Digifesto

Tag: intelligibility

education and intelligibility

I’ve put my finger on the problem I’ve had with scholarly discourse about intelligibility over the years.

It is so simple, really.

Sometimes, some group of scholars, A, will argue that the work of another group of scholars, B, is unintelligible. Because it is unintelligible, it should not be trusted. Rather, it has to be held accountable to the scholars in A.

Typically, the scholars in B are engaged in some technical science, while the scholars in A are writers.

Scholars in B meanwhile say: well, if you want to understand what we do, then you could always take some courses in it. Here (in the modern day): we’ve made an on-line course which you can take if you want to understand what we do.

The existence of the on-line course or whatever other resources expressing the knowledge of B tend to not impress those in A. If A is persistent, they will come up with reasons why these resources are insufficient, or why there are barriers to people in A making proper use of those resources.

But ultimately, what A is doing is demanding that B make itself understood. What B is offering is education. And though some people are averse to the idea that some things are just inherently hard to understand, this is a minority opinion that is rarely held by, for example, those who have undergone arduous training in B.

Generally speaking, if everybody were educated in B, then there wouldn’t be so much of a reason for demanding its intelligibility. Education, not intelligibility, seems to be the social outcome we would really like here. Naturally, only people in B will really understand how to educate others in B; this leaves those in A with little to say except to demand, as a stopgap, intelligibility.

But what if the only way for A to truly understand B is for A to be educated by B? Or to educate itself in something essentially equivalent to B?

“To be great is to be misunderstood.”

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — `Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. –
Emerson, Self-Reliance

Lately in my serious scientific work again I’ve found myself bumping up against the limits of intelligibility. This time, it is intelligibility from within a technical community: one group of scientists who are, I’ve been advised, unfamiliar with another, different technical formalism. As a new entrant, I believe the latter would be useful to understand the domain of the former. But to do this, especially in the context of funders (who need to explain things to their own bosses in very concrete terms), would be unproductive, a waste of precious time.

Reminded by recent traffic of some notes I wrote long ago in frustration at Hannah Arendt, I found something apt about her comments. Science in the mode of what Kuhn calls “normal science” must be intelligible to itself and its benefactors. But that is all. It need not be generally intelligible to other scientists; it need not understand other scientists. It need only be a specialized and self-sustaining practice, a discipline.

Programming (which I still study) is actually quite different from science in this respect. Because software code is a medium used for communication by programmers, and software code is foremost interpreted by a compiler, one relates as a programmer to other programmers differently than the way scientists relate to other scientists. To some extent the productive formal work has moved over into software, leaving science to be less formal and more empirical. This is, in my anecdotal experience, now true even in the fields of computer science, which were once one of the bastions of formalism.

Arendt’s criticism of scientists, that should be politically distrusted because “they move in a world where speech has lost its power”, is therefore not precisely true because scientific operations are, certainly, mediated by language.

But this is normal science. Perhaps the scientists who Arendt distrusted politically were not normal scientists, but rather those sorts of scientists that were responsible for scientific revolutions. These scientist must not have used language that was readily understood by their peers, at least initially, because they were creating new concepts, new ideas.

Perhaps these kinds of scientists are better served by existentialism, as in Nietzsche’s brand, as an alternative to politics. Or by Emerson’s transcendentalism, which Sloterdijk sees as very spiritually kindred to Nietzsche but more balanced.

intelligibility

The example of Arendt’s dismissal of scientific discourse from political discussion underscores a much deeper political problem: a lack of intelligibility.

Every language is intelligible to some people and not to others. This is obviously true in the case of major languages like English and Chinese. It is less obvious but still a problem with different dialects of a language. It becomes a source of conflict when there is a lack of intelligibility between the specialized languages of expertise or personal experience.

For many, mathematical formalism is unintelligible; it appears to be so for Arendt, and this disturbs her, as she locates politics in speech and wants there to be political controls on scientists. But how many scientists and mathematicians would find Arendt intelligible? She draws deeply on concepts from ancient Greek and Augustinian philosophy. Are these thoughts truly accessible? What about the intelligibility of the law, to non-lawyers? Or the intelligibility of spoken experiences of oppression to those who do not share such an experience?

To put it simply: people don’t always understand each other and this poses a problem for any political theory that locates justice in speech and consensus. Advocates of these speech-based politics are most often extraordinarily articulate and write persuasively about the need to curtail the power of any systems of control that they do not understand. They are unable to agree to a social contract that they cannot read.

But this persuasive speech is necessarily unable to account for the myriad mechanisms that are both conditions for the speech and unintelligible to the speaker. This includes the mechanisms of law and technology. There is a performative contradiction between these persuasive words and their conditions of dissemination, and this is reason to reject them.

Advocates of bureaucratic rule tend to be less eloquent, and those that create technological systems that replace bureaucratic functions even less so. Nevertheless each group is intelligible to itself and may have trouble understanding the other groups.

The temptation for any one segment of society to totalize its own understanding, dismissing other ways of experiencing and articulating reality as inessential or inferior, is so strong that it can be read in even great authors like Arendt. Ideological politics (as opposed to technocratic politics) is the conflict between groups expressing their interests as ideology.

The problem is that in order to function as it does at scale, modern society requires the cooperation of specialists. Its members are heterogeneous; this is the source of its flexibility and power. It is also the cause of ideological conflict between functional groups that should see themselves as part of a whole. Even if these members do see their interdependence in principle, their specialization makes them less intelligible. Articulation often involves different skills from action, and teaching to the uninitiated is another skill altogether. Meanwhile, the complexity of the social system expands as it integrates more diverse communities, reducing further the proportion understood by a single member.

There is still in some political discourse the ideal of deliberative consensus as the ground of normative or political legitimacy. Suppose, as seems likely, that this is impossible for the perfectly mundane and mechanistic reason that society is so complicated due to the demands of specialization that intelligibility among its constituents is never going to happen.

What then?