17 April 1998
It's ten days since I last worked on my notebook, and I'm in danger of losing the thread of the argument. Not lack of enthusiasm or ideas, just lack of time. It might surprise the reader to know that I have a life outside philosophy, a wife and family. Well, I'm not here to talk about my personal life. It's not that kind of notebook!
We've been looking at the concept of ignorance, as a way-in to the investigation of knowledge, or rather learning (2 April, 7 April, 27 March). I started off determined not to use the term 'knowledge' if I could possibly help it. I wanted to see how far it is possible to do without that problematic term and still talk about issues that matter (13 March, 11 March). In that way I hoped to avoid the lure of the traditional problem of scepticism, which starts of seeking a consistent definition of the term 'knowledge', only to discover that nothing we believe meets the standard which the definition sets. I also briefly mentioned the importance of the social context (31 March), something we shall return to later. It is a major piece of the jig-saw.
We also tried different approaches to the relation between practical and theoretical knowledge, emphasising the 'primacy of the practical' (25 March, 23 March, 20 March, 19 March). The most significant idea here was the kind of sensitivity to relevant information shown by someone actively engaged in a practical activity (17 March). Learning is 'getting into the groove' and also 'being in the groove', although these do not always amount to the same thing.
A lot could be said about sensitivity and ignorance. Being insensitive to what the situation demands is a particularly striking form of ignorance. The kind of ignorance sometimes displayed by someone who has too much 'learning', who's got the theory 'taped' but lacks the ability to apply it.
Sometimes, a person just can't help being physically clumsy. That is a kind of incorrigible ignorance, on our definition. If you've got clumsy feet, you'll never learn to dance well. If you've clumsy hands, you'll never be a good motorcycle mechanic. There are some people who will never get into the groove, no matter how hard they try. A jazz critic might have ever so sensitive ears, the experience and discernment to sort out the good from the bad, the great from the not-so great, the swinging from the unswinging, even the enviable practical ability to write trenchantly and poetically about the love of their life and still be quite incapable of doing the thing itself. I'm not talking here about inability to learn an instrument. Let's say on top of all this our critic is an excellent classical pianist. When it comes to playing jazz, the critic's attempts sound clumsy and forced. (By contrast, as I might have mentioned, I don't think you can be a good philosophical critic but a bad philosopher though I am prepared to be proved wrong about this.)
What I want to do now is explore the consequences of these observations for what is arguably the central component of epistemology: the theory of perception.
Here is a radical theory of perception that a philosopher concerned to emphasize the primacy of the practical might be tempted to hold. The point of the theory can be seen if one first looks at the traditional view, where theoretical knowledge is taken as the 'central paradigm' (23 March).
On the traditional view, we first gain information about the external world through our faculties of 'distance perception', primarily sight but also to a lesser extent sound and smell. The view has been called the epistemology of the passive observer because it seems to imply that you could be a disembodied spirit (a non-physical being that magically possessed the faculty of vision) and still acquire knowledge of the world. What this knowledge consisted in would be a theory couched in terms whose content was ultimately given in terms of their relation to experience. The word 'chair', on this view, is a ground-level term embodying the theory that if you look away and look back you'll see the same thing again, if you walk around it you'll get such-and-such different perspectives etc. Perhaps there would also be stuff about the kinds of beings that have a use for chairs. (The fact that a disembodied spirit would never need to sit on a chair is irrelevant.) 'Magnetism', or 'gene' are higher-level, more theoretical terms whose relation to experience is rather more complicated. And so on for all the cases between, and beyond.
I do think that a lot of philosophers are attracted to this view, even those who reject the model of the passive observer. Sometimes, you can reject a certain philosophical view, but your rejection doesn't go deep enough.
Anyway, the radical idea is that the way to overcome the passive observer view is simply to deny the necessity of perception altogether! It seems crazy, but it can be presented in a way that seems quite plausible. Take someone who is blind. That doesn't stop them knowing about the objects we can see. Remove the sense of hearing, the ability to detect smell, even our highly sensitive ability to discriminate different kinds of surfaces by touch. It is a pitiable state to be in, to be sure, but one might argue that the subject of our imaginary experiment could still (in theory!) be given the appropriate prosthetic devices to make up for these deficiencies.
Thus, even with thick mittens on, for example, you can tell without looking whether you have your hands on a sphere or a cube, through what physiologists term 'proprioceptive feedback'. In principle, therefore, all you need to make up for the lack of vision is a device that reproduces a distant scene in the form of a sufficiently chunky physical model that you can feel your way around. (Imagine that the model changes its shape in response to changes in the presented scene, relayed back to the control box via two widely spaced video cameras. It's a bit like a solid version of a hologram, or rather holo-video.)
There is a saying, 'In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king'. It might not be much fun relying on prosthetics, but the first of our eye-less, ear-less, nose-less aliens to acquire the modelling device would be very grateful for it indeed. Still (and this is the main point to note) no distance perception would be taking place. The alien would be directly aware of the features of the model through acting upon it feeling it up with its 'mitten-like' hands and would then consciously infer how things were in the distant scene that the model represented, including how the scene would appear to a being that possessed sight.
The question is, Is this description coherent? Are the distance perception senses of sight, hearing etc. just a luxury so far as learning about the physical world is concerned? I myself have serious doubts about this. But that is something we shall have to leave until next time!