5. Epistemic Paradigms: The Epistemology of Process

 

Intellectual disciplines have various forms for their explanations or other manifestations of information or knowledge. The physical sciences use mathematical expressions of several types to present the content of their discipline. Certain other disciplines, e.g., philosophy use purely verbal formulation to present their subject. Still others use a combination of mathematical and verbal presentations, e.g., the social sciences. Paradigmatic examples of the content of most disciplines will involve formulations in some natural language involving the technical terms of the particular discipline. Some again will involve chiefly mathematical expressions. But few if any today use purely graphical or illustrative means to present their content.

 

This is an important consideration because the world consists mostly of complicated processes and natural and even technically augmented language have difficulty in relating processes. Natural languages probably evolved as tools for signaling, for communications among the members of small groups about the here and now. Linguistic performances may also be concerned with the past and the future of course, mostly by the use of special terms and linguistic formulations, but the content is still essentially restricted to information relating to objects or events. Implications of process may be present in many forms of natural language expression, a pronouncement might logically or factually imply many other events or series of events, but the content still is essentially about discrete entities or events, not complicated and multi component sequential processes. Sometimes, of course, long streams of linguistic behavior may attempt to describe or analyze a process, but these run into another problem, the limitations of short term memory.

 

Processes are distinct from objects and singular events in that they inherently involve a time line. Indeed processes are defined by their time lines and the existence of an internally generated time line makes a thing a process.  The world is comprised of processes and not of things. The Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre is a process not a thing. As it hangs there, the painting is subject to al sorts of what may be variable influences that can change it. Gravitational and thermal influences tend to produce mechanical stresses in it, time dependent chemical processes and the illumination itself will ultimately affect its visual characteristics like colors and brightness.  Most of these effects will only be of interest to curators and art historians and this is why we can safely approximate the Mona Lisa as a thing rather than a process. We ignore the fact that the painting, like everything else, changes. But terminal change is not the essence of process; a system can repeatedly return to an original state (as defined by our observational or measuring capacities) and still be a process if there are identifiable intermediate states that can be used to produce a time line.

 

Processes may involve a series of events or distinct stages from a human perspective. Most processes involve intermediate steps from beginning to end, or from an initial event or process up through the final state or condition. Identifying the elements, stages, or events that constitute the process is at least somewhat arbitrary; it depends on interest and observational capacities. The analysis or description of a process inherently involves selective activities. Consider the process of sinking the Titanic. We all know basically what happened: The ship hit an iceberg and sank –this perhaps is the simplest rendering of the events that transpired. A slightly more informative version might go like this: The ship hit an iceberg ripping a hole in her hull so she filled with water and sank.

 

The story of the Titanic and the process of sinking here was actually more complicated than this of course. The Titanic had a bad design which allowed undamaged compartments to fill with water and may also have been built with defective steel which allowed or promoted hull failure when she hit the iceberg. These additional engineering considerations may or may not be of interest but they are part of the explanation of the process of sinking the Titanic. They admit to varying degrees of detail and accuracy and can be developed further according to specific interests, say those of the metallurgist or navel architect. Similarly there are other types of considerations that may be relevant depending ones the point of view or interests, i.e., legal considerations like civil or criminal liability.

 

It is a fundamental characteristic of the knowledge of processes that it is not best related with ordinary language. Special languages involving technical terms and sometimes mathematics may help here, but basic limitations still remain. The most fundamental of these is that all languages tend to reduce information and probably below the level where the process is best understood. The best means for understanding a process may be graphic. Visual representations may be superior to linguistic- that is, mostly auditory- presentations for mastering sequences of interrelated events. Diagrams, drawings and especially video are important here. The epistemology of a process then is different. While an explanation of a process might be correct or incorrect, it is more likely to be more or less accurate, inclusive or informative. Moreover mastering or understanding a process does not necessarily involve being able to describe it very well. Consider hitting a golf ball for example. You don’t have to be a wordsmith to be a professional golfer; you just have to do it, i.e. swing the club correctly and hit the ball well.

 

Swinging a golf club might be best viewed as an example of “knowing how” as opposed to “knowing that”, i.e., propositional knowledge. But the distinction is neither clear nor simple because much of “knowing how” is amenable to description, that is, to propositional knowledge- consider all the books on golf.  But propositional knowledge is generally incidental to mastering a process; we may or may not be able to articulate very well what is going on. Knowing or understanding a process does not automatically mean we can talk about it at all.  Other standards apply, mostly performance or predictive standards; you don’t have to be able to talk about it.

 

This brings us to the important question: What would constitute a reasonable standard for understanding linguistic processes or linguistic behavior? Should we talk about language and try to answer questions about it or do something else? Why, for instance, is talking about language to be preferred to diagramming  it in terms of information flow or producing video animations of the processes of speech, for example, as best we now understand them? Is it because we expect our questions to be answered? Is it because we express our concerns or interests verbally? Wittgenstein thought we got into philosophical difficulties if we didn’t follow the rules of a language. But knowing the rules is not enough, the rules themselves if expressible are still only linguistic constructs. There is a deeper problem; we have to understand linguistic processes.