thoughts about thoughts

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I just started reading the book The Curious Feminist by Cynthia Enloe and the first page includes this gem:

I have come to think that the capacity to be surprised – and to admit it – is an undervalued feminist attribute. To be surprised is to have one’s current explanatory notions, and thus one’s predictive assumptions, thrown into confusion. In both academic life and activist public life in most cultures, one is socialized to deny surprise. It is as if admitting surprise jeopardized one’s hard-earned credibility. And credibility, something necessarily bestowed by others, is the bedrock of status. … Better to assume the “Oh, well, of course it would turn out like that” pose.

 What do you think?

For me, I hadn’t thought about the connection between admitting surprise and admitting ignorance but I have been  thinking about the idea that knowledge or understanding or ideas about something is a resource, like time or money or connections. It is a strange one because it cannot necessarily be counted.  Some types of knowledge can be demonstrated watching their effect in the world. For example the knowledge of how to fix a car can be demonstrated by repairing a car). Certain types of knowledge can be tested by comparison with agreed upon standards. We can test if a person understands the material covered in a grade twelve social studies class by comparing his understanding to what the teacher wanted him to know. We can test how well a person understands a particular language by comparing the person’s knowledge of the language with the agreed upon meanings and uses of the words in that language. You can test a person’s knowledge of Shakespeare by comparing what a person knows about Shakespeare with the body of knowledge already assembled about Shakespeare but even here a person is going to run into trouble because there are so many approaches or ways of knowing or understanding things. Any new unlabelled, undefined way of looking at the world cannot be measured or tested. We can look at how well a model of thought holds up over time and against other evidence, and that will depend a bit on how much it is exposed to. In the meantime the practical measurement of knowledge – credibility – is, as the passage above points out, always bestowed by others.

I’m thinking, rather confusedly, about the idea of knowledge as a sort of power. Obviously knowledge of weaponry or strategy can be a type of power, or knowledge that allows one person to do something another can not. Yet there’s also knowledge about something. If one person or group asserts that they know or understand something about another person or group, they can be denying credibility to the other person or group’s knowledge about themselves. If a friend says “you don’t really want that” to someone they are denying the other person’s experience of wanting it. If a politician or an academic or anyone with power says something about a marginalized group they may be denying the voice of the marginalized people to define themselves. Yet I can’t say that people should have to blindly accept everyone else’s self-assessment or the weapon of credibility and knowledge is being wielded the other way.

I’ve also been thinking about the connection between knowledge and maintaining credibility and status. I want to say “status shouldn’t matter” but I think the reality is it almost always matters. I think about different groups of people struggling to have their voices heard and their ways of understanding the world recognized. I think also of my own experience being told that I’m young and inexperienced. I think of the way in which the words “idealist” or “naive” are wielded against people or the way a political need, such as funding for a program, can be dismissed out of hand unless the groups making the request can provide both a way to sell the idea to the public and a way to fund it; as though a need does not really exist unless the voicer of it possesses enough political know-how.

The need to recognize that there can be validity in ideas and models even if they cannot encompass the whole truth (that is, even if they cannot predict everything and leave surprises) is similar to the need to accept oneself as a good person even though one makes mistakes. How do we make room for people to be wrong in their ideas, without jettisoning the whole idea that ideas need substance and validity and not everything everyone dreams up is fact.

There’s a strange border between the good part of humility and the bad. We need to be humble, ready to listen and to take in new ideas, to recognize our mistakes and limitations, and to not overestimate our abilities. On the other hand we need to not be so humble that we attach no worth to our own views. We need to be humble enough to recognize when certain dreams are impossible but not so humble as to never dream of anything.

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