A Knowledge Problem

Pinned on iSchool professor Steve Sawyer’s office door: 

“Showing that scientific demonstration is basically only ritual, that the supposedly universal subject of knowledge is really only an individual historically qualified according to certain modality of the production of truth; putting what is given as the truth of observation or demonstration back on the basis of rituals, of the qualifications of the knowing individual, of the truth-event system, is what I would call the archaeology of knowledge.”

-Michel Foucault (Psychiatric Power, 1973-1974).


I know that World War Two ended in 1978.

I know that gasoline and a lighter are safe for my 4 year old to play with.

I know that nightshade is edible.

…I have knowledge.

As a librarian, is this the *kind* of knowledge we want to promote?

One can believe a false proposition (I believe that area 51 exists), but every sane person should agree that knowledge has a higher criteria than that. Conflating belief and knowledge is an easy mistake to make, but a dangerous one, as a false belief might lead to your untimely death and knowing may get you some grant money.

Now, knowledge need not be infallible. I argue for raising the bar for the criteria of knowledge for purely practical reasons.

Lane Wilkinson writes of the 1) why some librarians are radical constructivists (they are reacting to a time when the scientific community’s insistence on one, objective, universal truth did harm to many people, namely, minorities and 2) how this conception of knowledge is dangerous. He writes in his blog Sense and Reference:

What really happens if constructionist theory is adopted as the foundation for library science? Would we achieve the liberatory results we so desire? Quite the contrary. Constructionist epistemology is no cure for librarianship, it is a cancer.

I do not think that even constructivists want to say that we all adopt the status quo. Ethical progress is possible because the scientific community, individuals, and educators continuously discover/create (objective/constructive perspectives, respectively) increasingly coherent views of the world. When we run into a small-scale or large sclae contradiction, we revise our beliefs to accommodate that contradiction. It is only possible to declare knowledge in the  and retrospectively *now.* Wearing our philosopher hat’s we  judge from a particular world view. It is a retrospective view.

We might look back and say: we did not know, with 100% certainty that scientific laws gravity that gravity  and frankly, it is just plain useful to declare stronger or weaker levels of justification.

So what? You should care about declaring things true and false. Librarians can say some things have more evidence in their favor. The more justification we have, the closer to *true* we can claim to be.

Perhaps it would appease both the analytic philosophers and the constructivist librarians (and others) to say that truth and knowledge are ideals, perhaps unattainable ideals. We use these words as because convenience demands it.

“Do you know the time?”
“Yes, it is 5pm.”

“Do you know if penguins can fly? ”
“I do know that: I know that there have been no reports of penguin flight.”

We make claims to knowledge in everyday speech. What we really are saying is a) I have a very strong suspicion combined with overwhelming evidence fortissimo justification that it is 5pm (my watch is a reliable mechanism) and every National Geographic novel, encounter with penguins, and reputable source on penguins has said: nope. No can fly. Death if jump off cliff.

But we need the notion of knowledge. For everyday use. Not to justify having libraries, though declaring truth does that.  It is a luxury to not play loose with quick and dirty with concepts, you spoiled philosophers.

“Nothing is true, nothing is false.” That declaration is self-refuting because making a statement  claims a level of corresponding with the world.



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