show its force. Difficulties arising from disagreement concerning 'the best procedures of practical choice' and the threat of circularity these generate are discussed further in chapters 5 and 10. [emphasis my own]

Nussbaum, Martha C. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tradgedy and Philosophy. New York: Cambridge UP, 1986. 10-11.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

humanism and fragmentation

In my view, a secular state needs a humanist basis. Yes, that means that I think secular humanist culture should be privileged in liberal democracy (or in what I would prefer, social democracy) but not religion. The reason is that it can encompass religious lives, whereas religious culture cannot do the same for secularism and atheism. Humanism, with its Renaissance origins (among thinkers who were mostly religious in some way), fostered pluralism by legitimizing multiple authorities, leading people to evaluate for themselves, to see varied points of view, not just to accept a last word from one authority. These are prerequisites of citizenship in a free, pluralistic society – a society that assumes its members are grown-ups and can make choices about different options in life—secular, religious, or some mix—and then also can legitimately change their minds.

But pluralism, radicalized, can also create a sense that nothing unites or even links people; that linkage is essential for citizens in a democratic society. I think that this problem of fragmentation can be offset by an amended version of what John Rawls, the American philosopher, called “public reason.” Democratic debate must finally address “citizens as citizens.” I think citizens must be able to express arguments on the basis of their own particularities—whether political, cultural, religious—but there must be a point at which they translate their deliberations and claims into a common political language. (Rawls thought to separate public reason and secular reason, but I would demur on that).
- Mitchell Cohen (interview in Dissent Magazine)

update 10/14/2007

A loosely related discussion, specifically on Raymond Geuss's criticisms of Rawls is on Leiter Reports today. As someone else in the comments mentioned, I don't think the two approaches need be mutually exclusive and I'm skeptical of criticisms which don't tend to start from a generous reading. In this case specifically it sounds like Geuss has an issue with Rawls's starting point and might be thereby missing out on other positives. But what do I know, I've read neither Rawls's Theory of Justice nor Geuss's Outside Ethics in whole.

It is nice to hear something that disagrees with Rawls for a change. Both the discussion on Leiter's blog and Cohen's interview make me wonder which are the best vantage points to make decisions about societal justice. The more abstract viewpoints do seem to be disingenuous in a sense but they still seem to have a moderating effect (which I think is usually a positive thing). Guess's quote "After all, a major danger in using highly abstractive methods in political philosophy is that one will succeed merely in generalizing one's own local prejudices and repackaging them as demands of reason." pairs nicely with what Cohen said in the quote above... "I think citizens must be able to express arguments on the basis of their own particularities." Cohen recognizes a similar issue but sees his view as in conjunction with rather than in opposition to Rawls.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

"extreme motivation"

This blog post offers some "extreme" motivation to start working out and keep your exercise habit. I was facing a similar problem recently and decided to do something genuinely extreme. I sold my car. Now anytime I need to go somewhere I can either take the bus, walk, or ride my bike. introPLAY -- competing with friends -- helps as well.