Saturday 25 June 2011

How do we know?

Few people would contest, I suppose, that hens (or chickens, whichever way you prefer to call them) lay eggs, although not many of us have actually observed egg-laying live: most of us know that hens do it because somebody told us that they do it.

“Somebody told us”, or showed us, or sms-ed us, describes quite accurately how we get to know most of what we know. The American sociologist Charles Wright Mills, in an essay titled The cultural apparatus, put it this way:

“The first rule for understanding the human condition is that men live in second‐hand worlds. They are aware of much more than they have personally experienced; and their own experience is always indirect. The quality of their lives is determined by meanings they have received from others [...], crowds of witnesses they have never met and never shall meet. Yet for every man these images – provided by strangers and dead men – are the very basis of his life as a human being.”

We gather most of our knowledge through language, in other words, by receiving meanings through the particular languages that we happen to share with others. If for some reason we’d better make sure that hens do lay eggs, we can always go and check. Rather more difficult would be for every one of us to confirm by empirical observation that, for example, the Earth orbits the sun, or that Anopheles mosquitoes transmit malaria. Which raises, of course, the next question: how do they know?

In addition, what we and they know is not just a simple collection of (what we take on good faith for) empirical observations and sound arguments that explain them, because human beings are not inert database storage units: in some way or other, all of us come to be part of groups of individuals that matter to us, and that thus come to mediate our knowledge. Wright Mills adds:

“Every man interprets what he observes – as well as much that he has not observed: but his terms of interpretation are not his own; he has not personally formulated or even tested them. Every man talks about observations and interpretations to others: but the terms of his reports are much more likely than not the phrases and images of other people which he has taken over as his own. For most of what he calls solid fact, sound interpretation, suitable presentations, every man is increasingly dependent upon the observation posts, the interpretation centers, the presentation depots, which in contemporary society are established by means of what I am going to call the cultural apparatus.”

Our knowledge, and our opinions about it, flow with the times and the tides. We know different things at different times, and we react to the same things in different ways, because knowledge is bounded by time and space. This is why the process of knowing looks more like a seesaw than like a steadily climbing line.

Riding the flow of knowledge.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

What we know about multilingualism follows the same pattern: here, too, interpretation centres and presentation depots shape what dead people and strangers have had to say about it. And here, too, we rather like to take the see, or the saw, for the see-saw. We welcome and propagate headlines that obey two conditions. First, they agree with what we already know, because it happened to us or to our people in town, at work, or on Twitter. These are the people we’ve allowed to (RSS-)feed us their personal headlines, and vice versa, and this shared knowledge then becomes the things that “everybody knows”. Second, the headlines match the currently trendy see, or saw, which “everybody” currently and trendily also knows to be indisputable.

What we think we know often prevents us from knowing, because it prevents us from asking questions. Where the facts tend to be few, as is the case for what being multilingual is all about, the opinions tend to be many. From what is going on about multilingualism out there, I sometimes wonder whether the questions we’re asking ourselves aren’t more like “What do we want to go on believing?” than like “What do we know?” and “How do we know it?”. Sometimes, it may well be the case that we don’t want to know.

But what (we think) we know also makes us know quite a few things that we don’t know that we know. I’m not just playing with words: what we are fed, knowledge-wise, and what we consciously absorb, are only one side of the story. Like digestion, what’s there to be processed plays as big a role in shaping us as what is not there. I’ll explain what I mean in my next post.

© MCF 2011

Next post: The effects of monolingualism. Saturday 2nd July 2011. 

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