Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer

Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, director of the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, welcomes participants to the instituteʼs inaugural conference, Practices of Knowledge. (Photography by Jean Lachat)

In the know

The Stevanovich Institute questions what we know and how we know it.

An ancient parable recounts a group of blind men who come upon an elephant for the first time. One grabs the trunk, another an ear, another the elephant’s tail, and so on. They set to work describing the object, but their accounts are so incongruent that they cannot reach basic agreement about the object’s nature. How can one thing be wet, dry, snakelike, and flat at the same time? A scuffle ensues. The lesson: Each standpoint has its limitations. Partial truths may cohere in a greater, unseen whole.

Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, the Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Classics, invoked the parable of the elephant and the blind men at the inaugural conference of the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge (SIFK), musing that “disciplinary constraints boil down to the fact that over here a foot is being grabbed, over there a trunk, and in a third place a giant nostril.” The event, titled Practices of Knowledge, was held on campus November 16 to 19. Like its research fellowships, scholarly journal, and generous slate of course offerings, SIFK’s biennial conference is intended to cover a wide range of historical epochs, cultural traditions, and disciplinary formations—in other words, to grasp the whole elephant.

For SIFK, covering new ground in the study of knowledge means continually recontextualizing important concepts and debates. If ideas gain meaning from how they function within specific cultural and historical contexts, then these contexts bear close examination. As SIFK’s director, Bartsch-Zimmer makes context her watchword, countering Socrates’s maxim “knowledge is virtue” with SIFK’s view that “knowledge is context.”

Keynote speaker Steven Shapin, professor of the history of science at Harvard, exemplified this attitude in critiquing the distinction between art and science. Typically we say that art is made while science is discovered. Nevertheless, scientific theories are in some sense artful constructions, and they often appeal to our aesthetic sensibilities. Is Charles Darwin’s influential diagram of the tree of life a part of his science or a mere visual aid? The boundary between art and science shifts over time and with different worldviews.

Taking another 19th-century biologist, Shapin argued that Ernst Haeckel’s highly abstract and stylized—and sometimes admittedly falsified—drawings of organisms may be understood as properly scientific from within a tradition of German philosophy and biology that viewed ideal organic archetypes as reflections of the formal structure of both mind and nature.

Another speaker working across disciplines was David Nirenberg, the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Distinguished Service Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought and executive vice provost of the University of Chicago. In his talk, Nirenberg contrasted two ancient metaphysical positions: Heracleitus’s view that reality is like a river that lacks identity from one second to the next; and Pythagoras’s position that nature is inherently mathematical in its structure.

According to Nirenberg, the choice between these attitudes should be viewed as a free one rather than a disciplinary mandate. In the social sciences, for instance, one need not cleave to statistical models of rational action when a phenomenon seems amenable to a more qualitative or open-ended approach. The choice is ever present: from one perspective the world is populated by self-identical objects subject to quantification, and from another it is a formless stream of becoming.

Over the course of the conference, a productive tension arose between those eager to use data to prove a point and those concerned with scrutinizing how data gains legitimacy. Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, is of the former cast, including in his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018). However, when he presented a series of graphs demonstrating centuries of human progress in key areas such as infant mortality rate, some audience members were unpersuaded and demanded further context. Why were just these numbers presented in just this way? Is this the proper timescale for assessing our fortunes?

Whether interpretive questions can be put to rest was the issue treated by Edward Slingerland, professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia. According to Slingerland, many disputes among humanities scholars may be solved by “distant reading,” or the algorithmic mapping of key words and their relationships in vast quantities of text. He explained how a distant reading project in his field showed that pre-Buddhist Chinese literature maintains a clear distinction between mind and body, seemingly disproving scholars whose cherry-picked quotations imply mind-body holism. In Slingerland’s view, the humanities can and should pose empirical questions with right and wrong answers—which is not how most of us remember our English professors grading our term papers.

Of course, Slingerland’s algorithmic studies still require interpretation, whether in the design of the study, the coding of the results, or the drawing of implications. As he pointed out, however, the same is true of all empirical research. In the humanities as in science, data cannot settle interpretation but only dialogue with it. New claims generate new interpretations that generate new claims, and old claims can always be recast in a new interpretive light. In this way, knowledge and its endless critique allow us to explore a complex but shared reality from all sides.