2.4 Knowledge as an embodied, action-oriented perspective

In the preceding sections I have indicated that I view the unity of experiential, practical and propositional knowledge as an embodied perspective with which one meets the world in action. I term the unity ‘knowledge in practice’ to emphasize its action-oriented nature and to signify that its full ontological realization is in use, i.e. that one not so much ‘has’ it as enacts it. The further implication is that ‘knowledge in practice’ takes on concrete form and meaning from the specific situation in response to the demands, possibilities and restrictions it poses. I develop this point in the next section. In this section I shall expand on the significance of knowledge as a perspective and on the way the world meets us as bodily beings engrossed in action. These issues are discussed in Articles 3, 4 and 6, where the first article articulates the perspective as a style of being-in-the-world; the second expands on the role of the body in letting the world and phenomena in it present themselves with a certain objective meaning relative to the agent; and the last one develops the concept of ‘action-oriented perspective’.

That ‘knowledge in practice’ is a perspective is again illustrated well with Polanyi’s example of discerning pulmonary traits on X-ray pictures. Quite literally, what the student gains over time is a perspective that allows the relevant features to stand out, not just as features, but immediately as features with a certain significance. Once more, though, the clarity of the example comes at the expense of providing a ‘snapshot’ version of knowledge, ignoring the continuous flow of practice in which the pictures have their place. In Article 3, utilizing the example of a physicist rather than a doctor, I argue that the physicist’s knowledge in practice can be viewed as a perspective at work at three analytical levels at least. These three levels are the same ones discussed above (i.e. the domain-internal level, the activity-internal context level and the activity-framing context level), though I do not use these terms in that article. Paraphrasing the claims of Article 3 in terms of the medical example running through this Introduction, the argument is that the doctor’s perspective is at work at all three levels: in the meaning with which traits stand out (domain-internal level), in the role of the pictures in diagnostic practice (activity-internal context level) – as one ‘snapshot’ moment in the activity of diagnosing a specific patient – and in the negotiation of significance of diagnostic practice within the everyday of the hospital or medical unit (activity-framing context level). At the second level, in the concern with a given patient, the perspective is what lets the action of taking X-ray pictures show up as relevant to undertake, and also lets the traits seen on the picture (first level) present themselves in the form of a call for certain further actions. At the third level, the perspective gives the doctor his take on ongoing medical practice, understood as a multi-dimensional phenomenon involving treatment of patients, collaboration with colleagues from his own and other professions, communication with relatives, economic prioritizing of staff and resources, negotiation with financial supporters etc. As concerns the specific example of X-ray pictures, at this level the perspective may for instance show up as a call for actions to procure new equipment or as the need to assess whether current ward practice involves taking too many or too few pictures.

The distinction between levels, it should be noted, is an analytical one. In the doctor’s actual practice, requirement characteristics at the three levels interact to form a complex whole and his perspective is his action-oriented take on the whole, letting certain actions stand out as the ones required for. Situations present themselves with the structure of ‘helping patients medically’ and he works personally, socially, physically, financially, theoretically, practically etc. to enable certain diagnostic and treatment practices to take place (third level), because he understands the significance for diagnosis and treatment (second level) of what he may see (first level) e.g. on X-ray pictures.

As indicated by this description, the perspective of ‘knowledge in practice’ is not just an epistemological access to the world; it has ontological grounding and bearing, too. The doctor is in the world as a doctor; the world shows up for him as structured with ‘medical situations’, ‘situations with medical aspects’, ‘situations which might develop into ones of medical import’ etc. Now, the claim I am making is not the highly improbable one that the doctor will see each and every situation as a ‘situation of medicine’. Instead, the claim is that because he is in the world as a doctor (ontologically speaking), intertwined with other aspects of his being, the world opens to him (epistemologically speaking) as a world with medical traits (ontologically speaking), together and most often intertwined with other traits. It is in this sense that I in Article 3 (and above) describe the perspective as a style of being in the world. Knowledge, in its primary realization as action-oriented perspective, has implications for being and vice versa. I return to this below.

Before getting to that, however, some questions remain concerning the relationship between ‘knowledge in practice’ as a unity and the aspects which form this unity: Will there be no perspective at all if all three aspects do not partake in the unity? Does the small child who does not yet speak not have any perspective even though he is able to navigate his social and physical surroundings to some extent at least? What about the former pianist who has lost the physical ability to play (Carr’s example, cf. Carr, 1981) – is it not possible for her to still be in the world as a pianist, i.e. let the world meet her as structured with situations and aspects of music?

In answering these questions, the first point to notice is that ‘knowledge in practice’ is not an ‘all or nothing’ phenomenon. There will be degrees of perspective, i.e. a perspective can be more or less nuanced, letting the world present itself with more or less detail and significance. For instance, the perspective of the medical student learning to diagnose and see traits on the X-ray pictures will be much less sophisticated than the one of the expert doctor. Secondly, the pre-reflective understanding of the world which we (on my Wittgensteinian-cum-phenomenological view) always already have is an action-oriented perspective, though not what I term ‘knowledge in practice’ since I reserve that word for more developed and sophisticated perspectives with a domain-, field-, or profession-specificity. The demarcation of when to call a perspective ‘knowledge in practice’ will not be sharply drawn – here as elsewhere it will be a matter of ‘family resemblance’ with paradigmatic cases such as the knowledge of the teacher, doctor, student, driver, cyclist etc. Phrased in terms of a ‘style of being in the world’, one could say that ‘knowledge in practice’ is the more particular style which the basic perspective enacted by all within one’s ‘form of life’ takes on due to one’s involvement with more specific domains, fields, and/or (areas of) professions. Put this way, it is clear that the demarcation of ‘knowledge in practice’ from ‘the basic perspective’ is a conventional, not an ontological, matter as is the differentiation between specific areas of ‘knowledge in practice’. Such demarcations will furthermore be context-dependent to some extent: In some contexts, it might be relevant to distinguish the surgeon’s perspective from the physician’s whereas in others they would both count as having a doctor’s perspective, in contrast perhaps to the perspectives of the nurse, the finance officer, the IT specialist, or the layman. Similarly, in some cross-cultural situations, it may be appropriate to think of different cultures as having different ‘styles’ of being in the world, these styles giving form to an even more basic pre-structuring of the world according to the “human constants” (Taylor, 1985b, p. 127) that matter to us as human beings((Taylor’s examples of human constants are birth, death, marriage, drought, and plenty. Rephrasing these constants in terms of ‘what matters to us as human beings’ and adding a few, they concern our needs for food, drink, shelter, love, caring, social bonds, learning to navigate the environment etc.)). In other situations it will be far too crude to expect two people to have the same perspective, just because they were e.g. born in the same country in the same year. The more specific circumstances of their upbringing imply divergences even between their basic perspectives((Which means that in such cases it will therefore also be too crude to speak of ‘a form of life’ as one homogenous way of being in the world common to a large group of people.)), not to mention the variance created due to the way these basic perspectives have later transformed as they involved themselves in particular domains. However, the important point to make is that even the baby meets the world with a (very crude) action-oriented perspective, which provides the world with a (very simple) significance pre-structuring, and that ‘knowledge in practice’ develops out of the basic perspective as a framing and sophistication of it, through incorporation of experiential, practical, and propositional knowledge from more specific domains.

Given these two points – that ‘knowledge in practice is a matter of degree and that it builds on (and transforms) one’s prior action-oriented perspective – it is possible to answer the question whether the perspective of ‘knowledge in practice’ requires the presence of all three aspects. To do so, it is necessary, however, to distinguish between a) cases where the person in question has not (yet) developed one or more of the aspects, and b) cases where the person previously met and acted in the world with (some degree of) ‘knowledge in practice’ but has now lost one of the aspects, for instance the ability to perform the required physical movements.

In cases of type a) I would claim that it is not possible to have ‘knowledge in practice’ if one or more of the aspects is completely missing. This is, however, more a matter of necessity as concerns the aspects experiential and practical knowledge than it is for propositional knowledge where it is more a matter of (an empirical corollary to) definition. As regards the former two aspects, there can be no action-oriented perspective without them((Apart from the embryonic perspective of needs-pre-structuring with which the baby comes into being.)) as there would then be no bodily responsiveness or ‘feel for how to go on’ and therefore no ‘opening of the world in action’. As for the linguistically expressible aspect, given that the term ‘knowledge in practice’ is not intended to designate action-oriented perspectives as such, but only more developed and sophisticated ones with a domain-, field-, or profession-specificity, there will in practice always be propositional knowledge incorporated into it: Language usage is an integral part of living our lives – as argued above, not solely or even primarily in the form of representation per se of facts about the world and our actions in it, but rather in the form of dealing with the world. But this ‘dealing with the world’ will certainly include making representational statements about the phenomena and people we encounter whilst doing so, as part of going about our tasks. In other words, it does not seem empirically plausible that one could involve oneself in a domain to the extent that one develops experiential and practical knowledge aspects, but do not phrase any propositional sentences in the course of so doing. Though I claim with Merleau-Ponty that my body understands its world without having to make use of my ‘symbolic function’, incorporation of propositional knowledge in the perspective as part of what we act from (not as something we think about) is natural for us as ‘language game players’. Merleau-Ponty’s statement concerning the way words are part of our ‘equipment’ for meeting the world clearly indicates agreement on this issue. In sum, as the term ‘knowledge in practice’ is reserved for more specific perspectives which are in fact developed at times in our lives when language – including the making of propositional knowledge statements – has long been an integral part of our ways of going about the world; the aspect of propositional knowledge will always to some extent be incorporated in it, too. And, as discussed above, this incorporation is not just an add-on to the experiential and practical aspects; rather, the three aspects inform and interrelate in the unity of ‘knowledge in practice’.

The situation is somewhat different in cases of type b). As I argued in section 2.2 against philosophers such as Carr and Stanley & Williamson, ‘knowing how’ is a tacit feel for ‘how to go on’, present in the very doing itself, and thus inherently involving the physical ability to actually perform the action. In other words, if e.g. the pianist loses the use of her hands, she will no longer ‘know how’ to play the piano. On the one hand, this seems a reasonable implication, especially in light of the considerations above concerning the dependency of skill on actual material realization of the problem, game, instrument etc. upon or with which it is enacted. If, that is, the pianist were to try to play the piano utilizing other parts of her body and/or via electronic mediation, she would not immediately ‘know how to’ do this but would have to learn to master the new physical movements. On the other hand, it seems quite imaginable that the pianist, when listening to music students less skilled than she used to be, will sense acutely how the piano should be played. Her practical ‘feel for’ playing the piano will resonate in her experience of the performance, even perhaps to the extent that she will get up to correct the student – only to realize as her arms fail that of course she will not be able to show it to him((Gallagher, referring to Melzack, Poeck and Simmel in addition to Merleau-Ponty (Melzack, 1990; Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Poeck, 1964; Simmel, 1966), discusses examples of this kind of ‘forgetting’ the loss of a limb (Gallagher, 2005, Chapter 4). Gallagher’s account hinges on the Merleau-Pontian concept of ‘body schema’ which he understands as a pre-conscious system of flexible motor programs. I agree with Gallagher in explaining the examples in terms of the Merleau-Pontian ‘body schema’, but not with his interpretation of it as a ‘program’ which is innate in its initial form. In my view, the body schema is developed in action, as a non-thematized correspondence of body and world, less a program (signifying something which is there ‘in’ the body – or brain – in a relatively definite form prior to action and ‘set running’ when acting) and more a lived awareness of the body through engagement in the world and attunement to its demands. I develop my view of the ‘body schema’ in Article 4.)). Similarly, there is no reason to expect that the world will not still open itself to her as structured in situations of music and with ‘musical traits’ noticeable in other situations, at least for a period of time after the loss. Part of the explanation for this, as I discuss in Article 4, is that the limits of the phenomenological body need not be given by the contour of the physical body. Quite often, it is not, as when we incorporate a tool into our phenomenological body and sense the world through the tool (Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Polanyi, 1962). On this account, the pianist will still be experiencing the world from the body she used to have, not from the one she has now. Her practical feel will resonate (not quite unlike a phantom pain) as actions-to-be-undertaken in her (phantom or paralyzed) hands.

An additional part of the explanation is that the action-oriented perspective as a ‘style of being in the world’ in a sense is more or goes deeper than the sum of its parts, precisely because it has an ontological side to it in addition to and intertwined with the epistemological one. Therefore, once developed, the perspective may continue as ‘style of being’ and ‘way of letting the world meet oneself’, even if the aspects are lost to some extent. It should, however, not be overlooked that over time, with ‘lack of practice’ as it is quite aptly called, the sophistication of one’s action-oriented perspective will deteriorate and the structure with which the world meets one will be less nuanced than before. Illustrating again with the (too) simple case of X-ray pictures, after years of non-practice the doctor will still be able to make out the lungs and certain pulmonary traits, but his discriminatory skills – and especially his remembrance of the medical expressions – will have declined a great deal (cf. Polanyi, 1962, p. 102). More generally, as one’s engagement in the world shifts to other domains or professions, one’s ‘style of being in the world’ may shift, too, not only because of lack of practice (epistemological reason) but also because one becomes involved in the world in the ways of the new domains and professions (ontological reason).

One last issue needs to be explicated in this section concerning the way the world presents itself meaningfully to us on the basis of our embodied, active being in the world. This is the focus of Article 4 where I argue (in the context of discussing theoretical approaches to the analysis and design of ICT-mediated learning) that Merleau-Ponty’s concept of ‘body schema’ and Gibson’s concept of ‘affordance’ are complementary, because phenomena in the world have objective meaning for us relative to what we are physiologically, personally, and socio-culturally able to do. The claim I make there is the flip side of the argument presented thus far that ‘knowledge in practice’ is an action-oriented perspective which lets the world meet us with a significance-structuring. The point is that the significance which phenomena (objects, traits, layouts, ecological conditions, etc.) meet us with, given our ‘knowledge in practice’ – given what we can actually do – is simply the affordance which these phenomena have for us. Acting intuitively in response to the demands of the situation – experiencing the right moves as ‘drawn out’ of you by it, as Dreyfus puts it (cf. above) – is precisely reacting to the affordances of the situation. When I noted above that ‘knowing how to’ play chess depended on mastering the movements necessary to manipulate the actual physical realization of the game, this was a comment to the effect that the specific physical realization had to afford ‘playing chess’ for the person in question. The claim in Article 4 has the further ontological side to it, though, that the affordances of objects, traits, layouts, ecological conditions etc. are objective and independent of whether we actually perceive them here and now. As we develop more skills and therefore increase our ‘knowledge in practice’, the objective meaning relative to us of phenomena in the world changes. To utilize one of the examples in the article, the affordances of clicking, dragging and dropping objects on the screen which the computer mouse has for me exist whether I see the mouse or not. For the infant, on the other hand, the computer mouse does not afford any of these actions; it affords ‘putting in the mouth’. Article 4 thus adds the following points to the argument already presented here: 1) The ‘knowledge in practice’-structuring of the world corresponds to actual objective changes in meaning in the world. 2) Though ‘knowledge in practice’ opens the world for us, we of course sometimes overlook, neglect or misunderstand traits of the situation. What the situation affords for us is, however, an objective fact – relative to what we can actually do – even when we fail to notice it. 3) What the world affords for us transforms as our skills change (increasing or deteriorating, as the case may be). In sum, therefore, the argument of the article is that affordances have a dynamic, agent-centred, cultural-, experience- and skill-relative, but perception-independent ontology. The claim here is that this view supplements the account of ‘knowledge in practice’ with the complementary ontological status of significance in the world.