Knowledge Happens

Hanspeter Schmid, May 2001
Monash University, Melbourne

Slide 1

Dear audience, I am an engineer and not a philosopher, and yet I will now give you a talk about my philosophy of thinking and knowledge that I have started to cook up during my engineering doctorate. There were actually two reasons for my doing this: One reason was the great shock I felt when I realised that science is definitely not what I was taught at school and university. The other reason was that it took me two years to write and re-write a ten-page paper, but could never satisfy my doctoral father with it. In the end, he suggested that I should try to publish it on my own, without his name on it, and it was received very well by the reviewers.

My doctoral father is a great scientist and also a kind man, so I knew for sure that he was not wrong. But I also new for certain that I was not wrong either. So I worked until I had a philosophical model in which both of us could be right, but which still included reality, and, on top of that, was directly applicable to writing and documentation.

My views may seem a bit extreme to some of you, because I don't believe that there is such a thing as individual knowledge. Knowledge is always collective. Also, knowledge is not a static object that is independent of people. Knowledge is a dynamic relation between people. Knowledge happens.

Slide 2

Maybe I should rather say that people make knowledge happen. Although there is no individual knowledge, the individuals are very important for knowledge. Without people, there is no dynamics and no knowledge. Without knowledge, people cannot be. The two always go together.

Today I will describe the elements of my theory. I will start with a still picture of knowledge and tell you in detail what I mean when I say that knowledge is a relation between people. Then I will go on with describing the dynamics of this relation. I will not only talk about how knowledge develops in general, but specifically in science and engineering, and how this influences the documents scientists write.

Finally, I will tell you about two of my own projects which I have derived from my model. One is a documentation system which lets knowledge happen as freely and dynamically as possible, and the other is a way of writing technical documentation such that it covers the dynamics of knowledge better.

Slide 3

Now what is knowledge? When you look at the world, there are things that immediately appear, other things about which you first have to think, and also things which are not real to you, or do not even exist. As an example, when I see an integrated circuit, I immediately see what it is, when I see a wood processing machine, I may be able to figure out what it does, but when I see a voodoo ceremony, I mainly see a woman dancing wildly around a pole.

The situation will be different for other people. In fact, there are quite a lot of people for whom the meaning of the voodoo ceremony is immediately apparent, but who see nothing meaningful at all when they look at my transistor circuit. This is because they use a different thinking style to interprete the world.

You could say that a thinking style is that which lets certain things appear immediately. Using a thinking style enables you to immediately recognise those aspects of the world which are most important to you, such that you don't need to make a conscious effort and can safe your mental energy for other things.

What a wonderful thing, a thinking style! But there's of course a catch. Do you see it? ...

Well, if things appear to you immediately, they are out of your conscious control. You cannot see them differently anymore without making a great conscious effort. So a thinking style always brings thinking constraints with it. In certain thinking styles, including all of the scientific ones, thinking constraints appear to be so strong that the people who use such thinking styles call everything that immediately appears ``facts''.

Slide 4

A thinking style is shared by two or more people. Actually, thinking styles start to exists simply because people get together. The people sharing a thinking style form a thinking collective. Two friends who can make ``insider jokes'' that nobody else understands are a thinking collective, but thinking collectives can also become arbitrarily big. For example, there are several hundred million people for whom ``Buddha'' has a similar, immediately appearing meaning, although these people do not even speak a common language.

All thinking styles are esoteric, which means that you can only use them if you join its thinking collective by going through an initiation. There are some thinking collectives into which you automatically get, for example by being born and growing up in a certain culture. Other thinking collectives require a very long, intensive, and carefully planned initiation rite, which is then often called ``training'' or ``education.'' Most thinking collectives are somewhere in between, and a person becomes part of them by chance, for example by meeting a certain person, by choice, for example by accepting a job in a certain company, or the person even makes a new thinking style together with other people.

In the majority of cases, all this happens unconsciously, and because most thinking styles are dynamic and interact, it is often very difficult to differ between them. Only when a thinking style becomes very rigid and some people are in a position to determine who is in or must be in and who is out and must not come in, only then does it become feasible to draw a clear line around the thinking style. It often happens in these cases that people who are forced to join the collective really suffer from the thinking constraints they are forced into. This is what prompted Pink Floyd to sing ``We don't need no education, we don't need no thought control.''

Most philosophy of science I have read about concentrated on rationally describing what facts are, or on denying that they exist, on comparing facts and theories, or on stating why they are not comparable. This is so because, in our scientific time, the fact is considered as something independent of people, as something static that always Was, Is, and Will Be, and above all, as the most important aspect of thinking.

I think differently. For me, a fact is just the product of a thinking style, nothing more, nothing less. As it's name says. ``Fact'' comes from the latin word ``facere,'' which means ``to make.'' Comparing the facts of different thinking styles makes as much sense as comparing the clothes of different peoples, -- which, well, may make a lot of sense, actually, but doesn't tell you much about how the people in question live and how you can live, work, and communicate with them.

Slide 5

So let's forget about facts for the moment. A more basic feature of a thinking style is its image of knowledge. The image of knowledge determines what knowledge actually is to a thinking collective. It is not a definition of knowledge, but of the relative importance of the differenet sources from which knowledge can come. There are lots of sources of knowledge: direct experience, evidence of the senses, clarity and distinctiveness of ideas, logic reasoning, tradition, authority, novelty, beauty, intuition, analogy, symmetry, revelation, and many more.

To give an example, direct experience is almost the non plus ultra in engineering. It is important in biology, less important in history, and it has comparatively little value in the Roman Catholic religion. Many conflicts between groups of people, even between two closely related technical groups, have their cause in differing images of knowledge. But if the two groups really want to cooperate rather than fight, such conflicts can often be resolved simply by making the difference of the image of knowledge clear to the members of both groups.

Slide 6

Almost any psychological model can be used together with these images of knowledge to gain insight into thinking styles, thinking collectives, and their interaction through persons. Let's take, for example, a model I have adapted from the work of Carl Gustav Jung. It contains four personality traits. Two of them concern the inner world of the person, they are ``intuition'' and ``thinking.'' ``Intuition'' is immediate, while thinking is a procedure. Two of them concern the outer world, they are ``fühlen,'' which is immediate, and ``empfinden,'' which is also a procedure. I'm not aware of English terms that express the same, so I'll just call them immediate and procedural sensing.

A person is normally centred on one of these traits, but can have at least one of the two neighbouring traits so well developed that you cannot easily identify the centre. However, the trait opposite to the centre is often weak, so if you like to classify, you can classify somebody by looking at their weeknesses. I am both a good thinker and have a good intuition, but reading my texts and hearing my talk you would mostly notice my thinking. If you lived or worked together with me, you'd find out that I often don't shave for a week, wear the same T-Shirt for three days, and let paper pile up on my desk. Procedural feeling, ``empfinden,'' is my weak side, so you see that I'm actually an intuitive person.

Most scientists and engineers are either intuitive with strongly developed thinking, or thinkers with a good intuition. The number of intuitive scientists is steadily increasing, and I think that there are already more of them than there are thinkers. But most technical documentation and scientific papers are still written as if all of them were just thinkers.

Therefore the image of knowledge portrayed in technical documentation diverges strongly from the image of knowledge used by the people doing the research and documentation. This is not only misleading students and laymen, but also makes the very important intuitive side of modern scientists and engineers disappear in their documentation. Letting this valuable information disappear is not necessary at all, and at the end of my talk I'll suggest how one could include it into technical documents.

Slide 7

A few moments ago I talked about the interaction of thinking styles through persons. When the passive voice of scientific discourse says that ``information is transferred from one field to another field,'' the actual meaning is that a person transfers information from one thinking style to another thinking style. To do this, the person must be able to use both thinking styles sufficiently well; the person must belong to both thinking collectives.

Such an information transfer is definitely not easy.

I have mentioned before that a fact is a product of a thinking style. Something is a fact for a thinking collective if, and only if, it is in style. Now if a fact is a product of a thinking style, one cannot just take take it and put it into another thinking style. It would not fit. One has to reproduce the fact in the other thinking style, but then it will of course not be the same fact anymore.

The philosophers of science of the twentieth century have had a major debate about facts, opinions going from the positivists, who believed that there are lots of facts which are generally valid and have just to be discovered, over people like Popper, who believed that only a proof that something is wrong can be generally valid, to Kuhn and Feyerabend, who said that there are no generally valid facts at all and that a fact cannot possibly be transferred from one thinking style to another.

This is all quite interesting, but for me, it is not facts and theories that deserve the main attention, but persons, individuals. Facts are just style elements in thinking styles, and thinking styles are something that appears when people are together, so in order to understand knowledge, one has to focus on people.

Slide 8

Looking at individuals, one finds that every person participates in a huge number of thinking collectives. I am an engineer, a family member, an employee of Bernafon, an amateur musician, a scientist, a Christian, a Buddhist, an IC designer, a circuit theorist, a devoted reader of Terry Pratchett, a speaker of English, German, and French, a middle European, a Swiss, an admirer of Scotland, and so on. Not all of them at the same time, of course. Depending on the context, a person switches from one thinking style to another, consciously or unconsciously, freely or forced.

For example, when I see my friend Peter hit Paul with a rock, I interprete the words ``Peter hit Paul with a rock'' using a very common thinking style, let's say my European thinking style. As soon as I think about why he did it, I will use a more restricted thinking style, probably the one that connects me with my friends Peter and Paul. If I look at a transistor circuit, I will use yet another thinking style, because neither the European thinking style nor that of my friends has much to say about transistors.

From this point of view, creative people are people who can easily switch back and forth between thinking styles and who can easily transfer information between thinking styles that would otherwise have little in common.

Up to now, I have assumed that thinking styles spring into existence just because people get together. But why should this happen? --

Because without thinking styles, communication is not possible. Any communication between people works through thinking styles, be it through a thinking style they happen to share, through one they first have to learn, or through one they have to make up for the purpose. Whenever communication happens, one or several thinking styles are involved. This is why I say that there is no individual knowledge.

I want to make one thing very clear: just because there is no individual knowledge, this does not mean that there is nothing individual at all. There is, but being individual, it is not part of a thinking style and cannot be communicated, which is why I don't call it knowledge. I will rather call it the ``inner self,'' knowing well that term will probably mislead you.

Now, if that inner self cannot be communicated, is it then important at all?

Slide 9

I think yes. The major fallacy of our scientific time is the dogma that if something is purely subjective and impossible to communicate, it is also not worthwile, not real, and defies objective experience. People living in industry nations normally know little about this inner self and also do little to discover it.

But this inner self is indeed real, and everybody can discover it themselves by laying off all thinking styles and experiencing that which remains. It is then very interesting to look back at the thinking styles, because one then perceives them very clearly.

This may sound impossible, but it is just tremendously difficult. Because if you look at the ``inner self,'' the subject that looks and the object that is looked at are identical. So if you want to accomplish this, you must concentrate all this ``your self'' into one point. Doing this is often called meditation, and a long time of meditation practice may be necessary to experience the inner self detached from all thinking styles.

This direct experience of one's inner self is something all cultures already know: they call it enlightenment, the direct experience of nothingness, Nirvana, En Sof, Nirvikalpa-Samadhi, the holy spirit, the Tao. Even Jung has a word for the inner self, ``das kollektive Unbewusste,'' the collective unconscious. I think that what Heidegger calls the ``there'' is also the same.

This inner self is the unspeakable ``nothing'' that remains when all thinking styles have gone, but at the same thing it also encompasses everything, because being feature-less it is also limit-less. It does not move or change itself, and yet is the cause for all motion and change.

This ``inner self'' is what drives people when they make knowledge happen. So I think that in order to understand knowledge, to understand people, and to really appreciate every individual, one must also be able to appreciate ones own individuality and to actually experience the happening of knowledge, which means to experience ones inner self, using whatever method one best likes to use.

Be careful now, please: You should not confuse this mystical, incommunicable inner self with the communicable things everybody knows but cannot yet communicate. There are always lots of things that one cannot yet communicate, so people constantly struggle for possibilities to make things communicable. For this reason, thinking styles are very dynamic.

Slide 10

So let's look, for example, at an engineering thinking style. When it first starts to appear, it is no more than indistinct ideas formed by members of a research team. They start to see and know something, and with that they also start the struggle to express it. Of course, they will soon find ways to communicate and form terms to carry the meaning. If they are able engineers, their terms gain more and more meaning, and more and more facts form in their thinking style.

Soon the thinking collective becomes more clearly defined and also starts to grow, because more and more engineers learn of the new, powerful concepts and start to join the thinking collective.

But as the concepts get stronger and the facts multiply, the thinking style also becomes more rigid. The effort to integrate things into the style that do not fit becomes ever greater.

The techniques that people use to reject out-of-style knowledge also get stronger.

It starts with people who see something that is not coherent with their thinking style, but wait to deal with it because they have more important problems. Soon they simply start to think: ``Well, these incoherent things here are actually not quite so incoherent when you look at them closely, are they?'' Then they start to declare incoherent things as coherent, against reason, and finally they simply stop to see anything that is not coherent with the thinking style.

Only people coming into the thinking style from the outside can then still notice incoherences, and it is outsiders who finally trigger the process that breaks up the thinking style that has become too rigid.

Slide 11

So the thinking style that first helped people later imprisons them. This process is completely natural, it cannot be prevented, and it should not be prevented. Reality is far too complex to grasp all of it in one go, so when a thinking style begins to exist, the people in the thinking collective must constrain what they look at, otherwise they cannot possibly progress. They introduce thinking constraints on purpose to make their work feasible. Their initial choice of thinking constraints determines the facts that will appear first in their thinking style. Therefore,

Facts are made
by deliberately introducing thinking constraints
to reduce complexity.

This also means that there is a direct connection between the development of facts and the development of thinking styles. When a thinking style starts to exists, facts appear as well. When the thinking style develops, facts develop as well and do not necessarily remain the same or even disappear again. Finally, when the thinking style disappears, the facts go with it. Take for example the Greek mythology with all its stories about Gods and Goddesses. They are just stories now, but they used to be facts in a thinking style that explained the inner workings of the human mind and provided a very detailed explanation of that part of the human mind which modern psychology just calls ``the subconscious.''

Slide 12

Let's go back to our times, and to science and engineering. The scientific thinking collectives tend to write down quite a lot, so you can easily see the genesis and development of thinking styles and facts when you look at scientific documents.

It starts with small documents that one scientists sends to another, this is still the chaotic phase of the development. These documents are not intended to be kept for long, in our modern times they are often just hand notes or scanned hand notes attached to e-mail messages. They are the written fall-out of knowledge happening.

Then the first conference and journal publications are made, where a thinking style starts to crystallise. Disagreements between the members of the thinking collective are still visible, and so is the complexity of the topic. At this stage, the exchange of knowledge with other thinking styles is largest, partly because the scientists really need information from outside sources, and partly because a journal or conference paper will only be accepted by the reviewers if they can make sense of it within their own thinking styles.

At some stage, a scientist will collect the journal knowledge and compile it into a handbook. This compilation is not only a process of collecting things, it is also a process of planned and careful rationalisation. Some details that are deemed less important are omitted, and incoherences are removed or, if they are a major problem, discussed rationally. Most important, personal experience is omitted. The advantage of handbooks is that the knowledge they provide is accessible to many more people.

When the thinking style becomes important enough, textbooks and popular texts are written. More details are weeded out, and all incoherences disappear. The thinking style is now portrayed in a very clear, rational, but also unreal way, but it is accessible to even more people.

A thinking style develops from chaos towards order and away from reality.

Now most people, even scentists, read only journals from their own research field and know everything else about science from textbooks or popular texts. This explains why many scientists believe in the rationality, objectivity, and clarity of science, even though they perceive the creative time of their own research as irrational, subjective, and chaotic.

Slide 13

All I said up to here means: Facts are never independent of thinking styles. This is why I say that there is no generally valid fact and no generally valid knowledge.

All this must sound very awful for people who believe in the objectivity of science and the reality of its facts. But is then nothing real?

Let me comfort you: Although facts are just style elements of thinking styles, this does not mean that they are completely detached from reality. There is a real world, and if somebody chooses to apply a certain thinking style to this real world, and chooses certain thinking constraints, then the facts that appear will have a close relation to this real world. Within the chosen thinking style, the facts are real.

But the choice of a certain thinking style is just a choice. Sometimes people are free to choose, sometimes they are forced, for example when they start a university education or work in a court of law, but it is always a choice. Two people who choose differently will not have the same facts. From this point of view, the facts are relative.

Slide 14

Now let me tell you what I do with all this in my daily life. All I told you up to now sounded as if I described reality. Well, in the thinking style I use, it is real. But if you see it differently, I acknowledge that your view is real within your thinking style.

In the past, I solved a few conflicts between my thinking styles and others simply by telling and showing people that I value their view even though I do not share it. And it also helps me that I deeply believe in the value of all thinking styles, even if I don't see it yet. So if somebody I talk to says something that sounds stupid, I work until I understand the person. The main tool I use for this is to try and determine the other person's image of knowledge and compare it to mine.

Slide 15

Carol Steiner once asked me an interesting question: why is individual knowledge valued highly in some organisations but not in others? I think I can now tell you why. What other people call ``individual knowledge'' is, in my words, ``knowledge that an individual brings into the organisation's thinking style from another thinking style.'' If this transfer should succeed, the other people in the organisation must trust the person transferring the knowledge through the time during which that person does the transfer. This can really take quite long, so first among all the person must be trusted. So individual knowledge is valued highly in some organisations but not in others because people are trusted highly in some organisations but not in others.

I think that real trust only occurs in organisation when the management of the organisation value people highly and have true love and understanding for all people. The management is so critical because they determine the company thinking style, so if, and only if, they really trust people, the other people in the organisation will trust too.

I think that if this is not the case in a certain company, only radical measures help. At least somebody who has this true humanity and understanding must come into the management, and everybody who cannot tolerate such human views must be fired. In my company, this happened by chance a few years ago: when it was sold by the former owner, who was not really interested in hearing aids, the whole management was replaced, with the exception of the person who now is the managing director. The management we have today meet my two criteria, and both the company thinking style and lots of practical aspects of dayly company life are exceptionally human.

Speaking of management, what about knowledge management? In my view, knowledge is very dynamic and only a product of thinking styles and thinking collectives. It cxannot be managed directly, it can only be managed through the people who make it happen. As an amateur who by chance got into the role of a part-time knowledge manager, I do only three things and nothing more: I try to understand how knowledge happens, I help people see how knowledge happens, and I try to give people a good environment in which they can make knowledge happen.

Slide 16

The latter can mean to provide people with a documentation system that lets them organise documents as it fits their thinking style. As the thinking style develops, the system may have to adapt itself. The best I could think of is to set up a web server that works like the internet, and to give it the potential to mimick chaotic and journal science, handbook science, and textbook science. To account for the chaotic and journal science, all engineers can add content to the web site as they please, from scanned handnotes over e-mail messages to papers from journals, and they can interrelate their work with the work of others as they see fit by using hyperlinks. Then there is a second layer of documentation, where things that have actually been built are described, or where concept studies are kept for the future. These documents are ordered in a more planned way, they correspond to the ``handbook science.'' Finally, there are also official documents used to give to managers, to users of the technical components, and for quality control; they are entered into a rigid, well-defined frame. These documents correspond to ``textbook science.''

Slide 17

This can also be done with single documents. My documents normally start with a list of changes that enables readers of previous version to skip what they have already seen. Then there comes a chapter in the style of textbook science, where managers and engineers having very little time get a brief, rational, straightforward explanation of what I have done and what my integrated circuit does. They have to trust me on that if they only read the textbook chapter.

If they need more, they can read the handbook science chapter where I describe the assumptions, results, and trade-offs in detail, so that the readers can see why I think what I said in the previous chapter is true. With this chapter, the readers can also use or re-design my circuits.

If they want to check on this too, they can read the journal and chaotic science chapter, which is nothing more than scanned hand-written notes, paper excerpts, and computer plots.

Slide 18

Finally, I have also started to use writing style elements that should capture the intuitive part of science. I have not yet used them yet in my company, mainly because Microsoft Word can't do it and Framemaker, which could do it, requires long training.

In my doctoral thesis, which you can download from my web page if you want to see it, I wrote a very brief margin paragraph for every single paragraph of the main text. This margin paragraph tells the reader what the most important aspect of the main paragraph is for me. Reading just the margin, a reader can get an intuitive grasp of the structure of my text. An additional benefit is that if I have troubles writing the margin text for a certain paragraph, this indicates that the paragraph does not contain a single, clear thought!

An additional style element is that every chapter has an introductory section called ``background'' where I describe how I got the results. This is not a rational reconstruction, but the story of what I actually did and why. Then the subsequent sections can be in traditional scientific style.

The clear mark-up of the intuitive parts, plus an explanation of what it is in the introduction to my dissertation, allow the reader who only wants to have traditional scientific texts to skip the intuitive material.

Slide 19

I'm presently working on a refinement of these style elements. I don't have to do all the work on my own, because lots of ideas to solve the problem of getting documentation closer to reality and closer to individuals has already been solved in theatre, most notably by Bertolt Brecht. Indeed, if you are familiar with Brecht, you will note that my margin paragraphs correspond to the narrative titles he lets drop down from the catwalk, and my ``background'' sections correspond to the comments by the narrator.

Because one major problem of science is that people identify themselves far too much with the ideal view of rational and objective science, I'm especially interested in realising Brecht's estrangement effects in technical documentation, but have not yet found a satisfactory solution that does not disturb the text flow too much.

Slide 20

During my talk, I have given you almost no references to the work of other philosophers. The reason is that, being an intuitive thinker, I cannot easily tell from which source I got which ideas. The main exceptions are the terms ``thinking style'' and thinking collective,'' which come from the little known Polish philosopher Ludwik Fleck, and the combination of Realism and Relativism, which Yehuda Elkana explained to me.

My whole theory is still very much in its chaotic development phase, but it can be applied anyway. I would like to encourage you to transfer as much knowledge as you can from my talk into your respective thinking styles, but by doing so, please do not forget the main sources of knowledge from which I drew my theory of knowledge: The ideal of deep respect for all people, the quest for combining individuality with collective harmony, and the search for better communication and documentation.

Thank you for your attention!