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On tacit knowledge Daisy Christodoulou could learn, a thing or two, from Jacques Derrida


I was a bit bemused reading Daisy Christodoulou’s piece on tacit knowledge. The point of the piece seemed to be that when attempting to achieve “quality writing” the use of criterion and rules become proxies for quality. I agree, I have (in the past, ahem, a long time ago) taught to tests, when required. Played the game. 

In turn, these rules are inexpertly handled by novice learners. Also agree but it can get a weak candidate through an exam. Smart teachers know that examiners skim read. 

Unfortunately, the blog then descends into a simple invocation of the neo-traditionalist mantra, “practice good / discovery bad”. The issue, tacit knowledge, being the latest convenient vehicle used to deliver the message. Regardless of the intent of the piece, tacit knowledge is an interesting issue

Somewhat unhelpfully the blog does not define its terms nor offer a position, It is a blog why should it? It would be helpful though. Therefore, I will try to do it here.

What is tacit knowledge?

Tacit knowledge is, admittedly, hard to define. Enigmatically Michael Polanyi describes it using the phrase ‘we know more than we can tell’. In essence, it is the ability to make propositional judgements without knowing why, or how.  For example, I often find it hard to describe how I know someone’s age. I can distinguish a 35 year old from a 25-year face one but often cannot explain how I did it. Of course, a 65-year-old face is clearly distinguishable from one 40 years younger. The physical evidence is quite explicit. At younger ages, it is not so easy. Somehow, I am able to perceive a face and map it against a schema of faces that gives me some idea of the age of a person.

A position

Let is adopt a position. Helpfully Martin Robinson has given us a clue in a response to the blog:

The judgement of what quality is should be part of the conversational encounter in the classroom, an argument against relativism and yet an embrace of subjectivity tempered by tradition… An idea of taste, eloquence, beauty and the sublime. We need to teach aesthetics…

Social constructionism studies a phenomenon from the perspective of subjectivity, intertwined by dialectic, with some objective notion of what it is we are studying. In this case aesthetics or, for the purpose of this blog, quality. Unfortunately, by adopting tradition as an objective base we would create two rather sizeable epistemic problems.

Firstly we would not escape  the problem of relativism unless of course we knows of a universal principle of quality that would accommodate all cultures and knowledge traditions.Secondly adopting universal rules based upon a fixed notion of tradition somewhat kills off the subject, who given rules to follow, would end up at some fixed point or other with little to offer in the way of subjective interpretation.

So let us also define a realist position that there is a quality knowledge object subjectively interpreted and based upon some objective notion of quality informed by tradition but not fixed by it. Following Bourdieu, the knowledge object, is both structured and structuring. Invoking Wittgenstein we can say that It carries the norms of quality as constructed within the context it is used. In other words rather than being some fixed notion of the best that has been thought and said, a socially constructed knowledge object like quality frames how we subjectively understand aesthetics and, in turn, as we interact with it we change its meaning.

The Dadaists changed the art aesthetic by challenging tradition and created something new, which, in turn, has become a tradition. The classic Hegelian spiral of challenge and change. Whether Dadaism informs the Islamic world or that of aboriginal tribes in Australia is open to debate.    

Unfortunately that does still does not say what quality is nor how we recognise it.

Quality writing and Derrida

How then do we formulate the rules to describe quality writing that we are to practice? Daisy Christodoulou’s blog somewhat omits this problem. There is a recommendation for explicit instruction and practice but having argued that quality entails tacit knowledge it does leave us something of a conundrum.

Here we could follow Derrida and argue that in fact it is not possible to create rules for quality. There are simply too many rules, which are randomly applied. That in fact the only way to appreciate quality is in its relation to something that has no quality. We can perceive and experience the difference much more easily that defining the rules that inform our decision.

If we return to the example of faces. It is quite possible that the differences between a 25 year old and a 35 year old face are too numerous, and too subtle, to be able to create the rules to describe it. Slight variances in the sheen of the skin, lustre of the hair, skin pigmentation. Perhaps the only way to tell the difference is in the relationship of the one with the other. In other words, you can only discern one because it is not the other.

By adopting the relational, experiential model, we avoid the problem of rules, or criteria, which become proxies for quality. Does anyone really believe that instruction and practice can teach someone about quality? Surely, aesthetics are derived from experiencing different types of writing and making a subjective judgement on quality. Traditional norms informing subjective judgement.

It is true to say that some knowledge structures are transmitted and heavily reliant on objective norms but I would argue aesthetics are too heavily reliant on the subjective domain. Aesthetics do not float free from social norms equally we all have our opinions on issues of quality and aesthetics. 

Of course, the difference between instruction and practice, on the one hand, and guided discovery, on the other, is accentuated in the discourse of neo-traditionalism. In reality few, if anyone, advocates “aimless” unguided discovery. Teachers can only offer a rich palette from which students select the colours they wish to use to paint their own personal landscapes. The palette is structured but not fixed and students select the colours they wish to use they cannot (easily) create their own.

Rules and practice creates banality not quality, worse, it can norm banality as the new tradition of quality. It can, as Dasiy Christodoulou points out, become a worthless proxy for quality. Experiencing quality and subjectively discovering its virtue is more likely to produce results than rules and practice.

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2 thoughts on “On tacit knowledge Daisy Christodoulou could learn, a thing or two, from Jacques Derrida

  1. I read Daisy’s blog and yours, and this is what I think about this question from the perspective of someone who writes as an occupation …

    The reason I can make a living as as a writer is not because I consciously know all the rules (I probably wouldn’t be able to articulate even half of them). It is because I have discovered how best to express myself in several ways. Firstly, it is to do with an inner ‘voice’ that you refine, typically through mentally rehearing something over and over again. Secondly, it is to do with a willingness to make mistakes, and to take the time (indeed, to want) to correct them again and again – this, I think, is to do with a strong sense of purpose. And thirdly it is to do with reading, reading, reading and, as you read, internalising what we might call the ‘rules’ of language but which are actually more to do with the way that language can ‘sing’ to us. If you can speak in the ‘standard’ version of your language, then once you know the techniques of spelling and punctuation the rest is there for the taking.

    A big part of the problem in giving children rules to follow (‘add a sentence starter’) is that we are trying to jump to the end of the process when they are only just at the beginning. We are trying to short circuit something that you have to do in full. They essentially have to ‘discover’ it because you can’t tack rules onto technique and expect magic to happen. Unfortunately, frustratingly I’m sure for some, it just doesn’t work that way!

    1. This is an interesting point. I have always assumed I could write. For a number of reasons not least blogging, and criticism from the other half I have begun to realise that my writing is mediocre. At times it, it works, why or how I cannot say. There is a feel to the prose. I know it works. “It sings to me”.

      I find it frustrating because I can understand Kant but I struggle with punctuation. People tell me the rules and tut and snicker etc but I cannot follow the rules I can only do punctuation by feel. How it feels to me. I simply apply the rules improperly if I try to follow them. Yes some simple rules help but there is a difference between “competent” and quality.

      Sometimes I read my old blogs and I find them hard work. Its sobering. I am trying relay complex ideas and have accepted that blogs can only be written if you compromise on the time spent on them otherwise it simply wouldn’t be possible. But still I can see the problem in hindsight.

      The issue though is the concept of “quality”. That is something other than competent It’s subjective. It’s also about ideas, interpretation and the way that prose interacts with the subject. You have to experience quality and you can only tell what it is by it’s relationship with work that is less so.
      It’s an iterative process.

      I worry that Daisy Christodoulou is part of a movement that seeks to replace quality with proxies for quality. Daisy herself makes the point and then fails to resolve it.

      I agree that you have to discover quality. Following rules simply doesn’t work. Not for me anyway.

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