Knower-known relations (alien and intimate knowledge)

knower knownThe problem of access that is central to the critique of correlationism depends on the epistemological gap between knower and known. This gap, almost inherent to and therefore inevitably inextricable from the concept of knowledge itself, depends upon the sense of the known as a product alien from the producer. That which I know is known in so far as it does not depend on me. I own the known but as something outside myself that I have access to, in the form of property rights, in the same way I have – or can have – access to land. I have certain rights to the known, it seems, providing I can fulfill criteria of ownership. For example, it might be said that I can know something in so far as I possess a belief that is true about the world together with a justification for the belief. I can then have my belief checked, the justification validated and if my papers are in order I can demand recognition and communication rights so that this knowledge is acknowledged. Yet this whole concept of the known as a product outside myself that I own, which underpins the problems of access, is a wholly bizarre and curious concept of knowledge. It exists not as a concept of knowledge but as a means of justified exchange value. It exists to enable rights of recognition but the rights of recognition assume a lack of recognition as their basic starting point. The whole story of knowledge as a product is a story of dispossession, a story of enclosure. It represents a naturalisation of a shift in power from inalienable capacities to alienated products.

This story suggests that there is a moment in which the model of knowledge as product – which I will refer to as alien knowledge – develops from a prior state in which such alienation does not exist or at least does not exist in that form. I will refer to the ‘prior’ form as ‘intimate knowledge’, both to indicate its ‘intimacy’ with the knower and the way in which such knowledge often operates through intimation as much as implication. This moment of change from intimate to alien knowledge can be thought of as historical, in the same way that there is a historical moment of the enclosure of land. It can also be thought of in a more developmental mode, as though it were part of the way thinkers, knowers, develop. In the latter case we might consider the phenomenological concept of non-thetic knowledge to be one expression of the form of knowledge that is not alien knowledge. The distinction, however, whether historical or developmental, appears to suggest that alien knowledge has the advantage of communicability, exchange value. To that extent it can be thought to develop the wealth of knowledge in so far as exchange and communicability increase the productivity of knowledge. The idea here seems straight-forward: in so far as we can increasingly exchange knowledge reliably we can put that knowledge to work more often, more effectively and more consistently. Science and reason are the frameworks commonly deployed as the central features of such increased productivity in our knowledge. We can do more, make more, heal more, see more, know more, if we organise our knowledge into the form of alien knowledge, enclosing the reality of knowledge in the borders of reason, reliable response and regularity.

It is unnecessary to dispute the productive superiority of alien knowledge as against intimate knowledge. It is instead a question of the product itself that is taken to be the more interesting issue, a question of what is produced by alien knowledge. The argument here is that in some sense the problem of alien knowledge lies not in its productivity per se but in the inadvertent effects it has on the producer1. The human somehow gets caught up in the process of knowledge such that alien knowledge produces a curious side-effect of alienating the human from their own most intimate truth. The claim is that in the process of developing the alien knowledge and unleashing its indisputable power we lose something. The question of knowledge thus becomes an ethical question. ‘How we know’ begins to over-ride ‘what we know’ in the effects that are produced.

The tension between alien and intimate knowledge is long-standing, perhaps even the longest standing problematic in knowledge. In the Socratic dialogues this problem is found in the difficulties surrounding virtue and its connection to knowledge. The problematic is two-fold. First, the problem of akrasia, weakness of the will, in which the question is why does the knowledge of what is right not suffice to produce the right action. Secondly, the problem of learning found in the Meno formulation – if knowledge is alien then how do we possess it, often formulated in the form of ‘if I know what I’m looking for I don’t need to look and if I don’t know what I am looking for then how can I even begin searching’? Both these problematics arise from a situation in which the relation of knowledge to the self is fundamentally conceived in terms of alien knowledge. It is only because knowledge is something outside, other, alien, that we encounter an issue of either marrying it to our self (virtue) or discovering it in the world (learning).

Marjorie Grene explores the different responses made to this issue of the relation between knower and known, although she frames the underlying problem not in terms of alienation but in terms of the assumption that knowledge must be ‘explicit’ or, more accurately, subject to the ‘explicit procedure’ of access that Karl Polanyi identified as a central problem-causing epistemological assumption. Polanyi locates the role of what he calls ‘tacit knowledge’ in the complex process of knowing, whereby the transcendent (alien) known must be related to the immanent (intimate) knowledge of the knower. This, as Grene points out, runs close to the phenomenological work of Merleau-Ponty. Grene identifies a parallel between Merleau-Ponty and Polanyi when she identifies the problem of assuming “that all cognitive acts are wholly explicit2, an assumption that prevents any escape from the Meno problematic. She also, however, indicates a broader relation between Polanyi and phenomenological and ‘existential’ thought more generally, for example when she claims that “in philosophical terms, one could equally well take the recognition of physiognomies in Polanyi’s account of it as illustrating the existentialist thesis that our being is being-in-the-world3. The assimilation of the transcendental grounding of phenomenology and the empirical grounding in physiognomy that underpins Polanyi and Grene’s work is, however, the location of the a far more difficult problematic than Grene seems to indicate.

1 There is an analogous problematic which we can find in Heidegger’s articulation of the problem of technology as well as in Marx’s analysis of the commodity form, a problem of the effects of the form of a type of productivity.

2 Marjorie Grene, The knower and the known, University of California Press 1974; 23

3 Ibid; 56

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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