“We make claims,” I used to tell students writing essays, “because somehow something prompts us.” In the spirit of the best constructivists, I encouraged my students to build and rebuild not just what they knew, but how and why they knew it.
A common pitfall in essay writing is that claims without evidence just mean you spin and spin. “So,” I suggested to students (… paraphrasing here), “cite the evidence that prompted the claim, then write an explanation. There’s your essay.”
Sample: “I think ‘X’, and it was ‘Y’ that made me think so. Explain, explain, explain.”
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Some years later, and my return to the land of academia… I’m facing the exact opposite prescription: all knowledge is provisional. Lay claim at your peril. Abandon all certainty, ye who enter here. Just deserts! my students might say… well, I have been feeling their pain, if not their well-wishes.
Generally, people won’t doubt themselves without good reason, or they will as long as they have a lot of faith in the person asking. Yet if (… that’s “if”) we can only note what matters to us from a reference point, then we also bring to bear only what we decide is most relevant to the moment. And since (… that’s “since”) nothing occurs in a vacuum, any detail might be informative. So let’s not ask, “In what ways do I already know what I’m looking at?” That kind of certainty yields self-fulfilling prophecy. Academically, I get the admonishment of certainty.
By definition, “evidence” is only useful because it’s meaningful; something is chosen to be evidence for a reason: we’ll know it when we see it. In other words, we can make shit up. So, to be more responsible, let’s ask, “In what ways do I not know what I am looking at?” Asking this, I feel I’m more academically willing to abandon “certainty” because I can fill the vacuum with a different kind of certainty, what I’ve called a kind of faith.
I don’t define what I’m looking at, yet I also don’t abandon myself – it’s more like I study the overlap between the two. Where do I end, and this other thing begin? Somewhere in between is a claim waiting to be made.
If certainty makes evidence possible in support of a claim – which is induction – then faith makes claims possible that require supporting evidence – which is deduction. In either case, however, I suppose you can see what you wish to see.
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Where it comes to knowledge, we all land somewhere: we all believe something, no matter what the most die-hard postmodernist might *ahem* claim. In fact, our claims to know [something particular] are rampant. And I suppose that’s the problem (… if all this is a problem). It seems to me there’s no learning without prior certainty, some departure point, “Here’s what I know,” even if that simply means, “I’m certain I don’t know.” That said, it’s the rare Socrates in this day and age, even on campus – some might say especially on campus.
To start with certainty is induction, and starting this way is the pitfall of induction because, unless claims come first, i.e. deduction, any evidence might seem self-serving. To lay claims first instead, then support them with evidence, i.e. to deduce, is helpful if only because, then, we have a measure for where to go next. But, as I caution above, there is a chicken-egg conundrum to all this.
I’m pretty– well, er, certain that there’s no problematizing without prior learning, by which I mean certainty. We all land somewhere. (As I gather, problematizing is identifying and questioning these taken-for-granted landed assumptions, a step toward assessing whether we ought to renovate what we know, i.e. whether we ought to learn.) As I say, I think I get why the academic embrace of uncertainty is worthwhile. By all means, let the academy embrace uncertainty: societal dynamics are varied and vast, as complementary and collaborative as confrontational and competitive. In fact, if it weren’t for the intervention of others, we’d be forever fated to know just one sole perspective, and it’s the very, very few – not the many – whose lives are that alone. You can ask Alcibiades: Socrates was no strict loner.
Let me be as Hegelian as I can, and it isn’t much. I believe our world is holistic, by which I mean all the pushing and pulling from its cultural edges, all the polarisation and extremism… as I see it, what all this outer pressure does is help everyone to steer a steadier moderate middle course. To think we don’t need these outer fringes, to wish them begone, it may be more accurate to say we simply don’t want them: how many dwell in The Land of Should, where the way things are is certain in deed. How many, indeed, if not every single one of us?
For my part, I wonder, albeit somewhat perversely, whether we do need those outer pressures because they help to impel us someplace, by showing us where to avoid – that is, as long as they’re not popular so much as just noisy. One squeaky wheel, annoying yet tolerable; all four wheels is a call for repair. Luckily, a car only has four wheels although, not so luckily, two each are found on only one side. Luckily, there’s a steering column.
Of course, our world has more than two sides, and the more crowded it gets on the outer edges, well… at least may our course corrections steer us with most predictable stability rather than surprise. As such, again in the best spirit of Socratic humility, let the academy or anyone else ponder to their heart’s content, as uncertain as they want to be, just as more certain folks shall also cast due influence – it takes all kinds, as the saying goes, although even in those Student Driver cars, really only one person at a time can be the driver. So let’s beware any (… that’s “any”) dominance, if we claim to be making room for all, because something else available to all is hypocrisy. And yes, the whole car-thing has kind of broken down here, hasn’t it?
I’m unable to say just now who’s less likely to heed this post: those who are certain they know and will tell you why they’re right, or those who are certain they don’t know and will tell you why you’re wrong. And if that’s not perverse or hypocritical, let’s still say it’s ironic, and a little comical.
Just as likely, I’ll luck out as no one at all will care. Or it could be some will care just enough to send this viral: be it an essay, a blog post or, God help us, a Tweet, some claims we stake pay off beyond all expectation while some go unpardonably bust – and believe me, for all I’ve laboured to get this post written just-so, I’m still unsatisfied. So why even publish it? Why claim anything at all, including uncertainty?
For complementarity, for a certain worldview, for those loudest who know best… I wonder whether the one who makes the claim is nearly so key as the one for whom the claim is made – which leaves out to whom, but that’s fine. And I wonder how insidiously our ends and our means grow conflated and confused.
Featured Image in the public domain