Saturday, April 1, 2017

309. Being involved, in knowledge, nature, and organization

It is an old idea and ideal of knowledge, starting with the ancient Greeks and continuing into modern Western philosophy, with RenĂ© Descartes, to see knowledge as contemplation of an eternal truth. That contemplation is also the root meaning of the word ‘theory’. The knowing subject is a spectator, standing outside the object that is contemplated.

This spectator theory of knowledge has had far ranging implications, spilling over beyond theory of knowledge and science, into views of nature, and of organizations, in management.

In Western philosophy of knowledge it yielded the claim of objective knowledge, and the Cartesian duality of mind and body, and in theory of meaning, with meaning seen as reference to something.  Concerning knowledge, the problem then was how cognition is able to grasp reality without being part of it, immersed in it. That yielded the split between idealism, where reality is seen as conceived mentally, and realism, where mind is seen as an inscription in the brain of reality by means of elementary perception.

A better position, in my view, arose in American pragmatist philosophy, some 100 years ago (with Peirce, James, and Dewey), adopted in different ways by continental philosophers such as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. Its view, which I adopt, is the constructivist one that cognitive structures guide action but are also formed in it. Not a static  view of contemplation but a process view of involvement. One tries to assimilate perception and experience in existing mental structures, but when fit fails, the mind accommodates to the misfits, in some way, elaborated earlier in this blog. In this way, the knowing subject is involved in the object, and vice versa.

This creates a problem of truth, since knowledge now is a mental construction. In pragmatist philosophy, objective truth is replaced by the notion of ‘warranted assertibility’, where ‘working’ in practice is an important criterion of ‘truth’ or ‘warrant’. Meanings of words depend on use, in ‘language games’, as Wittgenstein proposed. Truth is not a given outcome but a process of dialogue.

The implication is that while scientists should to their utmost to be objective and detached, they cannot fully succeed, and they should recognize that even their thought is involved in premises, disciplinary perspectives and methods, and value judgements, implicit or explicit, in choices and the framing of research questions. To mend this, scientists need to be involved in application of their results, and the ‘stakeholders’ associated with it need to be involved in the formulation of goals and the application of research.

Concerning nature, the outside view, separating man from his environment, has led to an instrumental, manipulative practice, increasingly destructive of the environment. This is connected with the dominant value and virtue of utility in liberal, Western thought, which neglects the intrinsic value of nature, and virtues of care. Instead, dealing with nature should be based on a feeling of being involved in nature.  

In management theory and practice, the outside view sees people as instruments, neglecting the intrinsic value of human relationships, and virtues of justice. Economic theory of organization has been governed by the idea that a ‘principal’ (a nicer word than ‘boss’) governs an ‘agent’ (a nicer word than ‘labourer’), sets the goals and targets that the agent must achieve. Supervision is seen as control, measuring performance against pre-set standards.

The absurd situation then arises that people are employed, as professionals, in present ‘knowledge  society’, because they have knowledge and skills that management does not have and yet management, as the ‘principal’, has the pretence of being able to judge what the professionals do.  

In the neo-liberal drive of privatization and liberalization of public services (such as health care), and market-like incentives in services that are still run publicly, this idea of control has also proliferated, in top-down ‘accounting for performance’, according to set protocols. This is done in spite of the scientific literature on ‘communities of practice’, which shows that professional practice is too complex and variable, because context-dependent, to be caught in such protocols.

This type of control turned out to be needed because markets don’t really work when users cannot judge quality of the ‘product’ (as in health care). So what was started from a market ideology of freedom from interference, laissez faire, ended up in a baroque rigmarole of control.

There is an alternative form of ‘horizontal’ form of control that entails involvement of the control agency in the object of control, which is involved in the specification and application of controls (see item 75 of this blog).