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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 22, 2009

Originally posted on Half an Hour, March 22, 2009.

Responding to Tony Bates, Bates and Downes on new knowledge: Round 3

You say > However, I don’t believe the distinction between ‘academic’ knowledge and ‘applied’ knowledge is particularly useful.

Here we agree.

You say > What is useful is a distinction between academic and non-academic knowledge, as measured by the values or propositions that underpin each kind of knowledge.

Here we disagree.

First, I'm not sure you can made the distinction stick.

Second, even if you make the distinction stick, then so much the worse for academic knowledge, because the values or propositions that underpin academic method are unsound.

You say academic method > AIMS for deep understanding, general principles, empirically-based theories, timelessness, etc

Yes. But it shouldn't. That's my point.

You say > Academic knowledge is not perfect, but does have value because of the standards it requires.

This is a statement deserving of more discussion, because I think that either academics have lost track of the standards, being devoted to process over rigor, or that the standards adhered are in fact no guarantor of worthwhile results.

You say > I also agree with Stephen that knowledge is not just ’stuff’, as Jane Gilbert puts it, but is dynamic. However, I also believe that knowledge is also not just ‘flow’.

It is neither 'stuff' nor 'flow', in my view. I explicitly reject both views in my post and in the comment that follows.

As I wrote:

"The central tenet of emergence theory is that even if stuff flows from entity to entity, that stuff is not knowledge; knowledge, rather, is something that 'emerges' from the activity of the system as a whole.

"This network - and subnets with the network (aka 'patterns of connectivity') - may be depicted as knowledge...

"A second way of representing knowledge, and one that I embrace in addition to the first for a variety of reasons, is that patterns of connectivity can be recognized or interpreted as salient by a perceiver."

The reason why this depiction is important is that knowledge, on this view, is *not* "deep understanding, general principles, empirically-based theories, timelessness, etc."

So whatever it is that academic method is aiming for, it is not knowledge.

This is a key point of contention between us:

You write > at some point each person does settle, if only for a brief time, on what they think knowledge to be. At this point it does become ’stuff’ or content. I still contend then that ’stuff’ or content does matter, though recognising that what we do with the stuff is even more important.

I disagree with.

I do describe (following o0thers) 'settling mechanisms' in the brain. We can say that we 'settle'. We can hypothesize, at least, a (thermodynamically) stable state of connections and activations in the brain.

But the 'entities' in such a system (if we can call them that) that constitute 'knowledge' do NOT have the properties of 'stuff' or 'content'. This is the key and fundamental point of my argument:

Not 'stuff' - not discrete, not localized, not atomic
Not 'content' - not semantical, not propositional, not symbolic

And that's my problem with academic method. It seeks out specifically propositions - symbolic or semantical - that are discrete, localized and atomic. Things that are _candidates_ for deep understanding, general principles, empirically-based theories, timelessness.

I think that maybe if we can untangle the vocabulary we might come to agreement on this. After all,

You say > this is likely to result in a shift in knowledge that may be very important, and it is in this area where I think Stephen and I may have some agreement.

This encourages me.

Skipping ahead quite a bit...

You write > My concern about much of the discussion of the ‘new’ knowledge is that it seems to depend on what I might call majority voting - it is the number of hits that matter, not the quality of the content.

Quite so.

Voting - and counting generally - record only the mass of a thing. They require some sort of identity (in order to identify that which is being counted).

This is distinct from the type of knowlecdge I have been trying to describe, which depends not on the quantity of things assembled, but on the way those things are interconnected.

This is what I have tried to clarify with the distinction between 'groups' and 'networks'.

The properties found in the group are (to my way of seeing) just those embraced by what we have been calling the academic method. If you look at the diagram you see typical academic values: unity (of purpose, of workers, of science), coordination, closed systems, distributive (expert-based) knowledge.

Knowledge based on networks is not based on counting - not on votes, on surveys, on mass, on category or type, etc. because knowledge is not the sort of thing that can be counted, not the sort of thing that can be generalized (as a mass).

The objection to voting *is* an objection to academic method.

The new knowledge is precisely *not* knowledge by counting, knowledge by popularity.

But it's not knowledge by experts ether. Because if we say that knowledge is based on experts and expertise, then we are saying that knowledge is the 'stuff' that's in people's heads that goes from place to place. Which - again - it isn't.

Now it is reasonable to disagree with my position on knowledge, but it's important to recognize that 'network knowledge' isn't based on counting or popularity - no matter how much this is emphasized by the (popular) media.


> Lastly, Stephen was puzzled as to why I felt a blog was not the best way to discuss this issue. What I feel the topic needs is more space and time, and a critique from philosophers would also add to the discussion, I am sure, because I do not have specialist knowledge or training in epistemology. I would like to have had more time to review other writers on this topic, and more space to elaborate my views. I feel that I could do a better job that way.

Well - take all the time and space you need. Neither are in short supply on blogs.

Indeed - and this is one thing I like - you can go back over again, return to the same point again, attack it from various angles - a whole range of things you can't really strive for in any other forum.

> It was not because I needed the discussion to be academically reviewed in the way that journals are reviewed

Good. because if we were restricted by reviewers, we could never be having this discussion. Which would be a pity.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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