It was agreed that our discussion - like all other discussions envisaged for the ``Monist Interactive Issue'' - should begin with the moderator mailing what is usually called a ``target paper.'' The moderator (that is, me) should have done this long ago - by the end of October last, in fact. Now the present text, I am afraid, is still not the paper you were promised. Perhaps there will be no such paper at all - perhaps the discussion will have to emerge from more spontaneous beginnings. The reason: As time goes on, I find it increasingly difficult to adhere to the views I have held for the past few years - without, however, having arrived at some settled, alternative, position. In particular the views I had defended in my 1994 paper ``Electronic Networking and the Unity of Knowledge'' have ceased to satisfy me. (For bibliographical references see below.) I have come to feel disturbed by the typographical bias of those views - especially after having read Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute. Talbott entertains an obsolete notion of what it means to have meaningful knowledge; his philosophical anthropology is quite ahistorical; so ahistorical it made me take issue with what I now recognize to be a latent ahistoricity in my own former approach. I am not saying everything in ``Electronic Networking and the Unity of Knowledge'' was wrong (indeed I would be pleased if some of you would want, at some stage, to have a look at it - I am mailing the text to you simultaneously with this one); but its argument had presupposed a timeless validity of certain ideals which in fact, as I now see, are bound up with the age of the printed book.
If my own views, then, are in flux, the adequate way to convey them is, I would say, not by making statements at all, but by formulating questions. And so here are some questions - I invite you to react to them:
1) Assuming that the term ``knowledge'' has a whole cluster of meanings, most of them fuzzy, how should one proceed when inquiring about what the notion of knowledge in the context of electronic networking amounts to? Should one apply the methods of a non-ethnocentric cultural anthropology so to speak, i.e. describe specific cognitive attitudes as manifested in the linguistic habits of specific networking populations? Should one describe, that is, some emerging new language games, or forms of life, in the Wittgensteinian sense - describe new conceptual patterns, without paying attention to older ones? Or should one, rather, begin precisely with an articulation and analysis of those older patterns, and examine new usages in the framework of the former? My own choice would still be the latter.
2) Assuming you accept this choice, what would an articulation of the hitherto established meanings of the term ``knowledge'' look like? The first distinction perhaps could be that between ``knowing that'' and ``knowing how'': that is, verbal or theoretical knowledge on the one hand, and practical knowledge (skills, techniques) on the other. But then one would immediately have to ask: how clear-cut is this distinction? What is to be said, for example, of knowledge conveyed by pictures (images, diagrams, graphs, maps)? A second - related, but hardly identical - distinction is that between operative and contemplative knowledge. A third distinction is that between personal knowledge (in the sense of knowledge possessed by some individual) and collective knowledge (knowledge possessed by a community, or by a culture). A fourth distinction could be made between personal knowledge (in the sense of evaluative, normative knowledge) and objective knowledge (in the sense of knowledge that is purely descriptive, factual). Are these useful distinctions? What other distinctions would be relevant? And should one also distinguish between knowledge and ``information?'' Is knowledge entirely different from information, or is the former a special case of the latter?
3) Am I right in believing that the nature of knowledge - or if you prefer: the way in which different notions of knowledge emerge, flourish, and become obscure - is not independent of the technologies by which knowledge is communicated and preserved? What connections do obtain here?
4) And what effect, then, has the technology of electronic networking on the nature of knowledge? What are the relevant dimensions of changes in the communication and preservation of knowledge when computer networking supplants the printed text? (And what is the correct expression here: ``supplanting'' or ``complementing''?)
5) It seems obvious to me that one such relevant dimension of change pertains to our experience, and concept, of time; to the temporal context within which we conceive of present contents of communication; to the mode, in particular, in which we experience and handle the past. Important observations have been made, for instance, about the changing notion of archiving (Hedstrom; Bearman). And at the time I read it I was deeply impressed by Birkerts' book Gutenberg Elegies, bewailing our ``fragmented sense of time'' and our ``divorce from the past, from a vital sense of history as a cumulative or organic process.'' I am still impressed; but I am not convinced anymore.
6) The point Birkerts is making is that we are losing the historical consciousness that for many centuries distinguished the Western mind. But are we really losing something? At the time I wrote my paper ``Historical Consciousness in the Computer Age'' (1990) I certainly believed that we are. Today I think that what we lose is perhaps just an obsolete ideal. Perhaps we are gaining, as Nietzsche had thought, a new freedom to deal with the present in a practical spirit.
7) And historical consciousness of course is just one
among the many contestable ideals: the ideals of
originality, individuality, privacy, unity of knowledge,
objectivity, and absolute truth. I think these ideals
should not be interpreted and evaluated
independently of the social fabric from which they
emerged and with which they were, and are, bound
up. A discussion about the concept of knowledge in
the context of electronic networking should at all
times also be a discussion about the kind of society
electronic networking is enabling, or not enabling, us
to build; the kind of life it furthers, or excludes.
Wishing us all a fruitful exchange,
J. C. Nyíri