What we actually do when we are trying to know

I am a student of intellectual history, which means that I ask how people knew things, why they believed what they did, how they came to take some things for granted, or consider some things as natural, why they chose to express themselves to another person, and what they thought they were working on. These are all questions which involve fathoming another mind. An intellectual historian has to assume that there are some fundamental features of thought and behavior in the past that are recognizable and comprehensible—for example greed, curiosity, the desire for recognition, the impulse to communicate, a need to eat food and pay debts, etc. These perceived similarities serve historians like cognate words serve a translator. What’s recognizable is a tempting way in.

But a good historian, I think, like a good anthropologist, should instead begin with the assumption that the world in the past is fundamentally unlike the world we know. Many categories which allow us to construct meaning now simply did not exist. Most importantly, even when we see the glimmer of a precedent, it’s hard but necessary to remember that there was often no saying that things would turn out the way they did. It’s only a precedent in retrospect. As much as we use our own experiences as reference points, other people are different from us in ways we can’t imagine.

But these aren’t just problems of knowing minds in the past, they’re constant problems in seeking out friendship, in negotiating difference, and in teaching. Teaching, I think, requires a great deal of compassion and a degree of intimacy with another person’s mind, a mind which is in many ways unfathomable.

Here are some things I’ve learned from studying intellectual history, and which I think are pertinent more broadly:

  1. People do not think in coherent ways. The intellectual historian may begin by prodding for coherence, but she shouldn’t be surprised to find none. People are not coherent.
  2. It often takes people a long time to change their beliefs, perspective, mind.
  3. Sometimes it doesn’t take people long at all.
  4. People usually believe things for a reason. The intellectual historian may hope for a big reason, but sometimes the reason is very small.
  5. People usually express things for a reason.
  6. People feel more than they say, and everyone has an inner life.
  7. That inner life is in many ways unfathomable.

All of these lessons mean that it is a true pleasure to find intimacy with another mind, and it is a true achievement to behave with compassion. But it is also difficult. My favorite ever lecture as an undergraduate was called ‘On Difficulty’ and it addressed what is happening when you find something hard, specifically a literature text you are reading. George Steiner proposes four types of ‘difficulty’ in reading:

  1. contingent difficulties: difficulties that can be solved with more information or research
  2. modal difficulties: things which are fundamentally at odds with the reader’s world view
  3. tactical difficulties: difficulties contrived by the author for a certain purpose
  4. ontological difficulties: difficulties which constitute the essence of a text and which are an end in themselves

In Steiner’s scheme, the difficulties I have been talking about are contingent difficulties, which involve not knowing enough about the condition of an author in the past, or enough about the experience of a student I am working with. I’ve also been talking about modal difficulties, which we can only get better at dealing with but cannot completely overcome. Realizing that difficulty comes in many sorts is a reminder that there are also many ways to try to understand and know.

In this blog, I want to write about what we actually do when we are trying to know—to know a text, a place, a student, a friend, an object. As a student of the history of science, I am curious about who knows things, how they know, and how knowledge is trusted. As an outdoor experiential educator, I am interested in the moments when we know as we do, and know as we go.

George Steiner, On Difficulty and Other Essays (1980).