Conceptual confusion in edu-twitter discussion: Definitions de re vs. de dicto

(The following is [when correct] largely taken from my reading of the work of P. M. S. Hacker; where it is wrong, it is entirely mine.)

Many discussions on edu-twitter appear to begin in media res, that is, the initial missteps that caused the tension have already occurred. Twitter’s format is not conducive to then untangling the conversation to find these missteps. In this post, I want to describe a feature which seem to me to be common to many of these missteps.

The concepts we are dealing with in education discourse are often abstractions: knowledge, thinking, learning, reason, logic etc. It would appear, at least superficially, that many disagreements could be solved by fixing the definitions of these words. However, despite innumerable attempts to define concepts such as ‘knowledge’, these discussions and disagreements continue. I would suggest that the reason for this is a mistaken desire for definitions de re, that is, definitions that elicit some kind of objective or language-independent essence of a word. Definitions de re are what we seek when we ask questions like, ‘what is knowledge?’

According to this view, words are labels for things that exist in the world, and our job is to establish what they are labels of. But these kinds of questions are philosophical land-mines. They give rise to all sorts of bizarre questions which are the root of much philosophical confusion: is there such a thing as the property of ‘chair-ness’ which belongs to all chairs? Is there such a thing as ‘knowledge’ which belongs to all knowledgeable people? Is there such a thing as ‘reason’ which belongs to all good arguments? We then seek an analytic definition of sufficient and necessary conditions (e.g. S knows p, if and only if S believes p, S is justified in believing p, and if p is true). However, such is the organic nature of language that counterexamples to these definitions can always be found. The ‘Platonic’ response was that these properties must therefore exist as metaphysical forms. The difficulty with this approach is that we end up having to believe in these metaphysical entities or simply accept a particular (defeasible) definition (such as the JTB view of Knowledge) and thus agreement in such discussions of such concepts will often depend at which particular altar we worship.

However, there is another arguably more fruitful approach, which is to describe how the word or expression can and cannot be used in language; we can describe the concept de dicto. In this kind of approach, we are involved with the expression as a tool to be used in a given circumstance. In education discourse, due to our desire for definitions de re, we often treat ‘knowledge’ as if it were a single property or thing. However, when we look at the very many ways in which the verb ‘to know’ might be used, it can easily be shown that this is not the case. Philosophy commonly breaks down knowledge into three types, acquaintance knowledge, ability knowledge and propositional knowledge, but even this doesn’t really seem to cover all these different uses, and what would count as a synonym in each case:

  • ‘I know I am right!’
    • I’m sure I’m right
  • ‘I know the kings and queens of England from 1066 to the present day’
    • I can recite the kings and queens…
  • ‘Oh, that’s very knowledgeable of you!’
    • I’m surprised (impressed) that you said that!
  • ‘I know what you mean’
    • I sympathise with you
  • ‘She knows her football’
    • She makes insightful comments about football
  • ‘I know Dave’
    • I’ve met Dave
  • ‘He’d known better times’
    • He didn’t use to have such bad luck/be poor
  • ‘From now on, I’d like to be known as Dr Johnson’
    • I’d like to be called Dr Johnson
  • ‘I’ve had a tip from someone in the know’
    • I’ve had a tip from someone with inside information

It seems silly and more than a bit contrived to call equate ‘I’m sure I’m right’ with ‘propositional knowledge’. This entirely ignores what the word ‘know’ is doing in this sentence. Here ‘I know’ is being used to combat some form of doubt which has made itself known. Can ‘sympathise’ be reduced to propositional knowledge? Of course not. If someone was pouring their heart out to me and I said, ‘I have propositional knowledge of your situation’, I’m not sure that would do the required degree of comforting.

As well as enumerating the variety of uses of a word, one of the main things that we can look out for in this kind of investigation are incompatibilities, for example, the concept of a rod is incompatible with the concept of not having a length – i.e. the following sentence does not have any sense:

  • This rod has no length

It is not that this sentence describes a metaphysical fact that precludes the physical possibility of a length-less rod, but that this sentence literally has no use. There is nothing for it to describe. Instead, sentences like this prescribe how we use the concepts of rod or length. They are rules of language in the guise of descriptions.

If we apply this to the concept of knowledge, we can see some interesting incompatibilities. Knowledge, in education discourse, is often, correctly related to memory. Sometimes, however, this relationship becomes a reduction and knowledge is defined solely in terms of that which is in our long-term memory. This ignores some important differences between the ways in which we use the concepts of memory and knowledge. For example, it makes perfect sense to say, ‘I am trying to remember’, but no sense to say, ‘I am trying to know’; one can have a profound knowledge of a subject, but not a profound memory of a subject. If one cannot remember something, then one has forgotten it, but if one does not know something, then one is ignorant of it.

The most common objection to this method of conceptual clarification is that it concerns words and not things. i.e. what we are interested in is knowledge, but this is merely an investigation into how we use the words know and knowledge! But to clarify the way in which we use these words, the logic of these words, is to begin to clarify the concept of knowledge. According to the de re approach, words are labels for things, and we therefore need to find the things which the words point at. But this (direct-reference) approach misunderstands how language relates to the world. Language relates to the world by being part of social practices that are carried out given appropriate circumstances. These social practices are rule-bound, there are certain moves that have use, and (as we have seen) other moves that do not. To know a language is to master these practices, just as a chess-player has mastered the rules of the game of chess. Of course, a novice chess player might be unaware of a particular situation or precedent (e.g. en passant) but notice how what has not been mastered is not a general rule, but a practice in a particular situation.

We must also accept that language evolves and changes. When the meaning of words changes, or new ideas become attached to concepts, what has changed is the practice of using the word. We are talking about something different even if the word is the same. The key here is, again, the fact that we sometimes need to translate ideas from one place to the next and ensure that new meanings and old meanings, new practices and old practices do not become conflated.

It is my view, that by concentrating our discussions on how we use words, rather than metaphysical conceptualisations, our discussions on edu-twitter might be more fruitful.

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