My latest post on the ili listserve discussing my articles, and, in addition, more detailed responses – my analysis and thoughts – regarding the conversation that is happening there:

All,

As I reflect on the recent conversation – including Lane [Wilkinson]’s throwing in his two cents – there are all kinds of responses I want to make.

At the same time, I am aware that my explicitly-stated goal – getting the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame changed – could certainly get in the way of fruitful conversations with others. It is with this in mind that I share the following select thoughts, taken from a larger set:

  • When I think about the relationship of philosophy and librarianship – the relationship of philosophy and most anything else actually – I am certainly thinking about the more classical understandings of philosophy. This means the search for wisdom and what has been called “the good life”. How should we live? What does it mean to be human? The idea here is that there are things that are good, true and beautiful and that should be sought by us. Historically, the word “science” simply meant “knowledge” and went hand in hand with “philosophy”. Therefore, the classical understandings of the “liberal arts” certainly had ideas about things like identity and power – they were, after all, the arts of a free man and not a slave! – but, for many, *they were about much more than this*. Now, the concerns of classical philosophy have faded to the background as modern philosophy, vying for relevance, tries to mediate between what we now call the humanities (idealists!) and the sciences (realists!). Therefore, I acknowledge that my argument may seem quite strange in the ears of many.
  • Still, how should we live? Do we not all ask ourselves this? Does this not mean, in part, looking for reasons and clues and evidence (scholarship takes this to higher levels!). I think this also means being honest with one’s self and others, and being honest about the basic “facts of life” (while there is some diversity here, can we agree that there are some things we all pay attention to and can’t not?). And, this also means trusting, in part, that our rational and sensory “equipment” are, or should be, a help and not a hindrance here. Do not even those who think they have the beginnings of good answers, in part because they have had good and wise guides, continue to think this way? Namely, that it is good to seek out what truly objective reality — i.e. what is the case about life, and therefore, what is the case about how we should live? Is there any doubt that we are learning these things from our first breath? And I think it is uncontroversially true that we all have a philosophy, more or less thought out, about what it means to be human. If we could say there is One Overarching Philosophy it would be True – Truth. It would be the Way. I am interested in exploring this question of course, but my core point is this: we do not need to go there to speak of truth with a little t….

A rather classic definition of truth, one that I utilized in my Christian Librarian paper, is “being in accordance with the actual state or conditions; conforming to reality or fact; not false.” Another is simply “the state of being the case,” which is synonymous with “objective reality”. Here, however, modern academics – and evidently, many modern day librarians – balk. They insist that this is not really a good starting point, but that we must, from the get-go, have a different approach: what is the goal of an idea of truth; what does it do? (see Kirkham, Theories of Truth, 1992).

Well, my answer to that is above, in what I’ve just said. Our most pressing questions are things like: “How should we live?” “How can we human beings live lives that are true?” And, therefore: “How should we librarians practice?”

I do not want to give the impression that the rest of the ideas I have had in response to those contributing here (thank you much, by the way!) might also not be useful for promoting mutually beneficial dialogue – at least among certain folks. If you are interested in more of the thoughts I have had, you can check out the latest post at my blog [note: here, at the blog, this now directly follows…]

-Nathan

+++

I think what the latest round of posts here on this thread [my authority is constructed and contextual critiques] shows is that many of us, understandably seeing the value of skepticism and intellectual humility, are comfortable talking about our views as things that we believe, or have strong convictions about. We are less comfortable these days talking about anything – even things that we really do seem to hold in common – in terms of their being knowledge.

As you might guess, I think that this is quite unfortunate (it also seems to be a bit inconsistent, given the efforts of many these days to impose their views on others, going so far as to make certain speech impermissible). Evidently, the classical understanding that knowledge is “justified, true, belief” – Lane Wilkinson’s fine essay in the book Not Just Where to Click notwithstanding – has utterly vaporized among many of us. As I said in my last post, we now have “knowledge”: “conceivable, useful, trust”.

I guess that this definition really is something that people can no longer agree on (and, as I noted in a another previous blog post, I have my own theory of why that is the case), and, evidently has, in most cases, been replaced by something else… Increasingly, our “common understanding” (irony noted here) is that there is now really no common knowledge at all (and statements like “the truth is that there is no truth” seem to readily correlate).

Therefore, knowledge is now best thought of as a useful fiction, or, again, “conceivable, useful, trust”. This is perhaps why most of the participants on the ili thread have not so much been interacting with the content of my papers, but are trying different angles to approach the issue. I understand. : )

Nevertheless, my papers are about truth, so let struggle to try and bring my above thoughts back to that issue.

First, let me be clear that when I talk about seeking truth, I am not saying that it is always easy to do this – it often, especially when it comes to scholarship, is not (not to mention when it comes to knowing Truth with a capitol T!). Again, all of us are obviously not going to agree on one overarching philosophy or Way. For instance, we might feel or think we only have strong convictions (not knowledge!) that the cosmos we experience is in many respects shared to say nothing about it being essentially and ultimately good (yes, I know – we need to define and interrogate this word to, right? : ) ). And we might think or feel it only seems a “conscience” that we have is telling us that there are indeed things that are wrong about us, others, and the cosmos!

Still, I think there is more than I think can and should be said….therefore…

Second, I think that what this conversation shows us is that we need to really start examining the difference between things that we call “useful fictions,” and things that we call “propaganda.” What is it, other than our own worldviews/inclinations of course, that is decisive for us? For one thing, we usually do attach a negative label to the term “propaganda,” and do not hesitate to say this means people are providing mis- or even dis-information. When we do this, we do not mean to say that we disagree with the useful fiction that they understandably, being human, use. No. Rather, we actually are concerned about people who are doing wrong things and hence being untrue, unintentionally or intentionally misleading others (most parents also are concerned about their children acting in ways like this). Or is it really only ideas that promote practices that we don’t like or prefer or, perhaps, do not think are conducive to fitness that we just call propaganda?

And going along with this, of course we all should see the value of being skeptical of our own biases or inclinations – at least as regards this or that. This is surely important, for a number of reasons. At the same time, how can we begin to determine whether certain inclinations are, overall, good things? Or is this just the inevitable endgame?

Third, please understand that I am, by means of the questions I ask, only laying out what I see as the implications of this view – that is, that we now have no knowledgefor the sake of having a real and relevant conversation with everyone. It is a “useful fiction” for me – and I hope for you to! – so that we can be prevented from inhabiting completely “different worlds”! Of course, I personally do not believe it is true that there is no knowledge or truth, but that there is common knowledge and hence truth, and that this is in fact exemplified by the conversation that we are now having!

In fact, I want to say this to you, who I don’t intend to “other”: I know this. And I think you do to! Not only because things like my religion give such confidence (I don’t deny that this might have a big impact on me – even were I to cease to be a believer at some point), but because I strongly believe that human beings are truly wonderful and unique creatures (a view even non-believers might hold) who can’t not share the cosmos (and, as I have said, can’t not decide that some ways or forms of life are not good – see above remarks about philosophies of life). In fact, I think it can even be well-supported from the empirical evidence (historical and archaeological) that we have available to us that a “human community practice” has shared much, in terms of the things that we all experience, that is trans-cultural and trans-historical.

This, I submit, is also all very trans-“existential.” For example, even as we are often “both-and”ing creatures, who, in the “human community of practice,” would not “tag” the physical objects rolling down a little girl’s face whose father has just died, some term like “tears” – and only some term like this? Or should we insist that this physical manifestation cannot point to a non-physical thing that all human parties could meaningfully and decisively label “sadness”? I suggest in such a circumstance, “joy” is not a meaningful label!

Likewise, one may “tag” a certain kind of insect as “tasty” – even if that categorization is not meaningful to many others – but should we insist that it cannot be meaningfully and decisively labeled something like “animal” (as opposed to a plant) by all human parties, possible confusing classification exceptions (like platypuses!) aside? It seems that ethical judgments are involved in all of these situations: we would think less of one who denied the girl’s sadness and perhaps question the manners of the person who brought up the insects they enjoy eating while at dinner.

And yet, when a three-year old child playfully calls the squirrel outside a bear (or, in a different time and place calls the jerboa a camel or the penguin a walrus) – “calling into question” her sisters’ and mother’s judgment – she is making an ethical decision that such humor is appropriate to the moment. Undoubtedly, this fiction is useful for making us all smile! (and hopefully lightening up the mood a bit!)

So, as I argued in my paper, when it comes to matters like this, we cannot escape existential issues of the deepest moral import – in the midst of life’s challenges, we find ourselves not only using “labels” like “ineffective”, “impractical”, “imprudent”, or “unwise”: we say “true” or “false” to some statements, “good” and “bad” to some behaviors, etc.

All this said, I need to face the music… the facts: for whatever reason, all of the stuff I say above proves more to me and some others than it does for the wider “community of practice”.

So, fourth — perhaps we can begin to discern a little bit of agreement here, at least: many of us personally believe that to be in line with something we call the truth we should, in general, be as honest as we can about the things we call facts – those objects and/or experiences that many seem to think/feel are worth our attention and even those objects and/or experiences that only a few think/feel are important.  For many of us of course (perhaps this is related with our finding ourselves to be librarians), we also believe that this means we should represent views that differ from our own – in ways that seem to be of greater or lesser significance – in ways that can be recognized by the proponents of those views (“yes, that is what I believe – in fact, you said it better than I could have!”).

And again, as regards these matters such as these, we see how “being true” – ethics – is important to us. Even though we might not act like it all the time, we are creatures that are ultimately designed to be concerned about right and wrong – not merely about “what works.” Therefore, we are not surprised when we meet people of strong convictions, and are happy when we detect much overlap (while we nevertheless, may not, as I do, draw out formal implications from this about what philosophers have typically called “universals”).

So far my analysis of the current conversation. I know Richard Kirkham wrote the classic work Theories of Truth (which yes, I am looking at again), but I don’t think truth is a theory, even if there exists socially constructed “theories of truth”…

-Nathan

FIN

 

Images:

O’Connor quote, Brent Payne: https://www.flickr.com/photos/brentdpayne/3267403071 (CC BY 2.0); Twain quote, BK: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pictoquotes/28547424986 (CC BY-SA 2.0) ; Truth or Consequences https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sign_-_New_Mexico_-_Truth_Or_Consequences_-_Exit_(4892943477).jpg

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