Ruminating on Michael Polanyi's epistemic model as developed and conveyed by Dr. Esther Lightcap Meek in the book Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Concrete and Abstract Clues

In the book LtK, Dr. Meek gives three categories of clues (used in the technical sense she defines in the book): in your world, in your body, and in the directions. The distinction is helpful but, in my opinion, not very precise. All of the clues are in your world -- your body and the directions exist in your world. So, what we really have is a situation in which all clues come to us (at least initially) from our world, but we distinguish two categories of world-clues (we can just say "clues" since all clues are world-clues) which do not cover the whole field between them. We have:
  • in-my-body-clues
  • directions-from-authoritative-guides-clues
  • all the rest of the clues

I think another distinction can made within all the rest. Some clues are essentially concrete, or material; by that I mean that the sensory data itself acts as a clue. Others are essentially abstract; by that I mean that the sensory data tells us nothing in and of itself; rather, the meaning we assign to it as information is what acts as the clue.

Take, for example, Dr. Meek's illustration of the Magic Eye picture of the dolphins. The dots themselves act directly as clues, they themselves form the pattern. Or consider what we do while driving a car. Much of what we perceive visually of the road and surrounding traffic tells us immediately how to control the machine to accomplish our objective safely. We see the road curving, and we know that we must turn the steering wheel when we reach that curve if we wish to keep the car on the road. The visual data is the clue.

But consider Dr. Meek's copperhead example. In the book, it illustrates clues in the directions, because we have to be taught how to distinguish a copperhead from the forest floor, as well as from a non-poisonous snake. But, the directions having been received, the clues of the coloration and the hourglass shapes on the snake's back are clues from the world which must needs be integrated with the direction-clues. But even though they come from the world, they don't act directly as clues. Rather, the meanings we associate with the information we gain from the sensory data are what acts as clues. Maybe that's not very well said. I'm thinking of it as a chain or hierarchy of the flow of information: eye sees hourglass shapes --> brain recalls ideal hourglass shape, compares these instances of it, and correctly identifies them as real instances of the hourglass shape --> brain recalls that authoritative guide taught us to associate this shape on a copper-colored snake's back with the idea of a copperhead snake. It's what we associate with that shape in the abstract that lets us know we're seeing a copperhead.

Or consider once again the case of driving with respect to road signs (for reasons I'm completely unaware of, I've always gravitated toward making automobile-related illustrations). While visual images of the road itself work directly as clues, the official road signs must be interpreted. We learn to associate certain shapes and colors with certain kinds of instructions. Upright rectangle, white with black letters, small letters at top with large, two-digit number underneath: long before you're close enough to see the words "speed limit," you know that it's a speed limit sign, because that's what speed limit signs look like in the USA. After you've been driving for a short time, you pick up that number in your peripheral vision, glance at your dashboard, and know how much over the limit you're going. :-) The knowledge of your speed, and of what speed you ought to be limiting your vehicle to, is not gained directly from the visual data. It's inferred from meanings you have learned to associate with data of that kind. The image in your eyeball of a shape similar to 35 is not the clue. It must be combined with your understanding of what 35 m.p.h. means in terms of the velocity of your vehicle relative to the road, and with your understanding of the authority of the state to require you to restrict your speed. It's your abstract comprehension of the meaning of "35" in this context that, combined with clues in the directions for driving received from authoritative guides, acts as a clue to your knoweldge of how fast you ought to be going.

I don't know quite how to label these differences. In fact, the distinction isn't parallel to the body-directions-remainder categories, because directions-clues are inherently abstract, while body-clues tend to be more concrete. Nevertheless, there are certainly non-directions-non-body abstract clues, and non-body concrete clues.

Here's how I came to think this stuff through. I subscribe to an electronic newsletter for webmasters that often contains very useful info, but was kind of hard to follow due to semantical irregularities. Everything about the look and "vibe" of the newsletter led me to tacitly assume that it was written by a very sharp teenager or very young man from either America or Great Britain. Some turns of phrase seemed definitely British, but the grammar seemed sloppy and chaotic in a way that suggested a product of the US public school system.

Even though the verbage was frequently confusing, I continued to read every issue because I was able to regularly glean savvy hints and tips. Then one day recently, the writer mentioned the name of his company in passing, and it had the word Singapore in it. Singapore! So that's it. He's an Asian using English as a second language.

Suddenly, I was able to follow him much better. The only thing that changed was that I expected him to sound like an Asian who hadn't quite mastered the English language, rather than picturing him as a poorly educated native English speaker. That was enough to dramatically increase my comprehension of what he writes.

Granted, the clue came from my world: from the writer, through the internet, to my computer screen, to my eyeball. But it served the role of clue, not at that point nor during that time, but afterward. It changed my expectations about what I read from him. It functions as a clue purely in the abstract. It's a clue in my expectations, which is, perhaps, a sub-category of non-directions abstract clues.

Anybody got any ideas for better labels?

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