More on New Knowledge

Responding to Tony Bates, Bates and Downes on new knowledge: Round 3

You say > However, I don’t believe the distinction between ‘academic’ knowledge and ‘applied’ knowledge is particularly useful.

Here we agree.

You say > What is useful is a distinction between academic and non-academic knowledge, as measured by the values or propositions that underpin each kind of knowledge.

Here we disagree.

First, I'm not sure you can made the distinction stick.

Second, even if you make the distinction stick, then so much the worse for academic knowledge, because the values or propositions that underpin academic method are unsound.

You say academic method > AIMS for deep understanding, general principles, empirically-based theories, timelessness, etc

Yes. But it shouldn't. That's my point.

You say > Academic knowledge is not perfect, but does have value because of the standards it requires.

This is a statement deserving of more discussion, because I think that either academics have lost track of the standards, being devoted to process over rigor, or that the standards adhered are in fact no guarantor of worthwhile results.

You say > I also agree with Stephen that knowledge is not just ’stuff’, as Jane Gilbert puts it, but is dynamic. However, I also believe that knowledge is also not just ‘flow’.

It is neither 'stuff' nor 'flow', in my view. I explicitly reject both views in my post and in the comment that follows.

As I wrote:

"The central tenet of emergence theory is that even if stuff flows from entity to entity, that stuff is not knowledge; knowledge, rather, is something that 'emerges' from the activity of the system as a whole.

"This network - and subnets with the network (aka 'patterns of connectivity') - may be depicted as knowledge...

"A second way of representing knowledge, and one that I embrace in addition to the first for a variety of reasons, is that patterns of connectivity can be recognized or interpreted as salient by a perceiver."

The reason why this depiction is important is that knowledge, on this view, is *not* "deep understanding, general principles, empirically-based theories, timelessness, etc."

So whatever it is that academic method is aiming for, it is not knowledge.

This is a key point of contention between us:

You write > at some point each person does settle, if only for a brief time, on what they think knowledge to be. At this point it does become ’stuff’ or content. I still contend then that ’stuff’ or content does matter, though recognising that what we do with the stuff is even more important.

I disagree with.

I do describe (following o0thers) 'settling mechanisms' in the brain. We can say that we 'settle'. We can hypothesize, at least, a (thermodynamically) stable state of connections and activations in the brain.

But the 'entities' in such a system (if we can call them that) that constitute 'knowledge' do NOT have the properties of 'stuff' or 'content'. This is the key and fundamental point of my argument:

Not 'stuff' - not discrete, not localized, not atomic
Not 'content' - not semantical, not propositional, not symbolic

And that's my problem with academic method. It seeks out specifically propositions - symbolic or semantical - that are discrete, localized and atomic. Things that are _candidates_ for deep understanding, general principles, empirically-based theories, timelessness.

I think that maybe if we can untangle the vocabulary we might come to agreement on this. After all,

You say > this is likely to result in a shift in knowledge that may be very important, and it is in this area where I think Stephen and I may have some agreement.

This encourages me.

Skipping ahead quite a bit...

You write > My concern about much of the discussion of the ‘new’ knowledge is that it seems to depend on what I might call majority voting - it is the number of hits that matter, not the quality of the content.

Quite so.

Voting - and counting generally - record only the mass of a thing. They require some sort of identity (in order to identify that which is being counted).

This is distinct from the type of knowlecdge I have been trying to describe, which depends not on the quantity of things assembled, but on the way those things are interconnected.

This is what I have tried to clarify with the distinction between 'groups' and 'networks'.

The properties found in the group are (to my way of seeing) just those embraced by what we have been calling the academic method. If you look at the diagram you see typical academic values: unity (of purpose, of workers, of science), coordination, closed systems, distributive (expert-based) knowledge.

Knowledge based on networks is not based on counting - not on votes, on surveys, on mass, on category or type, etc. because knowledge is not the sort of thing that can be counted, not the sort of thing that can be generalized (as a mass).

The objection to voting *is* an objection to academic method.

The new knowledge is precisely *not* knowledge by counting, knowledge by popularity.

But it's not knowledge by experts ether. Because if we say that knowledge is based on experts and expertise, then we are saying that knowledge is the 'stuff' that's in people's heads that goes from place to place. Which - again - it isn't.

Now it is reasonable to disagree with my position on knowledge, but it's important to recognize that 'network knowledge' isn't based on counting or popularity - no matter how much this is emphasized by the (popular) media.


> Lastly, Stephen was puzzled as to why I felt a blog was not the best way to discuss this issue. What I feel the topic needs is more space and time, and a critique from philosophers would also add to the discussion, I am sure, because I do not have specialist knowledge or training in epistemology. I would like to have had more time to review other writers on this topic, and more space to elaborate my views. I feel that I could do a better job that way.

Well - take all the time and space you need. Neither are in short supply on blogs.

Indeed - and this is one thing I like - you can go back over again, return to the same point again, attack it from various angles - a whole range of things you can't really strive for in any other forum.

> It was not because I needed the discussion to be academically reviewed in the way that journals are reviewed

Good. because if we were restricted by reviewers, we could never be having this discussion. Which would be a pity.


  1. This is also posted as a comment to: Bates and Downes on new knowledge: Round 3

    I don’t think Stephen and I are going to agree on the value of academic knowledge. However, I do agree that there is a useful distinction that Stephen makes between groups and networks, although I don’t agree with the necessarily perjorative terms used about groups. Both groups and networks have their value, and each also can operate in ways that neither Stephen nor I would like. Thus I think there is a danger in labelling here (groups bad, networks good) without looking carefully at how different groups and different networks function, and what their purpose is.

    While networks are defined by how the ‘nodes’ connect together, their value will depend on what happens across the network, and the nodes are a critical part of determining what happens. If we are talking about knowledge, the nodes will often (but not necessarily) be people, and people will be sharing, contributing and developing knowledge across the network. Moreover, all kinds of knowledge will be going across different network configurations.

    To come to the crux of my argument, academic knowledge is rapidly enhanced and expanded by electronic networks, but it is still dependent, in most cases, on people going through some form of educational process that focuses on the standards and ways of thinking that are associated with academic knowledge. Stephen may not be interested in this form of knowledge, but I am, because it has in my view proved extremely useful, and continues to be useful. There are other networks that operate on other areas of interest (such as disgusting food - see The Sneeze - Half zine. Half blog. Half not good with fractions:, which in turn may create or construct knowledge, but it is not academic knowledge. Note that that once people in a network identify a common area of interest, they then de facto become a group focused around that interest.

    The argument (I think) is whether education can be better done through unstructured electronic networking alone, through more structured methods, such as group work either in a face-to-face context or online, or through a combination of both structured and unstructured learning environments. I believe there are various ways in which academic knowledge can be developed, but the most effective way seems to me to be a combination of structured and unstructured activities.

    Where I do agree with Stephen is that we do not necessarily need the old structures of education based on physical classes or groups. We can achieve many of the purposes of education without the need for continuous and ongoing physical presence. However, groups do have their uses, in that they can provide structure and support that facilitates academic learning. Groups can operate equally well online as well as physically, for educational purposes. The freedom and serendipity of electronic networks though can add immense value to the development of academic knowledge, but only if those contributing to the network share or learn the values of academic knowledge. (I am not disputing that other forms of valuable knowledge can be created by random networks without this necessity - my focus here is on academic knowledge).

    Lastly, I have to say I find myself amused that I am defending academic knowledge, but I don’t want to confuse ‘knowledge’ with ‘education’. Like Stephen, I believe that we have gone terribly wrong with our system of education, but it is not the principles of academic knowledge per se that I think are the problem. Yes, we have focused too much on academic knowledge in schools, given it too strong an emphasis, but even within the field of academic knowledge, we have focused too much on content (as measured by standardized testing), and not enough on learning processes, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and the values and principles of academic knowledge. But in moving to new methods and approaches, and the use of new technologies, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water - even if Stephen doesn’t like the baby.


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