3.2 Intertwinement of knowing and being

These considerations also point out the answer to the further questions raised above about the degree to which the ‘style of being in the world’ which characterizes ‘knowledge in practice’ is grounded in social negotiation. Or as one might also put it: whether the action-oriented perspective is one of a socially negotiated position or of an individual’s standing in the world; whether the ‘style of being’ should be understood as an ‘identity’ in an individualistic sense or in the sense of a certain role in social relationships. The answer to these questions is that the style of being in the world is developed in an attunement to situational demands as we partake in concrete activities. Social negotiations form part of these demands and therefore contribute in determining the specific realization of knowledge in practice. In general, they will, however, not be social negotiations per se but social negotiations of ways of dealing with the content domain, given the specific material conditions of the situation. With the example of Article 3, for the domain of quantum mechanics, students of philosophy and of physics must, respectively, learn to recognize ‘the philosophical issues’ and ‘the physics of the matter’ as an essential part of developing the ‘style of being in the world’ of the philosophy or physics student (and potentially the style of being of the philosopher or physicist). The social processes involved in negotiating ‘what our disciplinary take on quantum mechanics is’ may at an abstract level be the same in philosophy and physics, e.g. the articulation of one student’s contribution as exemplary and others’ as ‘getting there but somewhat off the mark’; the positioning in the teacher-students social system of some students as ‘experts’ and ‘bright’ and others as ‘in need of help’ and ‘slow’ (cf. Article 2 for extended examples of such positionings); a ‘telling sigh’ of teachers and fellow students when certain students phrase questions etc. But again the point is that such social processes never take place at an ‘abstract level’; rather, they take place as part of concrete ways of engaging with the content domain. In the philosophy case, for instance in the course of extracting conceptions of reality, motion, and materiality from a description of processes in particle physics. In the physics case, for instance, in the course of doing a physics exercise by identifying and solving relevant mathematical equations and articulating their physical significance. With the focus on what we actually do in interaction with others and the world as the locus for developing our ‘style of being’, one can acknowledge that there may be socially negotiated aspects to a given ‘style of being in the world’ without claiming that the style therefore will be grounded in expectations to given social positions. In some cases it might be. In other cases it might not. Probably in most cases it will be to some degree. Whether it is and to which degree will once again be an empirical matter of the way content domain, material conditions, and social negotiation intermingle in actualizing situational demands.

This line of argument allows me to take full account of the situated learning theorists’ empirical corroboration of the intertwinement of what we know with who we are; and of who we seek to be with how we approach given domains of knowledge and skill ( Dreier, 1999b, 2008; Greeno & Gresalfi, 2008; Greeno & van de Sande, 2007; Hand, 2010; Nielsen, 1999; Nielsen & Kvale, 1999; Sfard & Prusak, 2005; Tanggaard, 2005, 2006) – i.e. of the intertwinement of knowing with being. It allows me to do this whilst still not deciding in general and on beforehand which set of issues has priority over the other, but leaving that a question for empirical investigation in each specific case along with the further one how changes in priority may ensue over time as a result of what happens in practice. In Article 2 I exemplify my position with the case of a Danish boy who taught himself to read at the age of four in a ‘social climate’ of varying degrees of hesitant support. On the one hand, the example illustrates how the boy’s pursuit of reading skills is intertwined with a social negotiation of his identity, negatively (as stubborn and somewhat rebellious towards his pre-school teachers), positively (as ‘bright’), and somewhat ambiguously (as ‘the boy who could read on the first day of school’ – this may be valued positively, or negatively as ‘a smart ass’). It also points out how issues of identity and of knowledge development intertwined for the boy during the course of his school years in transforming ways and with shifting priorities. Expectations for ‘the bright boy’ e.g. influenced his approach to and engagement in school tasks. Conversely, his academic achievements influenced his social position in class. On the other hand, and equally importantly, the example shows the need for empirical analysis of the concrete ways in which issues of knowledge development and of identity intertwine for actual persons. Whether the boy chose to engage so committedly in self-posed reading tasks because he really wanted to be able to read (domain-internal and activity-internal context level reason) or because he was negotiating a social position in pre-school or at home (activity-framing context level reason) or for some combination of reasons such as these cannot be known without detailed empirical investigation. All explanations seem reasonable hypotheses as they stand. As I point out in Article 2, my position here differs not only from the situated learning theorists such as Packer, Goicoechea, Lave, and Wenger, who posit the priority of issues of identity over issues of knowledge development as a general truth about people’s lives (cf. above). It differs also from more moderate situated learning theorists such as Greeno, van de Sande, and Gresalfi who view the social system as the necessary point of departure for analysis, even if one of their goals is to explicate the individuals’ construction of understanding within the social system (Greeno & Gresalfi, 2008; Greeno & van de Sande, 2007; Gresalfi, 2009). By contrast, in taking the starting point of analysis as ‘what we do’ as embodied beings in the world, my view allows both explanations focused on the individual (e.g. intrinsic motivation for a given activity such as learning to read) and on the social system. It even allows for the intermingling of individualist and social-system demands in the actualization of a situation’s unity of requirement characteristics.

One last thing needs to be clarified before I turn to the question of how one learns a style of being in the world. I argued in section 2 that our words are ‘filled up’ with semantic content constituted by our immediate, pre-reflective experiences of living and acting in the world. In the preceding paragraphs I have claimed that what we know is bound up with who we are. Following on from these two claims is a further claim: The practices which we find most significant for who we are will supply the most tacit meaning to our words and vice versa. In Article 8 I introduce the concept of ‘primary contexts’ to enable me to take into account the fact that not all contexts in which we may find ourselves matter equally much to us and that, conversely, some contexts have particular importance for who we understand ourselves to be. The latter are our ‘primary contexts’. The term is intended as a polar concept, i.e. as referring to one end pole on a continuum where the other end pole is ‘indifferent context’. We do not necessarily identify positively with a ‘primary context’ – contexts which we vehemently distance ourselves from show themselves as primary for us by the very fact of the significance we attach to dissociating ourselves from them. For young people who have just moved away from their parents’ home, the home practices are often ‘primary contexts’ for quite some time, as witnessed by the length of the period for which they will understand themselves as ‘having just moved away from home’. For the transformed religious, his previous life and faith (or lack of it) will be primary contexts along with his new religious practices, because of his continuous focus on not living like he did before. On the other hand, of course, we do identify positively with many of our primary contexts. However, it is not uncommon to have to spend a lot of time in contexts which are not primary for one. In Article 8 I argue that ‘stand-alone contexts’ of online courses are an example hereof. So are, one might add, unfortunately many face to face courses to a number of so-called ‘unengaged’ students. The point here is that though one may undertake actions in practices which do not matter to one, one’s lack of engagement in them will severely restrict the degree to which one develops a tacit resonance field of meaning within the domain. And conversely, if one really engages in new practices, it is to be expected that they over time develop into primary contexts for one, even if one was indifferent to them to begin with. This corresponds to my claim at the end of section 2.4 to the effect that one’s involvement in new practices may bring about a transformation of one’s style of being in the world.