Beyond Knowledge – Towards Understanding Through Scholarship

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source: Possibilitator

“The default condition of the scholar is one of intellectual dissatisfaction. No matter how exhilarating it may be to discover new evidence or come up with an illuminating apt characterization, one can never (and perhaps should never) entirely banish the sense that the current state of one’s work can only ever have the status of an interim report, always vulnerable to being challenged, corrected, or simply bypassed. The mind searches for pattern, for a kind of order, but this is a restless, endless process. One of the things that can make a book influential in the humanities – and it usually is a book, since a fairly wide canvas is needed to display the pattern in all its persuasive detail – is that the pattern which it proposes becomes the framework for much subsequent scholarship in the particular area. Obvious examples of books which shaped a whole sub-field a generation or more ago might include E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), or Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (1967), or John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971), and in some respects those works never lose their pertinence. However, not only are such books subjected to more or less constant criticism and revision (including by their own authors), but there is a sense in which a particular scholarly community  simply moves on – moves on to other topics, or to using different methods, or to asking new questions. That it does so is not entirely a matter of discovery of new empirical evidence or the operation of intellectual fashion or shifting pressures from the outside world, those these can have a part to play. It is, more fundamentally, because no starting point is beyond reconsideration, because no assumptions (about how societies change or how people act or how meanings mean) are beyond challenge, because no vocabulary has an exclusive monopoly. And this is where that existential state of intellectual dissatisfaction turns into something like a methodological precept. It will in practice, require experienced judgment to decide at what point asking a different kind of question is a fruitful way to proceed and when it is simply going to be obstructive or irrelevant. But in principle no question can be ruled out in advance. Someone else can aleays start from somewhere else – and so, therefore, can we. There can only ever be interim reports.

This is one of the places where insisting on the difference between knowledge and understanding becomes vital. How we understand a particular topic depends, among other things, on what else we already understand. The point here is akin to that made long ago about the search for authenticity in the so-called ‘early music’ movement: we may play the pieces on period instruments but we cannot listen to them with period ears. Part of the reason why we, now, cannot understand Shakespeare in exactly the same way as, say A.C. Bradley did in his classic work on Shakespeare Tragedy (1904) is not just because our knowledge of that particular writer has advanced, but because our understanding of so much else has changed. It is true that we know more now than we did a century ago about, for example, the transmission of Shakespeare’s texts or about the conditions of Elizabethan stagecraft. But, more fundamentally, we have encountered different ideas about matters as various as the operation of ethnic stereotyping or the social subordination of women as well as about the the interpretation of character in drama in general or even about the relation between writing and meaning. In some repsects scholarship attempts to come as close as we can to acquiring period ears, to become more and more familiar with the language and assumptions of the period in which a work was written. But, still, it is we who are doing the understanding, and we are trying to communicate that understanding to a contremporary audience in a contemporary idiom. We couldn’t simply  repeat the perceptions and judgments of a hundred years ago even if we tried.”

[Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For? London: penguin, 2012]

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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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