Knowledge and Self

Mary Gergen writes about the concept of Social Ghosts[i], people we still speak to and hear from though they are absent in our current lives. One of my big (huge) ones is my father. Since I get to select which version of him is useful to me, I mostly speak to and hear from person he was when he was around the age I am now, before cognitive decline muted one of the finest minds with which I have ever interacted.

He is particularly on my mind these days for two reasons. The first is that a dear friend of his has just lost her father and I saw his obituary in the New York Times. Though she and I have never had a direct relationship, I sent her a condolence note and she was kind enough to open up a conversation about the having of highly visible fathers.

The second is that I recently decided (again) that I really need to read Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The copy I bought last time I decided this has gone missing, but I did find (tucked in a safe corner) Dad’s copy with his marginalia.

I have this book because these were the books I kept when he passed, the books in which his spidery handwriting noted, expanded, and argued with the authors’ ideas, in which his underlines, exclamation points, and particular ways of marking passages point out to me what caught his attention. These are the books through which I can still learn from him, evoking the most powerful social ghost in my world. All the markings are, of course, in ink … the same way he did the NYT Crossword puzzle. He did not lack intellectual confidence.

In some of these books the notes are minimal, maybe half a dozen comments total. Not so with his responses to Dr. Kuhn. His hand has marked at least a third of the pages. In these notes he:

  • Identifies Kuhn’s arguments (“The concept of development-by-accumulation” (Kuhn) is “the paradigm he wants to disenfranchise” (Dad));
  • Makes note of resources to track down, such as Copernicus’ classic definition of a crisis state.
  • Applies Kuhn’ arguments to others’ ideas, most frequently Marx;
  • Applies others’ ideas to Kuhn’s points, such as the note inside the front cover quoting Cossier’s The Philosophy of Enlightenment about “the self-development of the idea of knowledge itself”, complete with page number; and
  • Argues with Kuhn’s points. These comments generally get too complex to explain here without extending this already-too-long post, but I think the case is made when he responds to Kuhn’s point that previous scholars should not be accused of bias with a succinct “No?”

My favorite note, however, might be the most obscure. It comes at the end of a heavily marked passage about how errors in previous ways of thinking show more clearly when those previous ways of thinking have matured, revealing their errors as anomalies in the theory. He summarizes this point in the margins, but the bit I love is the comment written at an angle at the end of the paragraph: “Very happy…”. I have no idea why he wrote this.

When I studied rhetoric as a grad student, the idea that most drew me was epistemology, the question of how we know what we know. Readers of a particular bent will have already noticed this theme running through what I post here, this importance of questioning what we take to be true.

Reading dad reading Kuhn reminds me that, when it comes to this type of intellectual inquiry, I have not fallen far from my tree. This understanding-of-self-through-relationship is one of the uses of Social Ghosts. The other, of course, is that through a physical book I once again get to talk to my dad about ideas. Still, I wish I could still do it in person.

 

 

[i] Gergen, M. M. (1987). Social ghosts: Opening inquiry on imaginal relationships. In 95th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, New York.

Author: Aron DiBacco

Aron thinks about conflict, communication, and how to help move the world in the direction of inclusive equity. She does these things through teaching, facilitating dialogue, social science research, and writing.

4 thoughts on “Knowledge and Self”

  1. I’m glad that you still have his thoughts and insights. I don’t think that he had a great number of people with whom he could share that intellect. He was proud that you stayed near the tree.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Epistemology is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of philosophy, indeed of any serious discourse. We cannot effectively debate the merits of any issue unless there is some agreement on what we know and how we know it. In this era of “alternative facts”, it is as if we’ve abandoned the process as futile, and what can be known is a matter of convenience.

    Even in Socrates’ time people derided his method of dialectical reasoning because it questioned what they all took for granted they knew and, through careful reasoning, pointed up inconvenient epistemological problems. It was the death of him. On the one hand, he uttered the delightfully zen phrase, “All I know is that I know nothing.” And on the other, he advised us to, before all else, come to know ourselves. Perhaps it is not the goal, but the process that is important. We may never fully come to understand ourselves, but making the attempt teaches us a great deal.

    The worst part of death is when it comes, not to us, but to those around us. Sometimes I think that if I could have one wish, it would be to talk to my mother, to ask her questions only she can answer. So I feel for what you lost, and applaud your efforts to reconstruct your father’s reasoning based on what he left behind. He sounds like a man I would have loved to sit down with to share a glass of wine and a meeting of minds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He would have loved that. He didn’t have many conversational partners who could follow and challenge him as well I suspect you could have. And “the dialectic” may have been his favorite idea. Me, I’m sticking with “All I know is nothing.”

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