Monday 6 September 2010

Not a review of Collins’ Tacit and Explicit Knowledge...

Not a review of Collins’ Tacit and Explicit Knowledge but just a ‘live’ first reaction to the early chapters and thus I may have got hold of entirely the wrong end of the stick.

Collins’ book starts by aiming to shed light on tacit knowledge by contrasting it with a suitable account of what is explicit. But whereas I aim to do something similar starting with what can be made explicit through utterance of natural language sentences, Collins starts not with that, nor with a merely syntactic structure (such as uninterpreted but well formed logical sentences using logical symbols) but rather what he calls ‘strings’.

Strings are ‘bits of stuff inscribed with patterns: they might be bits of air with patterns of sound waves, or bits of paper with writing, or bits of the seashore with marks made by waves, or patterns of mould, or almost anything’...’ [Collins 2010: 9] The motivation for this seems to be to avoid the ‘freight of inherent meaning that makes the notions of signs, symbols and icons so complicated’ [ibid: 9].

One worry repeated in the book is that signs do not have an essential meaning, only one in the context of a use. By contrast, ‘a string is just a physical object and it is immediately clear that whether it has any effect and what kind of effect this might be is entirely a matter of what happens to it.’ [ibid: 9]

The worry – that signs do not have meanings essentially – is reasonable but this response seems to make mischief in a couple of ways. One is that Collins still wants to say something about the sign side of the contribution to meaning (not that he would talk of signs and meaning) and has explicitly uneasily to use ‘affordance’ to pick this out. (See p36 for the unease.) Second, when he does talk about meaning he says something very odd: ‘Though strings are sometimes used to represent meanings [careful!], their relationship to meanings cannot be stablised... because meaning is continually changing as it lives its life in society.’ [ibid: 44] Echoes, perhaps, of the later Heidegger here.

The second oddness is the account of the relation of language and thought which, compressing madly, runs like this:

Language translation or just plain conversation within one natural language consists of three stages... Stage 1: inscription. In “telling” the attempt is made to represent lived meaning with the inscribed string. For example, in the case of conversation an attempt is made to represent the meaning as a string comprising vibrations in the air... Stage 2: transmission and transformation... Stage 3: interpretation. This is the attempt to recreate meaning from the string – to interpret it. [ibid: 27-8]

In this picture, Collins seems to subscribe to a C17 view of communication which Wittgenstein summarises, before going on to criticise it, rather nicely thus:

It seems that there are certain definite mental processes bound up with the working of language, processes through which alone language can function. I mean the processes of understanding and meaning. The signs of our language seem dead without these mental processes; and it might seem that the only function of the signs is to induce such processes, and that these are the things we ought really to be interested in... We are tempted to think that the action of language consists of two parts; an inorganic part, the handling of signs, and an organic part, which we may call understanding these signs, meaning them, interpreting them, thinking. [Wittgenstein 1958: 3]

But, so far at least, I have no reason to think that this really matters to the book. What does worry me more is this. The clue to the tacit is charting the explicit. And that is approached through the idea of strings: ‘“Explicit” is something to do with something being conveyed as a result of strings impacting with things.’ [Collins 2010: 57] But as the second chapter emphasises, ‘communication’ by strings is continuous at least with ordinary everyday causation. (Communication is more like the communication of impulse in physics than human communication although it is used to refer to that too.)

[S]tring transformations [I think the pattern gets transformed, not the stuff, by the way] and mechanical causes and effects are, to speak metaphysically, just two aspects of the same thing. This is why we have a strong sense that when we explain some process scientifically we have made it explicit; this is the “explicable” part of the antonym of tacit with its “scientifically explained” connotation. [ibid: 50]

Because strings are just stuff in patterns, including patterns on beaches and of mould, there is no restriction to the realm of meaning or human intentionality. But this suggests two potential worries:

The idea that either tacit or explicit knowledge is knowledge seems likely to go missing. Even if the content of the knowledge (the fact that p, eg.) is a worldly happening, the knowledge of p is not the same as p itself. Collins says things like: ‘[somatic tacit knowledge] is continuous with that possessed by animals and other living things. In principle it is possible for it to be explicated, not by the animals and trees themselves (or the particular humans who embody it), but as the outcome of research done by human scientists.’ [ibid: 85] Two worries here. First, surely trees were never thought to have tacit knowledge?!? There may be a pattern to their growth but trees don't know this, nor do they know how to grow. Later there is a similar passage which blurs what seem - in the context of a book on tacit knowledge - to be important differences.

Sometimes we can do things better than cats, dogs, trees and sieves can do them, and sometimes worse. A sieve is generally better at sorting stones than a human (as a fridge is better at chilling water), a tree is certainly better at growing leaves, dogs are better at being affected by strings of smells, and cats are better at hunting small animals... That teaching humans to accompalish even mimeomorphic actions is a complicated business, involving personal contact, says nothing about the nature of the knowledge, per se. The mistake is to see all problems of human knowledge acquisition as problems of knowledge. [ibid: 105]

But whatever one thinks of dogs and cats, trees and sieves do not do things in the sense of acting.

Despite its role in demystifying tacit knowledge, Collins does not finally endorse the idea that animals, trees and sieves have tacit knowledge. Although he says that insofar as humans act as animals they are not so different from cats and dogs and thus if we are going to say that humans have tacit knowledge, that does not rule out cats, dogs, trees etc [ibid: 77] he goes on to say that the idea of tacit knowledge stands in a contrast or tension with explicit knowledge. Thus where there is no possibility of explicit knowledge, neither is there tacit knowledge. 'Cats and dogs etc don't know anything; they just transform strings... In sum, animals, trees, and sieves should not be said to have tacit knowledge' [ibid: 78]. But this looks like a bare stipulation about ascription. There do not seem to be materials in the account to say why human action of an animal nature is any different from animal 'action' or even tree and sieve behaviour.

Returning to my second of the two worries mentioned above, surely what matters is not whether there is a knowable pattern (whether it is possible for it to be explicated, as he says) but that and how that pattern enters the thoughts of the knowing subject: the realm of sense not reference? That Collins does not share this hunch is evident in a passage like this:

The constraints on the methods available for efficient typing by humans [by contrast eg with machines] are somatic limits; they have everything to do with us and nothing to do with the task as a task – nothing to do with knowledge as knowledge. [ibid: 104]

This suggests that his focus is on the realm of reference, of what is being picked out in the world, which may sometimes be the content of knowledge. He is not, I think, interested in how it is known, the way it is grasped whether practically or propositionally, which seems to me to be the key question in this area. That a task might be accomplished using either explicit knowledge or tacit knowledge need not undermine its tacit status in any one particular case. So the inference from ‘task as task’ to ‘knowledge as knowledge’ in that last quote does not go through.

The same blurring (roughly, of what is in the world and what is in the mind) is present in this idea: ‘the modern world is thought of as driven by explicit knowledge – patterns’ [ibid: 80]. When comet Shoemaker Levy 9 hit Jupiter, that exemplified a pattern codified – roughly – in Newtonian physics. But it wasn’t driven along by its, or anyone’s, knowledge. Whilst one might have knowledge of patterns, patterns are not knowledge.

Putting this worry aside (ie being carefull about the distinction between the nature of knowledge and the nature of the content of the knowledge) there is still another worry (for me at least, poised to read the second half of the book). By adopting strings (stuff in patterns) as the vehicle to carry what is explicit, it is hard to see how (in the half of the book which I’ve not yet read) there can be anything left to be genuine tacit knowledge. The content of such knowledge would, I assume, have to fail to be a pattern (else it’s a string and thus explicit) but still count as knowledge. But if events happen without any pattern, it is hard to know how one might have knowledge of it. All very intriguing.

Collins, H. (2010) Tacit and Explicit Knowledge, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Wittgenstein, L. (1958) The Blue and Brown books, Oxford: Blackwell.

PS (October 2010): I still haven’t had an opportunity to write a proper and considered review of Collins’ clearly important book on this subject but I can gesture at some of the developments in the second half and thus contextualise my own initial comments above.

One of the features that marks out this book from most of the rest of the literature on tacit knowledge is that it builds on Collins’ recent work on forms of expertise that are carried in language. (Recall talk of interactional expertise etc. from Rethinking Expertise.) Thus whilst chapter 5 concerns bodily or somatic tacit knowledge, familiar from the work of Dreyfus for example, chapter 6 is called ‘Collective tacit knowledge and social cartesianism’. It is this latter chapter that brings in the kind of distinction which I find so important between linguistic agents and mere animals or trees.

This reflects Collins’ fairly explicit initial approach to tacit knowledge. As he explained to me in a recent email:

I implicitly define ‘knowledge’ as meaning that which you have when you can do the thing and that which you don’t have when you can’t do the thing. This approach has nothing to do with self-consciousness, or intentions, or actions as opposed to behaviours. Those distinctions are discussed at length in Collins and Kusch’s Shape of Actions. At least, in so far as it does have anything to do with those distinctions, it is that Collective Tacit Knowledge is still mysterious because it is the knowledge required to carry out polimorphic actions (the subject of the earlier book). Given this much broader implicit definition of knowledge, then there are no distinctions between humans, cats, trees and sieves (I even treat the later as having the ‘knowledge’ to sort stones so that looks even dafter if you want to go there). Obviously, and this was the stated intention at the beginning, the differences between humans and other entities re-emerge at the end of the book with ‘Social Cartesianism’, which turns on Collective Tacit Knowledge.

So the starting point is very minimal indeed. ‘Knowledge’ can be possessed even by sieves. The distinction between sieves, trees and cats, on the one hand, and linguistic humans, on the other, is then earned in that later chapter from which, among other things, distinctions between mere behaviour on the one hand and action on the other can then be constructed with conceptually clean hands. Once one realises that then, radical though the minimal starting point remains, one can understand why the book begins that way. It is a deliberate methodological strategy.

There is a view of philosophy according to which philosophy does not so much tell one what to think but the cost (by way of implications and supporting accounts) of thinking what one may wish to think. Against this idea, Tacit & Explicit Knowledge, sets itself the task of earning rather than merely borrowing or stealing distinctions which seem important for characterising tacit knowledge in its various species. I remain unsure, however, whether the further cost of such a reconstruction has been fully met. But you’ll have to take a look.