Why We Turn Away

Why do we as researchers turn away from accepted knowledge, theory, and/or research?

I don’t mean rejecting a given paper or objecting to a presentation. I am referring to categorically rejecting a whole knowledge practice, on account that it uses some method or epistemology or (fill in the blank) that one doesn’t like. This turning away seems odd, when most of us researchers seem to understand already that what we turn away from could in fact stimulate our own thinking by diversifying it. Further, I think most of us would agree that it leads to counterproductive conflicts, arbitrariness in peer reviewing (as contributions are accepted/rejected for categorical reasons rather than virtues and vices of the work itself), and intellectual silos.

To develop a response to this question, I’ve decided not to cast stones at others but instead to look inward, to offer an Augustinian confession of sorts. That is, I will look at times when I myself have turned away, as well as the causes and consequences of my turning back. (I also confess that some of these turnings have been very recent and are not reflected in my past work, and I further suspect that they are incomplete and so might not be adequately reflected in my future work.)

I start around 1990, when I was an undergraduate. Trained in literature, I did my honors thesis on Derrida, deconstruction, and literary theory. Leading up to that, I had studied Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault. Poststructuralism and postmodernism were at the end of their heyday but still influential in undergraduate education. I was skeptical of science and any objective basis for reality. I couldn’t begin to imagine why anyone would care what an “author” intended. The text (whose existence I was also suspicious about) was not an object out there in the world but instead whatever “play” opened up in readers’ minds as they read it (Stanley Fish, Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes…). In short, I was trained in and believed in a literary theory project that was deeply shaped by continental philosophy.

Not surprisingly in those days I also categorically rejected continental philosophy’s chief rival (as I then understood it): Anglo-American analytic philosophy. Its methods were overly logical; they were too cold and dry to have anything interesting to say about poetry. Its interest in authorial intention was naïve and outmoded. Its focus on the cognitive missed the whole point of art. Perhaps the greatest sin of all: its apolitical approach to art made it a dupe to the right wing.  Or so I thought then.

But today, when I read intellectually for fun or for interest, it is almost certainly analytical aesthetics. What happened?

I underwent a sort of conversion, which unfolded over time and at least started under my radar. First, I did my PhD minor in philosophy, for the best of reasons: I found an amazing professor to work with. He didn’t call what he is doing analytic philosophy (it was taken for granted), so I didn’t even realize that that’s what we were up to until I was already doing it.

Second, as I sought to bring a more aesthetic sensibility to HCI and informatics, I found myself needing get beyond dictionary definitions of aesthetics but without having to give readers an undergraduate education in it. So I bought several introductory books in aesthetics, hoping to borrow some of their best definitions and explanations. Yet I soon discovered that the ones influenced by continental philosophy of art that I was most sympathetic to were often all but impossible to paraphrase or explain without indoctrinating my reader into it, which did not serve my purpose. The readings that did do what I needed—offer clear definitions and sober accounts of their strengths and weaknesses—tended to be from analytic philosophers. So I pinched my nose and took up the hunt for clear accounts of aesthetic concepts and phenomena. But the more I engaged with this literature, the more I began to see that these philosophers knew and appreciated art in sophisticated ways as well. I also began to appreciate their direct and straightforward writing style: their arguments had explicit structure, were paraphraseable, and yet laden with insights. Derrida never wrote like this!

Third, I began to realize that the analytic philosophers’ focus on aesthetic cognitivism and artistic intention turned out to have quite a bit of bearing on contemporary design research. This is the topic of my book project, so I won’t belabor it here.

The point is that I discovered–accidentally, and over time–that I had been wrong for 20 years. I had dismissed a whole body of scholarly work because, not to put too fine a point on it, I was being an epistemological bigot.

Why did I do that?

A pop psychology answer to this question is that conducting research within an epistemic paradigm requires buy-in, and our intellectual identities sometimes (and often unreflectively) become attached to that paradigm. Because most of us as academics are rejected the majority of the time (with low conference/journal acceptance rates and even lower acceptance rates for grants), we often experience our research engagements with the rest of the community as a threat to the self, especially true earlier in our academic careers.

A political answer frames epistemic paradigms as if they are essentially tied up in conflict. Thomas Kuhn’s extensive use of the “revolution” metaphor underscores how fundamental and serious this conflict idea is. By implication, if my paradigm gains sufficient critical mass, or is represented well in the discourse, then my work has a better chance of thriving (e.g., getting funding, published, awards); if an alternative paradigm achieves critical mass, it’s an existential threat to my research going forward. I am incentivized to support or attack—as a peer reviewer, as a writer, as a teacher—work based on its paradigm, rather than its particular virtues or vices.

An aesthetic answer proposes that each epistemic paradigm has its own set of styles, values, forms, materials, and arrangements, and that alternative epistemic paradigms don’t use them the same way. My epistemic paradigm feels right to me, I am at home in it, I can express myself through it, its contents are about what really matters to me.

So, to answer the question that began this blog post, I think it is the following combination that encourages us to turn away:

the intuition that an alternative epistemic stance is not aesthetic—it isn’t comfortable, it doesn’t feel right, it talks about the wrong things in the wrong ways—

combined with

the intuition that the alternative paradigm is also a threat to our ability to pursue inquiry in the long term and, even more personally, the very viability of our intellectual identities.

And so we turn away.

But this turning away has a cost. When I started to appreciate a knowledge practice I had previously turned away from (and analytic aesthetics is but one such conversion for me; there were others), I discovered that far from confounding my own ways of knowing, they were instead enriched. I had new vocabularies, methods, and justifications to support whatever inquiry I was working on. I could see surprising places of agreement, which helped illuminate the places of disagreement as a space of new inquiry rather than an opportunity for warfare. I also became more sensitive to the strengths and weaknesses of the different knowledge practices that I was sympathetically engaging.

But perhaps most importantly, it helped me to learn how to offer increasingly sophisticated positive arguments for doing what I do, rather than defensive arguments, as if I were under attack. It has also transformed my teaching, both in terms of what I assigned but also in terms of how I began to hear and to respond to my students.

I have recently developed a simple heuristic:

If there is legitimately peer reviewed published scholarship on something, that work probably has a basis in legitimacy.

I might not be interested in it or qualified to engage it, but if scholars are doing it, it’s probably legitimate and as an outsider I have no place to reject it. As such, I am trying to view all scholarship as a source of curiosity rather than (let’s be honest) a source of fear that I push away under the false pretenses of academic rigor.

Intellectual rigor, it seems to me, should also include the ability to see the value that others find in research as a precursor to any critical reaction to it. We might call it the epistemic virtue of sympathy.

I do not mean to deny the benefits of robust debate. I am not proposing a new age kumbaya of magical agreement. I simply mean that such debate is epistemically flawed when it lacks the underlying virtue of sympathy.

And turning this argument around, I now try to see my own scholarship not as a salvo in a war of ideas, but as a potential resource, intended to support others as we collectively move our field forward—often in ways I didn’t anticipate and, in some cases, don’t even understand. But of course, such movement is one of the best qualities of an interdisciplinary community.

If we cannot as a community at least temporarily suspend the “epistemic paradigms at war” metaphor, at least long enough to pursue our inquiry characterized by an ethos of sympathetic rigor, I don’t think we can fully realize our interdisciplinary potentials. I don’t think our epistemic wars amount to much more than in-fighting, that is, of talking past each other (as I believe Kuhn puts it).

And I hope that my “confession” here has suggested that instead of throwing our energy into converting others, we might be better off first converting ourselves.

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