Off the Pedestal

In a great summary of much of his work, “My Viva”, Stephen Downes addresses some august ideas about knowledge construction — and topples them off their pedestal.


For me, the most interesting was what he says about abstractions.

“It is often asked of me: if there are no universal principles or generalizations, then what are those statements that look like universal principles or generalizations? In response, I say that they are abstractions.

But then, continue my questioners, aren’t abstractions themselves idealizations based on evidence? And my response is, no, abstractions (and therefore universals and generalizations) are not created by inference from a set of empirical data. They are created from subtractions from empirical data (sometimes even one piece of data).”

Abstractions, and the capability of abstract thinking, have proven so useful that nobody dared to question their value for explaining knowledge creation and learning. Abstract ideas such as: representations that “stand for” concepts, and propositions “encoding” knowledge, were unchallenged presuppositions.

And the desire for creating “stand-in”s, for fixing/ collapsing/ wrapping our ideas and experiences, is not driven by some abstract theory. Rather, it comes from one of two basic modes of brain operations.

Jenny Mackness has comprehensively reported about Iain McGilchrist arguing how the two modes are out of balance. This account of the imbalance focusses on the negative consequences for society, and it seems to address much wider aspects, and may hence provoke much denial.

But McGilchrist’s depiction of the opposite, non-abstract mode matches perfectly with Downes’ epistemological approach. Both authors show how “recognizing” is the crucial thing. For McGilchrist, it is at the intersection between the two meanings of “knowing” (German/ French “wissen”/ “savoir” vs. “kennen”/ “connaître”):

“[W]e come to know in the sense of ‘cognise’ (wissen) something only by recognising (erkennen) something we already knew (kennen).” (p. 97)

For Downes, “recognizing” is a core idea throughout his work, as well as “direct perception” (see #8 in his Viva).

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