Archives For Joshua Bergamin

Author Information: Bonnie Talbert, Harvard University, USA, btalbert@fas.harvard.edu

Talbert, Bonnie. “Paralysis by Analysis Revisited.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 6-9.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Sh

Illustration by Lemuel Thomas from the 1936 Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Calendar.
Image by clotho39 via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In his reply to my article “Overthinking and Other Minds: the Analysis Paralysis” (2017), Joshua Bergamin (2017) offers some fascinating thoughts about the nature of our knowledge of other people.

Bergamin is right in summarizing my claim that knowing another person involves fundamentally a know-how, and that knowing all the facts there is to know about a person is not enough to constitute knowing her. But, he argues, conscious deliberate thinking is useful in getting to know someone just as it is useful in learning any type of skill.

Questions of Ability

The example he cites is that of separating an egg’s yoke from its white—expert cooks can do it almost automatically while the novice in the kitchen needs to pay careful, conscious attention to her movements in order to get it right. This example is useful for several reasons. It highlights the fact that learning a skill requires effortful attention while engaging in an activity. It is one thing to think or read about how to separate an egg’s white from its yoke; it is quite another thing to practice it, even if it is slow going and clumsy at first. The point is that practice rather than reflection is what one has to do in order to learn how to smoothly complete the activity, even if the first attempts require effortful attention.[1]

On this point Bergamin and I are in agreement. My insistence that conscious deliberate reflection is rarely a good way to get to know someone is mostly targeted at the kinds of reflection one does “in one’s own head”. My claim is not that we never consciously think about other people, but that consciously thinking about them without their input is not a good way to get to know them.  This leads to another, perhaps more important point, which is that the case of the egg cracking is dissimilar from getting to know another person in some fundamental ways.

Unlike an egg, knowing how to interact with a person requires a back and forth exchange of postures, gestures, words, and other such signals. It is not possible for me to figure out how to interact with you and simply to execute those actions; I have to allow for a dynamic exchange of actions originating from each of us. With the egg, or any inanimate object, I am the only agent causing the sequence of events. With another person, there are two agents, and I cannot simply decide how to make the interaction work like I want it to; I have to have your cooperation. This makes knowing another person a different kind of enterprise than knowing other kinds of things.[2]

I maintain that most of the time, interactions with others are such that we do not need to consciously be thinking about what is going on. In fact, the behavioral, largely nonverbal signals that are sent nearly instantaneously to participants in a conversation occur so quickly that there is rarely time to reflect on them. Nevertheless, Bergamin’s point is that in learning an activity, and thus by extension, in getting to know another person as we learn to interact with her, we may be more conscious of our actions than we are once we know someone well and the interactions “flow” naturally.

Knowing Your Audience

I do not think this is necessarily at odds with my account. Learning how to pace one’s speech to a young child when one is used to speaking to adults might take some effortful attention, and the only way to get to the point where one can have a good conversation (if there is such a thing) with a youngster is to begin by paying attention to the speed at which one talks. I still think that once one no longer has to think about it, she will be better able to glean information from the child and will not have her attention divided between trying to pay attention to both what the child is doing and how she sounds herself.

It is easier to get to know someone if you are not focused on what you have to do to hold up your end of the conversation. But more than whether we are consciously or unconsciously attending to our actions in an interaction, my point is that reflection is one-sided while interaction is not, and it is interaction that is crucial for knowing another person. In interaction, whether our thought processes are unconscious or conscious, their epistemic function is such that they allow us to coordinate our behavior with another person’s. This is the crucial distinction from conscious deliberation that occurs in a non-interactive context.

Bergamin claims that “breakdowns” in flow are more than just disruptive; rather, they provide opportunities to learn how to better execute actions, both in learning a skill and in getting to know another person. And it is true that in relationships, a fight or disagreement can often shed light on the underlying dynamics that are causing tension. But unlike the way you can learn from a few misses how to crack an egg properly, you cannot easily decide how to fix your actions in a relationship without allowing for input from the other party.

Certain breakdowns in communication, or interruptions of the “flow” of a conversation can help us know another person better insofar as they alert us to situations in which things are not going smoothly. But further thinking does not always get us out of the problem–further interacting does. You cannot sort it out in your head without input from the other person.

My central claim is that knowing another person requires interaction and that the interactive context is constitutively different from contexts that require one-sided deliberation rather than back and forth dynamic flows of behavioral signals and other information. However, I also point out that propositional knowledge of various sorts is necessary for knowing another person.

Bergamin is correct to point out that in my original essay I do not elaborate on what if anything propositional, conscious deliberative thinking can add to knowing another person. But elsewhere (2014) I have argued that part of what it means to know someone is to know various things about her and that when we know someone, we can articulate various propositions that capture features of her character.

In the essay under discussion, I focus on the claim that propositional knowledge is not sufficient for knowing another person and that we must start with the kind of knowledge that comes from direct interaction if we are to claim that we know another person. We do also gain useful and crucial propositional knowledge from our interactions as well as from other sources that are also part of our knowledge of others, but without the knowledge that comes only from interaction we would ordinarily claim to know things about a person, rather than to know her.

Bergamin is also right in asserting that my account implies that our interactions with others do not typically involve much thinking in the traditional sense. They are, as he speculates, “immersive, intersubjective events…such that each relationship is different for each of us and to some extent out of our control.”  This is partly true. While I might share a very different relationship to Jamie than you do, chances are that we can both recognize certain features of Jamie as being part of who he is. I was struck by this point at a recent memorial service when people with very different relationships spoke about their loved one, impersonating his accent, his frequently used turns of phrase, his general stubbornness, generosity, larger than life personality and other features that everyone at the service could recognize no matter whether the relationship was strictly professional, familial, casual, lasting decades, etc.

I have tentatively spelled out an account (2014) that suggests that with people we know, there are some things that only the people in the relationship share, such as knowledge of where they had lunch last week and what was discussed. But there is also knowledge that is shared beyond that particular relationship that helps situate that relationship vis-à-vis other, overlapping relationships, i.e., while I share a unique relationship with my mother, and so does my sister-in-law, we can both recognize some features of her that are the same for both of us. Further, my sister–in-law knows that I am often a better judge of what my mother wants for her birthday, since I have known my mother longer and can easily tell that she does not mean it when she says she does not want any gifts this year.

Bergamin’s concluding thoughts about the Heideggerian nature of my project are especially insightful, and I too am still working on the speculative implications of my account, which posits that (in Bergamin’s words), “If people are ‘moving targets,’ then we are not ‘things’ but ‘processes,’ systems that are in constant flux. To know such a process is not to try to nail down the ever-changing facts about it, but involves interacting with it. Yet we who interact are ourselves a similar kind of ‘process,’ and in getting to know somebody we are just as much the known as the knower. Our relationships, therefore, are a kind of identity, that involves us and yet exceeds us — growing and evolving over time.” My hope is that this is a project on which we and many other scholars will continue to make progress.

Contact details: btalbert@fas.harvard.edu

References

Bergamin, Joshua. “To Know and To Be: Second-Person Knowledge and the Intersubjective Self, A Reply to Talbert.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 43-47.

Cleary, Christopher. “Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training.” New York Times,  February 22, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html

Talbert, Bonnie. “Knowing Other People: A Second-person Framework.” Ratio 28, no. 2 (2014): 190–206.

Talbert, Bonnie. “Overthinking and Other Minds: The Analysis Paralysis.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 6 (2017): 1-12.

[1] There is some research that shows that conscious thoughtful reflection, indeed “visualization” can help a person perform an activity better. Visualization has been used to help promote success in sports, business, personal habits, and the like. Process visualization, which is sometimes used with varying degrees of success in athletes, is interesting for my purposes because it does seem to help in performing an activity, or to help with the know-how involved in some athletic endeavors. I do not know why this is the case, and I am a bit skeptical of some of the claims used in this line of reasoning. But I do not think we could use process visualization to help with our interactions with others and get the same kind of results, for the actions of another person are much more unpredictable than the final hill of the marathon or the dismount of a balance beam routine. It is also useful to note that some sports are easier than others to visualize, namely those that are most predictable. For more on this last point and on how imagery can be used to enhance athletic performance, see Christopher Cleary’s “Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training” (2014).

[2] This leads to another point that is not emphasized in my original essay but perhaps should have been. Insofar as I liken getting to know another person to the “flow” one can experience in certain sports, I do not sufficiently point out that “flow” in some sports, namely those that involve multiple people, involves something much more similar to the “know-how” involved in getting to know another person than in sports where there is only one person involved. Interestingly, “team sports” and other multi person events are not generally cited as activities whose success can be significantly improved by visualization.

Author Information: Joshua Bergamin, University of Durham, UK, joshua.bergamin@uqconnect.edu.au

Bergamin, Joshua. “To Know and To Be: Second-Person Knowledge and the Intersubjective Self, A Reply to Talbert.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 43-47.

The pdf of the article includes specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Pd

Please refer to:

Image credit: Vexthorm, via Flickr

 

Bonnie Talbert’s article opens up some fascinating questions stemming from the nature of our second-person knowledge, which led me on a thought-provoking journey from questioning what it takes to know another person, towards wondering what is a person, in itself? In this reply, I explore Talbert’s claim to getting to know a person is akin to the ‘knowing-how’ of a skill. However, I question her assertion that the propositional ‘knowing-that’ of ‘figuring someone out’ is of secondary importance, noting the important interplay of knowledge-how and knowledge-that in the process of skill-acquisition. I try to resolve this by asking what is it that we are trying to know when we come to know another person, which offers some intriguing (if speculative) hypotheses on the nature of our second-person relationships.

Knowing a Person

As Talbert points out, knowing a person differs from other types of knowledge especially insofar as people are “moving targets” (2). Human beings are in a constant state of change. As well as physically growing and ageing, facts about our personalities and lifestyles are also in continual flux. A disciplined child can become a scatterbrained adult, while a mid-life crisis mellows into a graceful old age. We can go from disliking scotch whisky to collecting it, from being thrilled by big city life to annoyed by it, or from being avowed pacifists to hard-headed realpolitikers. And if such changes aren’t hard enough to keep track of, we are at all stages bundles of contradictions, capable of holding and acting on conflicting views, like a chain-smoking doctor who counsels her patients to quit, or a professor of logic whose day is brightened by a fortune cookie.

Knowing someone, we feel, must be more than knowing if they still like bourbon, or are a smoker, or a hypocrite. Knowing all the facts about what a person might do or say in a situation, Talbert argues, does not help us really get to know them, anymore than knowing facts about their hair colour or their shoe size. It’s arguable that Facebook or Amazon ‘know’ more about your politics, your wardrobe, even who you’ve got a crush on, than all but your closest friends. Yet nobody really thinks that such systems (or those with access to them) could actually know you better than your friends do. All the same, we’re still left with an uncertainty about just what the ‘knowing’ at stake consists of.

Talbert’s answer is that getting to know someone is something like learning a skill. Acquiring a skill, goes the argument, is not simply a matter of learning propositional facts about it, but involves the non-propositional knowledge that one gains through immersion in an activity. For example, to cook a good spaghetti carbonara, it’s not enough to know that the sauce contains only the yolk of the egg, or what the ratio of pancetta to garlic is. Really knowing how to mix the eggs and add them to the pasta requires actually practising making the dish, and in that process acquiring what Harry Collins (2010) calls the ‘tacit knowledge’ that helps us judge when to take the garlic out, or if the pasta is al dente, and other subtleties that can’t be easily be captured in propositions. Cooking a really good carbonara, moreover, requires what Collins & Evans (2007) call the “interactive expertise” that you can’t learn from a recipe book, but only through ‘hanging out’ with the right people; that is, with other practising experts who—through conversations, demonstrations, and sharing the act of cooking and eating together—socialise you into the best practices and family secrets, gradually transmitting the subtleties of an art that goes beyond what words can describe.

In this respect, I think Talbert has hit on something quite insightful. Getting to know another person is the intersubjective experience par excellence, and I suspect that the growing ease and comfort with which we interact with someone as we get to know them is more than analogous to our growing sense of confidence as we become familiar with a task. Yet I think that, in highlighting the significance of tacit knowledge, Talbert is overly dismissive of the role of explicit knowledge-that in coming to know another person, as when she argues (pp. 3-4) that trying to ‘figure someone out’ is counterproductive.

Skill Acquisition

In building her account, Talbert draws on work on skill acquisition, especially that of Hubert Dreyfus, who famously argues (2005; 2007; 2013) that that too much (deliberative, propositional) thinking interferes with performance. Dreyfus’ (2007, 354) paradigm example is the baseball player Chuck Knoblauch, who at the peak of his career was plagued by rookie errors in simple situations where he had ample time to act. Curiously, however, in tighter situations, where he had no time to think, he completed difficult throws with the expertise that got him into the big leagues in the first place. Dreyfus’ conclusion is that Knoblauch was over-thinking on his simple throws—focusing too much on the uncountable minutiae of body movements rather than acting holistically, ‘in the flow.’

While I am sympathetic to Dreyfus’ account (and have defended it elsewhere (Bergamin 2017)), it is important to note that it applies to an expert at the peak of their game. The road to becoming an expert, on the other hand, involves quite a lot of thinking and puzzling over knowledge-that (see Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1986, 2005). Dreyfus (1991, 68-9), drawing on Heidegger’s (1962) so-called ‘theory of equipment,’ gives a special emphasis to the ‘breakdown’ that happens during smooth-coping, and which draws our attention to the elements of our action. Separating an egg’s yolk from its white, to take a simple example, takes a bit of sticky practice to do smoothly. While your grandmother might do it almost automatically and with her attention elsewhere, on your first couple of tries it’s helpful to concentrate and think deliberatively about the steps of the task. Even once you’ve mastered it, and can do it ‘without thinking,’ your attention still gets drawn back to the objects and deliberative thought when things go wrong—say, if the egg doesn’t crack as expected. This interruption breaks the phenomenological ‘flow’ of the task, but also provides fodder for further learning and refining your skill.

If getting to know a person is something like learning a skill, then the kind of ‘breakdowns’ that help us learn skills should also apply to getting to know someone. A couple’s first fight, for example, is often a defining moment in their relationship. In the flurry of a new romance, it’s easy to feel like we’ve found someone who really ‘gets’ us—everything is exciting, smooth, and flowing. But sooner or later, inevitably, something goes wrong—we say or do things that are unexpected, surprising, hurtful. But then (hopefully), after the fighting and the tears, we talk about it; we step back from the situation and share why we felt the way we felt and said the things we said. We make up, and feel closer, with the feeling that we now know each other a little bit better than before.

Talbert argues that trying to ‘figure someone out’ is counterproductive. And past a certain point, it probably is—trying to psychoanalyse a new partner is like trying to write out a recipe you haven’t yet tried. Yet it doesn’t follow from this that ‘figuring out’ has no place, and indeed, I would argue that it is a necessary element of coming to know someonewith the caveat that it is only part of our ‘practice’ of getting to know someone. It’s through a combination of both the interactive, shared activity that Talbert recommends, plus direct questions and reflection, that help us really get to know a person—to know that when he says he doesn’t mind, he actually really does, or when she goes quiet, it’s because she’s shy, not rude.

Learning, Knowing, Practicing

Importantly—just like with a skill—as we become proficient, we stop needing to actively ‘work someone out’ but we learn to read them intuitively. However, as Dreyfus argues, reaching this point requires a combination of reflection plus lots of practice.[1] Furthermore, I suspect that we have to start more-or-less from scratch with each new individual we get to know. To hold that actively ‘figuring someone out’ is better left to the side implies that getting to know someone is a skill that, once mastered, one could apply to different, particular individuals. Yet that—I believe—comes from a confusion over the object of our knowledge, and is where the ‘skills analogy’ starts to break down.

The skills analogy is confusing in that, unlike the kinds of embodied skills that Dreyfus, Collins, and others discuss, knowing another person has no clear success conditions. Talbert, rightly I believe, rejects simply predicting behaviour, since an impartial psychologist or even an algorithm can do that with some degree of reliability. All the same, knowing some facts about someone must be important, since Talbert also—again, I think, rightly—rejects simple ease-of-interaction, since a gifted psychiatrist, host, or salesperson can ‘read’ a person and make them feel ‘at home’ without knowing anything concrete about them. Furthermore, it isn’t even obvious that getting along well with someone is a sign of actually knowing them—many bad relationships are rooted in the fact that two people know one another too well. If knowing someone is like a skill, then, we must ask, what is the object of that skill? What are we doing when we know another human being?

Knowing a person is, of course, very different to cooking pasta, or to any other skill that we might learn. Most skills, like cooking carbonara or riding a bike, are what Setiya (2014, 12-3), in an interesting reading of Aristotle, calls telic—they are directed at an end (telos), such as impressing a date, or getting to work on time. As Heidegger (1962, 118-9) points out, however, we apply ourselves to such ends not as ends in themselves but ‘in order to’ perform something much more meaningful. These more meaningful, atelic activities, Heidegger argued, are ‘for the sake of’ being a certain kind of person—in an important sense, they define who are we are. A good cook, an attentive lover, a punctual worker—each of these discloses an ethical value in a broad sense. They are who we want to be.

Really knowing somebody is an atelic activity—a ‘for the sake of itself.’ One can, of course, get to ‘know’ somebody ‘in order to’ do something else, such as to survey them as an anthropologist, or ‘network’ with them to advance one’s career. But that isn’t really the sense that I think is at stake in Talbert’s discussion. Getting to know somebody—whether intimately or casually, by choice or by happenstance—is something that we continually engage in as an essential part of living a human social life.

If knowing another person is an open-ended, atelic ‘for the sake of itself,’ this leads us towards the fascinating possibility that each relationship is a kind of identity, a way of being in itself. This applies not just to our significant relationships with lovers and close friends, but with casual acquaintances and interactions on the street. Talbert’s conclusion implies the Heideggerian point that our everyday interactions tend not to involve much thinking, but are immersive, intersubjective events. We act (and react) without a lot of deliberative thinking, such that each relationship is different for each of us, and to some extent, out of our control. You and I might be great friends, but while you and Jamie are always laughing together, he and I never manage more than an awkward conversation. It’s as though I’m a different person with you than I am with Jamie—or more precisely, the being-together that you-and-I share is different to the being-with of me-and-Jamie.

This conclusion is, of course, a bit speculative. But it’s an interesting hypothesis that Talbert’s work brings forth for me. If people are ‘moving targets,’ then we are not ‘things’ but ‘processes,’ systems that are in constant flux. To know such a process is not to try nail down the ever-changing facts about it, but involves interacting with it. Yet we who interact are ourselves a similar kind of ‘process,’ and in getting to know somebody we are just as much the known as the knower. Our relationships, therefore, are a kind of identity, that involves us and yet exceeds us—growing and evolving over time.

References

Bergamin, Joshua. “Being-in-the-Flow: Expert Coping as Beyond Both Thought and Automaticity.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 16, no. 3 (2017): 403-424.

Benner, Patricia. From Novice to Expert: Excellence and Power in Clinical Nursing Practice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1984.

Collins, Harry and Evans, Robert. Rethinking Expertise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Collins, Harry. Tacit and Explicit Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Dreyfus, Hubert. Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

Dreyfus, Hubert. “Overcoming the Myth of the Mental: How Philosophers Can Profit from the Phenomenology of Everyday Expertise.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 79, no. 2 (2005): 47-65.

Dreyfus, Hubert. “The Return of the Myth of the Mental.” Inquiry 50, no. 4 (2007): 352-365.

Dreyfus, Hubert. “The Myth of the Pervasiveness of the Mental” In Mind, Reason, and Being-in-the-World: The McDowell-Dreyfus Debate, edited by Joseph K. Schear, 15-40. Abingdon: Routledge, 2013.

Dreyfus, Hubert and Dreyfus, Stuart. Mind Over Machine. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Dreyfus, Hubert and Dreyfus, Stuart. “Peripheral Vision: Expertise in Real World Contexts.” Organization Studies, 26 (2005): 779-792.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, London: SCM Press, 1962.

Setiya, Kieran. “The Midlife Crisis.” Philosophers Imprint, 14, no. 31 (2014): 1-18.

Talbert, Bonnie. “Overthinking and Other Minds: The Analysis Paralysis.” Social Epistemology (2017): 1-12. doi: 10.1080/02691728.2017.1346933.

[1] It’s significant that Dreyfus & Dreyfus (2005) find that people who are emotionally-invested in their activities—who rejoice in their successes and are despondent at their failures—are more likely to become expert in a certain activity. In the context of getting to know someone, it follows that—as we would expect—we get closer to people that we really care about. Cf. Benner (1984).