“Knowlege Creation” a.k.a. an obscenely long post that ends with a batman reference

David Lankes’ (2011) discussion of ‘knowledge creation’ in his book, Atlas of New Librarianship reminded me of a particular experience I’ve had as a student.

This experience I’ve actually had more than once.  It usually entails a class discussion on a topic that inspires strong opinions.  While not always the case, as someone who has participated in her fair share of fierce debates both in and out of the classroom setting, I’ve found that a lot of actual disagreements are due to semantics.  Let me give a specific example.  I can remember having a discussion with a group of students over whether or not it was possible for free will to co-exist with theories of bio-determinism.  After about an hour or so hashing it out, it was only when we – as a group – tried to nail down ‘free will’ as a concept in terms of what we each meant by ‘free will’ that we were – as a group – able to find some common ground and move forward with the discussion.  This relates to Lankes’ discussion in the sense that as a student, I have had experience with the importance of clearly defining relationships, of not relying solely on words as static concepts in order to create and communicate knowledge.   In that sense I think Lankes’ (2011) observation that part of understanding something is through its relationship with other things is correct.  If only because in my own experience I’ve found that a concept like  ‘free will,’ to a group of students, only has meaning and the potential for knowledge growth if that group of students are all on the same page in terms of what the concept of ‘free will’ actually means and how it relates to each individual student’s pre-existing knowledge base.


Lankes, R. David (2011). The Atlas of New Librarianship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

#############Notes on class discussion July 24th, 2012###############

Today’s class made me want to add one or two observations to my discussion of the “knowledge creation thread.”  In particular I was intrigued by a blog post Prof. Lankes brought to the attention of the class.  The blog post, written by Lane Wilkinson, expressed enthusiasm for the scope of the The Atlas, but ultimately rejected the Atlas for it’s “relativist world view.” A link to the blog post can be found here.

First I should probably begin with a disclaimer.  It has been a long time since I studied epistemology and for the most part, my concentration has always been philosophy of law and political theory and not epistemology.  I should also probably mention that I am currently taking #IST 511 with David Lankes and have no doubt probably been brainwashed.  That being said, as someone who ‘has drunk the Koo-Aide so to speak’, I do feel compelled to offer one or two arguments on Lankes behalf.  While it certainly is legitimate to question whether a group of students discussing human free will and bio-determinism ever come close to the truth or the other epistemic concepts Wilkinson lists (justification, warrant, objectivity, etc.), what is not legitimate is to assume that the absence of those epistemic concepts necessarily results in no knowledge creation.

Let me explain.  As one of the students in the discussion, I can fully admit that it would be a breathtaking display of arrogance to assume that, because I had discussed the matter with a group of students, I somehow had become aware of the truth.  That I somehow, through conversation, had arrived at the correct understanding of the relationship between human free will and bio-determinism.  I would never argue that; but what I would argue is that through my conversation with the other students, I gained a better understanding of not only the beliefs and understanding of the issue of the other students, but a better understanding of my own beliefs and understanding of the issue.  While this awareness might not be knowledge of the topic discussed, it is knowledge of the how my beliefs and understanding of an issue relate to others’ beliefs and understanding of an issue.

Subsequently, it is important to distinguish between knowledge with a capital ‘K’,  which would be the kind of knowledge that  satisfies the epistemic concepts, and knowledge that is created through dialogue and is more of a self-awareness of one’s own beliefs and understanding of a topic, as well as an awareness of the dialogue’s other participants’ beliefs and understanding of a topic and how the two are related.

Of course, I can imagine Wilkinson would come back with an argument along the lines of, ‘so what.’  So what if the knowledge created is not the kind with a capital ‘K.’  The main concern of librarians and scientists should be knowledge with a capital ‘K.’  To this I would ask Wilkinson to imagine, instead of a group of students, a professor of philosophy who specializes in issues of free will, a psychologist who specializes in compulsive behavior, an evolutionary biologist, and a professor or neurology and organic chemistry who specializes in the chemical pathways of the brain.  All of these esteemed colleagues decide one night, over a pitcher of beer, to embark on a joint venture together to seek truth and knowledge with a capital ‘K’ in order to shed light on the question of free will and bio-determinism.  I don’t think Lankes would argue that a conversation between these individuals (hopefully helped along by an information professional and not just beer) would result in knowledge with a capital ‘K’, rather I think what Lankes would argue would result, and should result, is a consensus of what the issue at hand is as, through the conversation, each member gains a better understanding of what each of them has to contribute to this endeavor and how to move forward together.  While the knowledge created through such a conversation might not be knowledge with a capital ‘K,’ it is a very important sort of knowledge that shouldn’t be discounted out-of-hand (especially by librarians).

Here, at the risk of destroying all the good will I’ve built up with professor Lankes by trying to defend the Atlas, I think it’s important to note that I do actually agree with some of the viewpoints expressed by Wilkinson.  I agree for instance that it is somewhat disappointing not to find more philosophical viewpoints on the field of librarianship in a book that is meant to serve as an introduction to the field.  On the one hand, I think I can see where Wilkinson is coming from.  In philosophy of law 101 for instance you get a broad overview of the concepts and you spend a lot of your time as a student thinking things like, ‘Hobbes was the guy who said life sucks so we have to hand over power to a king, and Locke was the guy who said, yeah, but only some power not all of it.’  It’s only later when you fulfill all your prerequisites and have a general understanding to build upon do you get to read the treatises of any one philosopher or philosophical standpoint and are able to be truly swept away by a particular philosopher or viewpoint.

On the other hand, back to defending Lankes, it’s very clear sitting in Lankes class that he has a clear agenda.  Lankes wants to churn out activists, he wants to churn out librarians who are ready to hit the ground running, who are confident in their ability to literally change the world and make it a better place.  I see Lankes as the Marx of librarianship, and while you would never probably read The Communist Manifesto in an introductory philosophy course, you would read it first thing if the goal of the instructor was to inspire students and professionals-in-training to improve and actually change the very issue or profession they are studying.

Consequently, since I have already exceeded what is proper for not only this assignment, but for a blog post in general, I will end this discussion with a somewhat silly analogy to recap my original objection to Wilkinson’s critique of Lankes’ (2012) use of conversation theory in the Atlas and here it is:

If knowledge with a capital ‘K’ is batman, than the knowledge that is created through conversation is Alfred and, before you sigh with exasperation, realize that Alfred, like a librarian, is in reality quite a bad ass!!


5 thoughts on ““Knowlege Creation” a.k.a. an obscenely long post that ends with a batman reference

  1. Hi Jane!. You know, in looking over my review of the Atlas, I regret that I didn’t highlight more of the positive features of the book. Just to set the record straight, I agree with (most of) Lankes’ mission; I just think his goals are better met through more robust philosophical treatments than conversation theory and postmodernism. As I explain in subsequent posts, Lankes’ appeal to social constructionism has the unfortunate effect of undermining the very values he seeks to instill in librarianship. And that’s too bad, because I think he’s on to something important.

    Anyway, you ask me to imagine the philosopher, the psychologist, the evolutionary biologist, and the neurologist who jointly seek truth and big-K Knowledge. You’re right that many problems could be solved if we just paid closer attention to semantics: it’s one of the first lessons of analytic philosophy :). So, to be clear, big-K ‘Knowledge’ refers to “warranted true belief” and small-k ‘knowledge’ refers to a set of beliefs gained through consensus (agreement). Should librarians dismiss small-k knowledge out of hand? Of course not. I’m with Hume that there is no species of belief more important than that gained through the testimony of others. Consensus, conversation, and agreement aren’t just useful, they’re absolutely vital and we would gain little knowledge of the world without them.

    The problem lies not in the utility or value of small-k knowledge. Rather, the issue is teleological: what is our goal when we seek information, big-K Knowledge or small-k knowledge? Lankes is explicit in the Atlas that small-k knowledge is a sufficient epistemic goal. My contention is that if small-k knowledge is our stopping point (i.e., our goal is agreement) then there is nothing preventing us from all manner of false beliefs, ranging from the trivial (like agreeing that Buffalo is the capital of New York) to the terrible (like agreeing that homosexuality is a sin). Or, look at it another way: assume the motley crew at the bar settles the semantics, debates for hours, and comes to a consensus agreement that free-will and determinism are compatible. Everyone is pleased with the agreement, until the philosopher asks, “wait a minute, are we sure that we got it right?” If you follow Lankes and believe that only small-k knowledge matters, this question is meaningless; after all, if we all agree then we got it right by definition because the philosopher’s question is equivalent to “is our agreement correct?” which on Lankes’ view means the same as “is our agreement an agreement?” which is trivially true.

    But, the philosopher’s question isn’t meaningless. It makes perfect sense to ask whether a consensus belief is true or false, or whether agreement is even sufficient warrant for belief. Everyone understands what the philosopher means when she asks, “but is it true?” because the group at the bar isn’t just looking for agreement, they’re looking to agree *about* something, namely, the truth about the way the world really is. The whole point of their conversation isn’t merely agreement for the sake of agreement, the point is to gain big-K Knowledge (well, the real point is probably to have a fun and stimulating conversation with friends, but you get the idea). Whether and how they do gain Knowledge is a separate issue and, for my money, that’s where I want to see librarianship. For Lankes, librarianship is about facilitating agreement within a community. For me, librarianship is about facilitating the education of a community. This is why I agree with so much of the Atlas: small-k knowledge is awesome. But, it’s only the first step in knowledge creation, not the last.

    Sorry for the long comment. Hope it makes sense!

    • First, thanks for the comment!

      Second, I agree with you about Lankes, but I still think there is a way to salvage his argument. Let me explain.

      In terms of the teleological issue that is raised, I agree: small k-knowledge as you have defined it is not a sufficient epistemological goal. Big K-knowledge is necessary not only because it prevents us from pursuing agreement for agreement’s sake, it is also what lends a certain nobility, and indeed meaning, to the pursuit of knowledge. So why does Lankes ignore the importance of big-K knowledge? From what I can gather from reading his book and taking his class, it’s not that he ignores big-K knowledge, rather he thinks because big-K knowledge is impossible to attain, it is doomed to live forever in the esoteric world of philosophers. Librarians, because they have to live in the real world, must deal with the type of knowledge that resides in the real world. They must deal with the type of knowledge that will inform their actions and the actions of the community they serve, which for Lankes, is small k-knowledge.

      Here it is important to note that Lankes’ mistake is not in assuming that small k-knowledge is the knowledge of the real world. His mistake is in assuming that because big-K knowledge is unattainable, it does not inform the actions of librarians or the actions of the communities they serve. I would argue, as I think you would argue, that big-K knowledge does inform the actions of individuals in the real world simply because it is an ideal. Big-K knowledge, as an ideal, does not have to exist in the real world, does not even have to be actually attainable for it to have a profound effect on why and how people pursue knowledge. A political philosopher for instance, might work to identify the attributes of a utopian society without ever believing for one second that the ideal society is something that is real, let alone attainable. Seen in this light the point of the ideal, the point of big-K knowledge, is not in the attainment of big-K knowledge, but in the movement that occurs when one strives to move closer to big-K knowledge as an ideal.

      Subsequently, small-k knowledge and conversation theory is just that – it is the movement that occurs when striving towards the ideal. Hence, if Lankes’ argument is to be salvaged, it is through the recognition of the intimate relationship that exists between big-K knowledge and small-k knowledge. In essence, the argument to be made is that Lankes’ philosophy already accounts for big-K knowledge in a meaningful way (whether he likes it or not) because there can be no small-k knowledge without big-K knowledge.

      Of course one can always argue, as you have, that agreement for agreements sake is small k-knowledge without big-K knowledge. To that I would respond by drawing out the observation that behind every agreement, there must be a reason. There must be a reason why individuals seek to agree with one another in the first place. There must be a reason why individuals seek to resolve internal conflicts within themselves, with other individuals, and with the real world in which they find themselves. I would argue that that reason is big-K knowledge. When I argue with myself to try to figure out what I believe about issue ‘x,’ it’s not because I actually enjoy a sensation akin to banging my head repeatedly against a brick wall. Similarly when a group of students come together to discuss human free will, implicit in that activity is a desire for big-K knowledge.

      This brings me to your last, and I think most important point: explicit or inherent desire for big-K knowledge aside, it is important that the group of students who come together to discuss free will don’t mistake agreement for big-K knowledge. I think you would argue that the best way to prevent this is through explicit desire for big-K knowledge. Conversely I think Lankes would argue that explicit desire for big-K knowledge is not necessary because the implicit desire for big-K knowledge, as it is necessarily present in small-k knowledge, is sufficient. It is sufficient to prevent small-k knowledge from being mistaken for big-K knowledge because there will always be a Lane Wilkinson to throw a wrench in the works. There will always be another group of students or individuals to challenge the original group and continue the conversation. What is crucial to Lankes’ argument therefore is continued conversation. One conversation does not big-k knowledge make. A continued conversation however, that is inclusive and open ended, allows an individual or group of individuals to map more and more of the small-k knowledge landscape and – by mapping more and more of the small-k knowledge landscape – while they may never reach big-K knowledge, they can gain a better understanding of the boundaries of big-K knowledge.

      Thus, seen in this light, the epistemological goal of small-k knowledge is actually more intellectually honest than an epistemological goal of big-K knowledge. When one’s epistemological goal is big-K knowledge, there is an assumption that big-K knowledge is attainable (even if one doesn’t actually assume this, the schema of one’s intent is set up in such away that the assumption is implicit regardless); and where there is an assumption that big-K knowledge is attainable, there is a higher risk that one will mistake small-k knowledge for big-K knowledge. Whereas if one’s epistemological goal is small-k knowledge, one is seeking merely to situate big-K knowledge in an ever changing landscape of small-k knowledge that grows more detailed as the conversation continues.

  2. You raise some interesting points. Here are some replies:.

    First, the “big-K” knowledge I’m discussing is propositional knowledge (warranted, true belief). For example, to say I “know” that Albany is the capital of New York is to say that (1) Albany is in fact the capital of New York, (2) I believe that Albany is the capital of New York, and (3) I have adequate reasons (warrant) for believing that Albany is the capital of New York. I know this is a rather dull example, but I chose it to demonstrate that propositional knowledge is far from mysterious and unattainable. Far from living in the “esoteric world of the philosophers”, propositional knowledge is an everyday, normal sort of thing. “I know that 11 is greater than 10.” “I know that my name is Lane.” “I know that my coffee is mostly made of water.” And so on; the vast majority of knowledge claims are mundane but I would contend that these are, in fact, the claims that constitute “the knowledge of the real world”. My criticism of Lankes is that he undermines this everyday knowledge of the world by accepting mere agreement as an adequate reason for believing something is true. Surely ‘2+2=4’ is more than a matter of agreement. Likewise, if a group of people agree that Buffalo is the capital of New York, I find it odd to say that they thus “know” it. For a good overview of where I think the debate lies, check out the SEP article on Social Epistemology: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology-social/. I’m taking the classical approach, Lankes is taking the anti-classical approach.

    Second, I absolutely think that conversation is important. But we have to be careful about not equivocating over the word ‘reason’. You invoke ‘reason’ to mean ‘purpose’, and I disagree that behind every conversation there is the goal of building some form of knowledge, propositional or otherwise. Sometimes we just want to shoot the shit, so to speak. However, in the more salient definitions of ‘reason’ as justification or explanans, I think we can certainly come to new or improved reasons for belief through conversation, even if that’s not our purpose. But, a conversation itself doesn’t necessarily create knowledge.

    Third, we shouldn’t put much stock in whether there will be a Lane Wilkinson around to throw a wrench in the works. This certainly is not sufficient to prevent mere belief from being mistaken for knowledge. We wrench throwers certainly make efforts, but there are an awful lot of unjustified, untrue agreements being mistaken for knowledge: vaccines cause autism, homosexuality is a sin, Obama is a secret Muslim, and so on. Small-k knowledge is mistaken for actual knowledge all of the time, and often to disastrous results. You’re right that Lankes’ response is that conversations are never really over, and knowledge is always being negotiated. But, if knowledge is created in conversations, and conversations are never closed, then we never really know anything. To avoid the bigots and morons, Lankes has to make conversations open-ended, which then makes everyday claims like “my name is Lane” or “Albany is the capital of New York” unsettled and negotiable.

    Finally, I’m confused by your last paragraph about intellectual honesty because I don’t really see how intellectual honesty is at issue. Could you explain? (I do think epistemic humility is at issue, though I would say that the classical approach to knowledge is certainly more in line with epistemic humility than Lankes’ approach.)

  3. I think the best way to formulate a response is to address each one of your points in order so… here we go:

    First, in terms of big-K knowledge as propositional knowledge, in my view, whether or not Lankes believes that 2+2=4 is true because there is an agreement that it is true, is besides the point. The point is not ‘what makes 2+2=4 true’, the point is, how do you know that 2+2=4 is true in the first place. In other words Lankes’ answer (at least as far as I can tell) is not that 2+2=4 is true because of conversation theory; rather conversation theory is the only way to approximate or approach the truth (whether it exists or not) and to ultimately, give it (truth) meaning.

    Seen in this light, even “mundane” knowledge needs conversation theory in order to be rescued from the “esoteric world of philosophers.” All of your examples (Albany is the capital of New York; 2+2=4; I know that 11 is greater than 10, etc.) rely on conversation theory in some form or another to provide justification. Example: say for instance that 2+2=4 is true. Not that you and I and everyone else believes it is true, rather, 2+2=4 is true with a capital T. Even if that is the case, even if 2+2=4 is true with a capital T, your belief that it is true, in order to be warranted, requires conversation theory. In other words, your belief that 2+2=4 is true, is a warranted belief, not because it actually is true, but because of conversation theory. 2+2=4 is a warranted belief (i.e. you have reason to believe it) because it is something you were taught in grade school, it is something you have learned to be true through your conversation with your teachers and with your actual experience of the physical world (i.e. you know that if your dad gives you two jelly beans, and your mom gives you two jelly beans, you have four jelly beans).

    Here it is important to note that conversation theory (at least as far as I have conceived of it and how I think Lankes’ conceives of it) is not limited to two or more people sitting around conversing with one another. Conversation theory includes an individual contemplating the universe (a.k.a. banging their head against a wall). It includes a scientist following the scientific method in order to achieve reproducible results and it includes children learning that hot things are hot and two jelly beans plus two jelly beans equals four jelly beans. Conversation theory therefore covers the wealth of experience that imbues reality and truth with meaning, and while it may not be the truth itself, it is the way in which truth is processed.

    Which brings me to your second point about being careful not to confuse ‘reason’ with ‘purpose’. While I agree with you it is wrong to assume that big-K knowledge is the goal of every conversation, I would argue that it doesn’t matter whether it is is or it isn’t. Purpose or intent does not matter, our motley crew of scientists for example, do not need to be consciously aware of their pursuit of big-K knowledge for them to, in all actuality be pursuing big-K knowledge through their conversation. Whatever their intention or purpose may be, the scientists, through their conversation, are creating (not big-K knowledge per se) but rather they are engaging in a process through which their beliefs become warranted.

    Note here that I am not arguing that big-K knowledge is created by conversation theory; rather I am arguing that conversation theory is the process by which beliefs become justified. Also important to note is that that justification does not necessarily make those beliefs true with a capital-T or that one conversation provides sufficient justification for any particular belief or set of beliefs. What is important again is the idea of a continued conversation that provides continued justification for beliefs.

    Which brings me to your third point regarding the availability of Lane Wilkinsons and whether or not conversation theory, as an open-ended proposition leaves certain claims unsettled and negotiable. Here I think I must agree with you to disagree with you. Let me explain. I agree that in order to deal with the bigots and the morons of the world who mistake mere belief for knowledge, Lankes does have to make the conversation open-ended, which does have the effect of also making every day claims unsettled and negotiable. I would submit however that the observation that some conversations are easier than others is not counter-intuitive. In other words, just because it is easier to agree about everyday claims, does not make every day claims more true than claims over which it is harder to agree. The ease by which an agreement is reached does not translate to the degree to which a claim is true; rather the ease by which an agreement is reached translates to the degree to which a particular belief in a claim is justified or warranted.

    So how then, you may very well ask, does Lankes account for the fact that every day claims like 2+2=4 are actually true – the short answer is: he doesn’t. The long answer is: I’m not sure why he needs to. Accounting for the “truthiness” of everyday claims does not contribute to the overall sufficiency of an epistemic goal. I would argue the opposite in fact, which is actually where the issue of being intellectually honest comes in to play.

    It seems to me, and please correct me if I am wrong, that in your view the question that should drive all other inquiries is, “but is it true.” Meaning small-k knowledge, for you, is not a sufficient epistemic goal because it merely asks the question, “what do you believe” rather than “is what you believe actually true.” Hence, it makes sense that you would find Lankes’ argument problematic due to the fact that the continued conversation forecloses the possibility that we can ever know anything because, if we can never know anything, then the very question, “but is it true” is not intellectually honest. It is not intellectually honest because hidden within the question “but is it true” is the assumption that we can actually know when something is true with a capital-T. If we can not know if something is true with a capital-T then the very question “but is it true” is superfluous because, true or not, there would be no way of knowing.

    I submit therefore that the more intellectually honest approach is to ask, “why do you believe what you believe,” a question that I believe is the very heart and soul of conversation theory and Lankes’ conception of knowledge creation as a community endeavor. The question, “why do you believe what you believe” is more intellectually honest precisely because it does not account for the “truthiness” of every day claims, it does not assume that truth with a capital-T can be known.

    Subsequently, the whole of my argument can be summed up as follows: I don’t think even the Lane Wilkinsons of the world can know that what they know is true. They can have warranted belief that what they know is true through conversation theory, but they can’t know definitively that what they know is absolutely true. Conversely the Lane Wilkinsons of the world can refute my entire argument by arguing that it is possible know when something is definitively true because… “xyz.”

    • (1) Don’t get me wrong, I agree that conversation is one of the most important methods we have for acquiring warranted beliefs about the world. I’m with Hume: “there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from [testimony].” But, I also think that there are better and worse ways of acquiring knowledge through conversation. Lankes says that knowledge is created through conversation simpliciter (i.e., it’s socially constructed agreement), whereas I say that knowledge can be created through conversation provided that we are adhering to critical thinking, cultural sensitivity, epistemic humility, and similar cognitive concepts. I don’t know that Albany is the capital of New York merely because I agreed to that in a conversation. I know it because I agreed to it in the course of a conversation that abided by reliable critical thinking skills. Lankes’ theory, like all social constructionist theories, cannot account for why critical thinking, cultural sensitivity, and epistemic humility are to be preferred over irrationality, prejudice, and stubbornness (the answer is that critical thinking is truth-oriented, prejudice is not). I see this is a fundamental flaw.

      (2) Or course I agree that “justification does not necessarily make…beliefs true.” Truth is a linguistic concept, justification is an epistemic concept. Whether we are justified in believing something has no bearing on its truth. For Lankes, truth isn’t relevant because knowledge is merely justified belief, and sustained conversational agreement is sufficient justification. But, I contend, truth matters. Orwell’s Big Brother may succeed in getting everyone to agree that 2+2=5, but that doesn’t mean that they have come to new knowledge. They’re just wrong.

      (3) Finally, you are correct that I think we are capable of making true claims about the world. I think there is an external world that we can describe through language. Further, I think that those linguistic descriptions can, in fact, come to represent the external world. What we call “truth” is a property of those linguistic propositions. I hold up my hands and say “I have two hands” and it’s true because I really do have two hands (for now). My statement described some aspect of reality. Hence, it’s true. If it’s intellectually dishonest to think that we can make statements that accurately describe the external world, then I confess to being intellectually dishonest. For a better summary of my position, check out this blog post: http://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/libraries-are-in-the-demolition-business/

      Thanks for an interesting conversation. I really wish I could sit in on Lankes’ class, it sounds fascinating and he’s one of the best instructors you’ll ever have. I don’t want to distract from the rest of your studies, so I’ll let you have the last word. 🙂

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