Andrew Brown (2007) Figure. Ink and oil pastel on paper.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet: Act 1, Scene V.
Although we are oblivious to phenomena that fall entirely outside our sensory range or experience, we should acknowledge that the human animal has always been far more than a solitary beast on the hoof. Indeed, at this stage of human evolution, our technology provides instruments that extend our natural, biologically endowed, sensory range to encompass some fifty orders of magnitude! Similarly, technology has elevated us beyond tribal word of mouth, enabling at least partial, vicarious access to the entire edifice of recorded human knowledge. Nevertheless, despite all the collective human experience and accumulated wisdom that has gone before, every human newborn is a new beginning. None of us encounter the exigencies of the human condition in isolation, or need to somehow rediscover all that we need to know, entirely from first principles; but our first hand experiences remain ours alone.
Learning can only begin if new or dissonant situations are able to address us directly. This can only occur against the backdrop of the conceptual grids that we have previously constructed in order to make sense of the world. Despite all our linguistic, cultural and intellectual advantages, the disconcerting fact remains that we cannot recognize truly alien phenomena. This realization is not just a truism or sterile tautology. It brings with it some enduring and compelling philosophical questions:
How can we look for something if we have no idea what it is and where to start? How, then, did we ever learn anything new? Were we simply recollecting? To what extent do we have a genetic endowment of innate knowledge?
Recent advances in neuroscience reveal that our senses constantly seek features of interest and pattern. Active perception on the hoof involves selecting, simplifying and sharpening blurred, noisy, or otherwise messy information. Is this biological ability to deal with “looseness of fit” the key to moving beyond paradoxes inherent in the problem of recognition?
We have the innate ability to perceive coarse-grained imperfections, approximations or ambiguities. We can recognize new phenomena precisely because they loosely resemble things previously encountered; but this biological attribute still fails to resolve the problem of the truly alien. Must we concede that there really are “more things in heaven and earth” than we might encounter or imagine? What does this imply? Does it make sense to deny the existence of what seems inherently unknowable? Are we condemned to silence on this matter?
Learning moments are essentially interpretive, predicated on who we are and what we have already experienced and learned. Since we cannot encounter the purely alien, learning must reside on the boundary between familiarity and strangeness.
The notion of incommensurability applies whenever the phenomena that address us, and the projections of our current fore-structure, seem at odds. Incommensurable phenomena are not entirely alien in relation to one another. Incommensurability implies some degree of overlap even if congruent, point-by-point comparisons cannot be made.
BETWIXT AND BETWEEN
To learn is to reconfigure a fore-structure of understanding in the glare of something new. Before this can occur, any incommensurability must somehow be worked through. For non-trivial learning this amounts, at least partially, to demolishing the existing paradigm and reconstructing a new one. The term “paradigm” is a philosophy of science term. It refers to a robust, overarching theoretical framework that provides coherence and explanatory power. For a new understanding underpinned by a new paradigm to be gained, the old must be lost. This implies an initial period of letting go, or disengagement, from previously fixed notions.
“Liminality” is a useful term for the prelude of disengagement that allows us to address incommensurable phenomena. Liminality is a concept borrowed from anthropology. In the field it refers to the transition from childhood to adulthood during rites of passage. On the liminal plane we are betwixt and between, neither here nor there, in a state that is necessarily ambiguous.
A newly emerged paradigm forces us, all at once, to inhabit a different world with alternative terms of reference with their own internal consistency. Paradigmatic change involves losses as well as gains. We think of learning as progressive, but it can be negative in the sense that we can learn phenomena—even entire paradigms—that are harmful or just plain wrong. When this is the case there may be much to unlearn.
SOURCES FOR LEARNING AS A BOUNDARY PHENOMENON
Andrew Brown (2006) Figure. Ink, oil pastel and charcoal on paper.
It is worth differentiating between the terms commensurable, incommensurable, incomparable and incompatible. It is clear that we use the term incommensurable rather than incomparable precisely because we are attempting a comparison. Bernstein (1983: 90) reminds us that
[w]e are not confronted with forms of life that are so self-contained that we cannot compare them. If this were really the case, the appropriate response would be silence.
More careful treatment is necessary when differentiating between incompatibility and incommensurability. Strictly speaking: “commensurable” is a mathematical term. It refers to the kind of point-by-point comparisons which can be made between congruent triangles, left and right-hand gloves and the like. But logic, axioms and neutral language—the stuff of mathematics are precisely the luxuries Kuhn and Feyerabend were determined to deny to science and the humanities. Writing fourteen years after the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn (in Bernstein, 1983: 80) reveals that
[i]n applying ‘incommensurability’ to theories, I intended only to insist that there was no common language within which both could be fully expressed and which could therefore be used in a point-by-point comparison between them.
Bernstein, Richard. J. (1983) Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis. Phila delphia : University of Pennsylvania Press.
American Philosopher [1932- ]
American Philosopher of Science [1922-1996]
Kuhn’s somewhat flexible notion of “paradigm shift” is a powerful tool for unraveling the transformative aspects of learning. Kuhn (1970: 150) writes that “the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds” and:
just because it is a transition between incommensurables, the transition between competing paradigms cannot be made a step at a time, forced by logic and neutral experience. Like the gestalt switch, it must occur all at once (though not necessarily in an instant) or not at all.
Kuhn’s “Gestalt switch” (1970: 112) is “a revolutionary transformation of vision” where:
at times of revolution, when the normal-scientific tradition changes, the scientist’s perception of his environment must be reeducated—in some familiar situations he must learn to see a new gestalt. After he has done so the world of his research will seem, here and there, incommensurable with the one he had inhabited before.
Kuhn, Thomas (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Feyerabend (1988: 82-84) insists that incompatibility should be reserved for “deductive disjointedness.” He wants to make a specific point in variance with the view that scientific progress is cumulative and linear. He distances himself from the “Logical Empiricist school” which holds that original (less comprehensive) theories always can be derived from later (more comprehensive) ones. The incommensurability thesis takes into account the overlap between rival paradigms that allows rational debate in the first place. It aids clarification of the ways we make comparisons, and examines critically the standards and subtleties by which we interpret rival paradigms. A close reading of Feyerabend (1970: 219-220) reveals that “[t]he replacement of one comprehensive theory by another involves losses as well as gains.” He reminds us that to ask whether or not two paradigms are incommensurable “is not a complete question” because they will be commensurable in some interpretations and incomparable in others. This is what makes the Gestalt switch necessary. Feyerabend (1970: 227) contends that, when taken in their entirety, “[i]ncommensurable theories can only be refuted by reference to their own respective kinds of experience.”
Feyerabend, Paul (1970) Consolations for the Specialist. From Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
Austrian Philospher of Science [1924-1994]
If we inhabit different worlds after experiencing an all-or-nothing paradigm shift, a prelude of liminality seems necessary. This concept is appropriated from Dutch anthropologist Van Gennep’s work on ritual in primitive societies. In The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Victor Turner pays tribute to Van Gennep who has shown that “all rites of passage are marked by three phases: separation, margin (or limen, signifying ‘threshold’ in Latin) and aggregation.” Recognizing the significance of liminality for his own work among the Ndembu, Turner (1969: 94) himself writes that
[t]he attributes of liminality are necessarily ambiguous... Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial.
Turner, Victor W. (1969) The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago : Aldine Publishing Company.
Scots Anthropologist [1920-1983]
It is Gadamer's (1994: 295) assertion that “Hermeneutic work is based on the polarity of familiarity and strangeness.”
Gadamer, Hans Georg (1994) Truth and Method. Second Revised Edition Revised translation by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Continuum. (Originally published as Warheit und Methode, 1960.)
HANS GEORG GADAMER
German Philosopher [1900-2002]