Philippe's Reviews > The End of Knowing: A New Developmental Way of Learning

The End of Knowing by Fred Newman
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it was amazing
bookshelves: geopoetics, personal-development, philosophy, systems-thinking

Have we lost the plot? There seems to be a yearning for a fresh beginning. I'm not talking about 'a good war' to bring us back to our senses, or to burn the fat from our bloated economies. I am talking about a return to an epistemological 'point zero'. There's a feeling that we may not be able to find a way forward, into a truly thriving Anthropocene, from within the constraints of our old, hackneyed Platonic heritage. The world has appeared to us as thingified for millennia. We are now turning ourselves into things among things. Some sorry endgame is announcing itself. Can we escape from this predicament?

In this book, first published in 1997 already, Fred Newman and Lois Holzman summon 'the end of knowing'. All along, we have been betting our future on the human capacity to know things, to make sense of the world. It sounds like the most innocent of truisms. But according to the authors this all-pervasive cognitive bias has brought our species dangerously close to "developmental paralysis". That means we are unable to learn ourselves out of the humanity-traps we have constructed for ourselves. Instead we seem like flies buzzing inside a bottle, unable to find our way out.

Epistemology and politics are inseparable. They constitute one another. The social, economic and political failures of liberal capitalist society are an inevitable pendant to our over-epistemologized culture, to the reductionism and the identity-based conception of liberty characteristic for modernism. The center fails to hold. Centrifugal forces are tearing our societies apart, are tearing humanity and its planetary habitat asunder.

Can we get 'beyond knowing' then? "This question can be answered, even if we do not know the answer. But in answering (or, at the minimum, exploring) it, we recommend doing so in a way which gives up our deep-rooted modernist need to know that we have done so. Such an exploration entails abandoning not simply the troublesome substantive conceptual elements of epistemology (mind, self, truth, and company) but epistemology itself as a form of life. Consequently, we must analytically eliminate the substantive myths of modernism (among them the individuated mind, the individuated self, and individuated cognitions) only as we deconstructively/reconstructively eliminate the mythic ancient (Aristotelian) forms of modernism (explaining, describing, interpreting, identifying, and knowing)." This program goes far beyond the academic point-of-viewism of 'classical' postmodernism. The authors' proposal to transcend epistemology activates the revolutionary potential of postmodernism. "The postmodern revolution will not be known at all; indeed, it will be unknowable (neither true nor false); it will, instead, be performed."

What will happen when move beyond knowing? We won't be catapulted back into the stone age. Religion didn't disappear when we grew into our scientific mindset. Similarly, engineering manuals won't dissolve into thin air when we move into a new developmental space. Bridges will continue to be built. Only we won't continue to equate knowing with progress.

How do we move beyond knowing? Through action. Or, more precisely, through an activity-based, performatory approach to understanding human subjectivity. The authors draw on three exemplars to back up this proposal: late Ludwig Wittgenstein's anti-philosophical, therapeutic language games, Karl Marx's commitment to anti-interpretive revolutionary activity, and Lev Vygotsky's anti-expressionist understanding of thinking and speaking. Three 'thinkers' who threw down the gauntlet to truth-referential, identity-based epistemology by shifting the focus of their work on something that was more direct and primal. What they were saying, each in his own way, was: changing, growing does not hinge on knowing, but on a direct, activity-based interaction with the world. Also: method is practiced, not applied. "Whatever is to be discovered is not separate from the activity of practising method. It is not 'out there' awaiting the application of an already made tool, but is dialectically inseparable from the activity of discovery."

Most fundamental likely was Vygotsky's discovery of the 'zone of proximal development' (zpd). Zones of Proximal Development are spaces 'where human beings become by being who they are not'. It is where children perform 'a head taller than they are'. What happens in the zone is more theatrical and therapeutic than rational and epistemic.

To Newman and Holzman, the import of the zpd is Galilean: "It is the discovery of a new ontological unit necessary for understanding - not knowing - human life activity." Non-epistemic understanding is indistinguishable from participation in the life process. Children show us how to do this. They come to be knowers relatively late in the process of social adaptation. Prior to this they are virtuoso developers. "Vygotsky is identifying perhaps the most important of all human activities - that we can relate to ourselves and others as other than and in advance of our development."

The strength of the argument resides partly in the fact that the authors have translated these principles into an influential social therapeutic approach that has kindled the developmental potential of thousands of people of all walks of life. Here the revolutionary character of the approach becomes quite clear: the unit of non-epistemic interaction is not the deeper significance of anyone's inner self. There is no 'inner problem' that cries out for an epistemic 'solution'. Instead there is process, performance, conversation, there is performed conversation. The conversation is transformed into a language-game, by changing the truth and referential assumption of what is being said. "The key to performing conversation into performed conversation is to support the conversationalists to abandon the realists assumption of truth referentiality in favor of the activity of performance." In doing so, new 'life forms' are allowed to emerge. Something qualitatively new is created, something that wasn't there before and cannot be understood in terms of things that were there before. The fifth and final chapter of the book includes numerous examples of transcribed performed conversations. The ability to self-reflexively take a look at the process that is going on in conversations seems harder than it looks at first sight.

What can we expect from these new conversations? "Performed conversation impact on the world. How much? Who's to say, and who's to measure?" This is not a modernist blueprint, but an activist strategy to let a new developmental way of learning take root, one mind at a time. "Can we create dialogue, if you will, without a destination, without a capital D? If we do that, I don't think it's just pandering to different opinions; I think it's a matter of using the variety of what people are giving, to try at least to make an effort to create a continuous, though varied and complex, pathway to move somewhere or other from where we have gotten ourselves to."

Constraints to personal freedom accrete first in the mind, which then paves the way for their coalescence at the group level. Ursula Le Guin, in her cult novel The Dispossessed hypothesised that there has to be a dynamic of ‘permanent revolution’ that questions and uproots imperceptible sedimentations of power, even in societies that are consciously trying to avoid them. This revolution has to play out at the level of the individual and of the collective. Newman and Holzman's activity-based, performatory approach to human interactions could provide a 'method in performance' to achieve just that.

The book's envoy restates what is at stake in a wistful, dry-eyed way:

"We must understand (a performed activity) that we have come to the end of our modernist journey and that what we found was meaninglessness. There need be no existential despair here. Then we must reevaluate (another performed activity) from a developing developmental understanding of meaninglessness all that we have created (both wonderful and wasteful) on this extended modernist journey. And then (although no one can even guess how), we must further develop (perhaps, in some way as small children do) in an meaningless world (yet another performed activity). Neither life nor development requires meaning. Indeed neither the making of meaning nor the activity of developing requires meaning or development. Hence, we have come to the end of meaning and development even as we (and can) continue making meaning and developing. Such performed activity, so far as we can tell, is what lies beyond modernism and its remarkable postscript, postmodernism."

Fred Newman passed away in 2011. Lois Holzman continues her work as an activist social therapist at the NYC-based East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy, which she founded together with Fred Newman in 1980s. Recently she published The Overweight Brain in which she presents some of the ideas discussed in The End of Knowing in a less scholarly, more accessible way.
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