The Fly on the Wall—From Dullsville to Delight, Part II

Know Your limit, Epistemology Within It!

Limpid thought and diluted meaning beckon us when we relax our critical faculties; our egos may inflate as we mow down course after course, yet it remains for us to be reflexive and consider what we’d hitherto discounted.  Only fools rush in and when we draw conclusions based more on our disciplinary assumptions than on the facts we shortchange ourselves academically and even personally.  As Jacques Derrida put it, “impatience is never justified.  It should incite one to take one’s time and to submit oneself to what is not self-evident-without avoiding it” (Derrida, 209).  To our detriment do we cling to our fundamental beliefs about the world; to paraphrase an early 21st Century politician, we have to consider not only known knowns and known unknowns but also the forbidden and murky unknown unknowns that our epistemological baselines struggle to even see, let alone explain (Profita).  If a point of view seems to lack a blindspot, the blindspot may, after all, be so large as to be cover all that appears visible.

We may want to believe, say, that Emile Durkeheim’s sociological studies of suicide provide a timeless blueprint for understanding anomic alienation from collective norms.  Yet, adherence to a doctrine adds up to only as much as its outlook can explain away about other possible causes (in this case brain chemistry, dietary nutrition or genetic makeup).  We cannot escape the reality that even our most cherished academic disciplines have boundaries and limits and are susceptible to scathing denunciations; it helps to occasionally hold at bay the interpretive scripts our disciplines provide to us.  Jacques Derrida noted that we often speak of another point of view by discounting it; we mute that which we do not wish to say even as we pay it homage, this apophatic act demonstrates the power over us of what we desire not to see, think, or feel (Dictionary.com).  Derrida wrote that:

 “the voice of an utterance can conceal another, which it then appears to quote without quoting it, presenting itself as another form, namely, as a quotation of the other.  Whence the subtlety, but also the conflict, the relations of force, even the aporias of a politics of doctrine” (Derrida 179, ‘aporias’, Dictionary.com).

We Athabasca students are not immune to the horror imparted by views foreign to our core beliefs; opposing beliefs can captivate, fascinate, repel, and tantalize us—even as we faithfully cling to our certainties.

Openness to other explanations is a pillar of critical thinking and is key to the value of education itself: in university we learn how to learn and how to think rather than merely learn the answers as a captial ‘T’ truth.  Mystery plays a role: diaphanous folds of unmapped, untraceable, truth beckon from beyond the static realm of our discursive expectations.  Derrida concludes that “a predicate can always conceal another predicate, or even the nakedness of an absence of predicate, the way the veil of a garment-sometimes indispensable-may both dissimulate and make visible the very thing that it dissimulates-and render it attractive at the same time” (Derrida 179).  Unacceptable answers call us out of our comfort zone and may incite epiphanies that we can bring back to our disciplinary homeland.  There’s no sense in closing ourselves off to opposing views if we are comfortable with our own methodological limitations.  Orwell said it best, perhaps: “even a single taboo can have an all-around crippling effect upon the mind, because there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought.” (167).  Is what’s most forbidden to our academic selves the possibility that our epistemological dogmas may not be as unassailable as we’d like to believe?

Sometimes what is left out is what’s most important.  For instance, hummingbirds are renowned for possessing a brain the size of a grain of rice and yet know somehow to fly south for months every year.

(Thompson).  We know the why, but the how remains a mystery according to current science.  Likewise, how do caribou, surveilled by satellite, know to suddenly switch their grazing path en masse to head to their calving grounds? (Caribou Grounds).  And how do salmon always return to their home streams; why a home river rather than one a few tributaries down?  (McPhee).  Don’t any salmon buck their biology?

We know that humans can choose to go against the grain.  Blaise Pascal, in a timeless rebuff to biological determinists, who see our lives as a behaviourist puzzle that only appears to be a morass when we are ignorant of the causes that lead us by the ear to mindlessly engage in one action after another, stated: “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but a thinking reed…Our whole dignity therefore consists of thought” (Pascal in Jenkins).  Rather than throwing up our hands and declaring that non-thought is the substrate upon which our minds dream and wonder and leaving at that, Pascal asks us to consider the special value of us as thinking beings.

By elevating our educational journey and respecting it as an almost sacred personal mission we can only aid our efforts towards academic success.  After all, only a total dillweed would complete dozens of courses and attend convocation only to offhandedly remark that a diploma was a mere sheet of paper.  It may literally be a bundle of fibre but what it symbolizes, as with ancient papyrus scrolls, transcends the physical, corporeal, realm.  To be a reed that thinks, and not just another weed, is a status of immeasurable value.

References
‘Apophasis’.  Dictionary.com.  Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/apophatic.
‘Aporia’.  Dictionary.com.  Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/aporia
Caribou Grounds – Caribou Activities.  (2014.) United States Fish and Wildlife Service: Arctic.  Retrieved from https://www.fws.gov/refuge/arctic/cycalvingc.html
Derrida, J.  (1986).  ‘How to Avoid Speaking: Denials.’ In Psyche: Inventions of the Other.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Jenkins, M.  (2018).  ‘Blaise Pascal: 1623-1662).  In Philosophy Now.  Retrieved from https://philosophynow.org/issues/125/Blaise_Pascal_1623-1662
McPhee, M.  (2008).  ‘How do spawning fish migrate back to the very same stream’.  In The Sciences: Scientific American.  Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-do-spawning-fish-navigate-back/.
Orwell, G.  (1946).  ‘Politics and the English Language’ & ‘The Prevention of Literature’.  In Selected Essays.  London and Tonbridge: Penguin Books.
Profita, H.  (2006).  ‘Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, and Unknown Unknowns: A Retrospective’.  CBS News.  Retrieved from: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/known-knowns-known-unknowns-and-unknown-unknowns-a-retrospective/
Thompson III, B.  ‘Hummingbird Migration: How do they know when to go?’.  In Bird Watchers Digest.  Retrieved from https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/learn/hummingbirds/hummingbird-migration-know-go.php.
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