2.5 Knowledge as situated and context-dependent

Inherent in the contentions that knowledge is an action-oriented perspective and that ‘know how’ involves a tacit feel for ‘how to go on’ present in the doing itself is the thesis that knowledge is only fully realized in its enactment in practice. A corollary of this thesis is that knowledge takes on form and content from the situation in which it is enacted, i.e. that it is situated and context-dependent. I argue this point at some length in Article 5 where I corroborate the theoretical Wittgensteinian-cum-phenomenological analysis with empirical evidence supplied by research within the fields of distributed cognition (Hutchins, 1993; Hutchins & Klausen, 1996) and situated learning theory (Lave, 1988; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Nielsen & Kvale, 2003; Wenger, 1998). Further examples are discussed in Articles 3, 7 and 10, dealing, respectively, with student understanding of physics and philosophy aspects of quantum mechanics; with the ‘knowledge and skills’ required in the PISA surveys; and with the competence demands placed on students when the user-generated, dynamic practices of Web 2.0 are introduced as learning activities within education. In Articles 7 and 10, my argument centers on the way requirement characteristics at the activity-framing context level delimit and to some extent determine (or create tensions concerning) what in the given situation will count as an appropriate way to let the requirement characteristics at the activity-internal context level frame the ones at the domain-internal level. My discussion of the example in Article 3, conversely, focuses on the domain-internal level, more particularly on the different domain-internal requirement characteristics of physics and philosophy which result in different answers to questions of relevance and significance – even of truth – concerning specific statements about quantum mechanics. In all three articles the point is that any given situation poses a certain complex of demands on the person acting in it and that acting knowledgeably precisely is to let one’s actions be formed and given content by this complex of demands.

The elaboration of a few examples may serve to illustrate the point here. First, in section 2.2 I emphasized that part of the skill of telling a joke is getting the bodily aspects of posture, facial expression, tone of voice etc. right. To this I might now add that of course another part – or rather an interrelated part which decisively influences what ‘getting the bodily aspects right’ will be – is getting the situation right, i.e. to ‘grab the moment’, have the ‘feel for’ what will be considered appropriate and funny here, be sensitive to the audience and perhaps phrase the joke differently to adjust to their prior knowledge and sense of propriety, modulate the way one tells the joke (including the bodily aspects) to attune to cultural norms and expectations etc. It is commonly accepted – verging on cliché or dogma – that humor diverges significantly across cultures. Given the observations just made, one might hypothesize that what varies is perhaps not only the content domain of jokes, but also the way jokes are told: The problem of telling jokes across cultures would then in part be that one’s concretization of the joke to the demands of the situation were amiss because the demands were in fact different in different cultures. That is, that the way one let the concrete situation decide the realization of one’s joke-telling skills was misguided.

A second example would be the significance of an arithmetic calculation mistake in different situations and correspondingly the varying demands of precision and conscientiousness in this regard posed on a person’s realization of ‘knowledge in practice’. In several subjects in school and higher education, including physics, math, chemistry, and biology, a calculation mistake made in solving a problem is considered of minor import – and the grade is only affected slightly by it if at all – as long as the student demonstrates understanding of the subject’s concepts and problem solving methods through his work with the problem. In medicine, however, making mistakes of this kind when prescribing medication is potentially lethal for patients and is therefore regarded as very serious, not just for the trained physician, but for students, too. For the physics researcher, depending on her domain, an arithmetic mistake may be insignificant and easily corrected, or alternatively it may mean the loss of several working days and a lot of money. For the engineer, it may mean the collapse of a bridge or the flooding of a tunnel. In everyday non-professional life, for instance in the supermarket or in the kitchen (de la Rocha, 1985; Lave, 1988), not only the significance of a mistake, but what counts as one will depend on what arithmetic is used for. 2 apples plus 3 apples may correctly equal 4, if they are small compared to the size presupposed in the recipe one is shopping for. The point across these diverging situations is that the context plays a determining role in deciding whether arithmetic correctness is important as a factor ‘in itself’ or not, and to some extent even of what will count as correctness. In accordance with this, to be a knowledgeable math user in a given situation involves the attunement in action of one’s knowledge – i.e. the concrete realization of one’s knowledge in practice – to the way the context determines significance.

This last point – that the context is constitutive for what actually is a factor and that being knowledgeable requires sensitivity to such context-dependence – is further illustrated by considering cases of assertions made (as we say) fully ‘out of context’. Examples would be uttering the statement that “Avogadro’s constant equals 6.02214129×1023 elementary entities of the substance in question” whilst on the witness stand in a murder trial or putting forth a proclamation about Piaget’s stage theory whilst finalizing the purchase of a new car. As Wittgenstein would have said, such allegedly ‘true statements’ presented out of the blue do not appear ‘irrelevant’, but incomprehensible and meaningless. The natural reaction to them would be “what do you mean?” or “what are you trying to convey by that?” not “True, but out of place.” The person making such utterances would be taken, not to be misguidedly displaying his knowledge in an inappropriate setting, but to be revealing his lack of knowledge of what is at stake in the situation.

Similarly, the context will determine what will count as demonstrating that one understands a given subject matter, e.g. what constitutes a ‘satisfactory account, neither too detailed nor too superficial’. In Article 7 I discuss a concrete example from the PISA surveys where the requirement characteristics of the test situation quite clearly led to an assessment of the adequacy of answers – and in particular of differentiations between them – which is at variance with the judgment one would pass in most other types of ‘real life’ situations. In particular, I point out for three specific responses that different ‘real life’ situations would lead to different evaluations of their adequacy, but that in most situations they would be on a par, i.e. in very few situations would one differentiate between them in the way that the PISA answering key does. Thus, I show quite explicitly how the requirement characteristics at the three levels interact to constitute a specific complex of situational demands. And being knowledgeable in the PISA test situation will, again, consist in responding adequately to this specific complex. The example therefore provides another instance to illustrate my overall claim that knowledge is situated and context-dependent, i.e. take on form and content from the concrete situation.

Summing up, over the last five sections I have drawn out those threads of my philosophizing with in the articles in Section 2 which concern development of my view of knowledge. To ensure coherency of presentation as well as demonstrable consistency, I have elaborated a little on some of the points made in the articles. The result is an account of knowledge as a situated, context-dependent, embodied, action-oriented perspective which is comprised of an interrelated unity of three aspects: propositional knowledge, experiential knowledge and practical knowledge. Of these the latter two make up a tacit resonance field of meaning for the former which in turn provides a possibility of interpretation, (re-)direction and transformation of the other two.