Experience, knowledge and photography

by bjmuirhead

I suppose I should preface this post with the observation that what I am doing is continuing to write out ideas which I was developing for my doctoral thesis, and that I’m quite happy writing these ideas out without having to engage in (somewhat futile) academic rigor. In any event, onward…

Experience isn’t something we have or undergo that is a simple, complete thing in and of itself. Rather, experience is a type of knowledge, but we can’t always point to the where, when and how that led to our having the knowledge that arises from experience. This difficulty was the focus of much of the work of Michael Polanyi (1891–1976), and especially his book Personal Knowledge, in which he discussed at great length the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge.

Simplistically (very simplistically!), tacit knowledge is the knowledge we have of our own experience, of what we are doing when we are doing it, and so on. Equally simplistically, explicit knowledge is (tacit) knowledge made explicit in some way, i.e., in language, or by making a map, and so on.

Polanyi’s primary aim in Personal Knowledge was to show that explicit knowledge is both grounded in and dependent on our tacit knowledge, and I believe he succeeded in this. (There is an interesting and undoubtedly ongoing debate concerning the relation of Polanyi’s work to that of Thomas Kuhn, but that is a side issue in a non-academic bit of writing like this!)

Perhaps the most important aspect of tacit knowledge is that it is both pre-linguistic and extra-linguistic, by which I mean that it is only via tacit knowledge that we learn to talk and think linguistically, and that tacit knowledge always is logically outside of explicit knowledge in the sense that it is knowledge we have which is not dependent on explicit linguistic thought. Rather it is knowledge which we attempt to express explicitly in words, diagrams, formulas, and so on.

The next important aspect is that there is much in and of our tacit knowledge which cannot be expressed explicitly, except by suggestion, misdirection and evocation. Hence both Polanyi’s notion that we can know more than we can tell. and the power of words in poetry and literature where, at its best, the words evoke within us an experience—a tacit experience— which cannot be stated explicitly and which we would not otherwise have had.

From this arises the next important aspect, namely that we experience (and understand) our explicit knowledge tacitly. That our explicit knowledge is supported by our tacit knowledge in this way explains Malouf’s notion that we gain indirect experience, or insight, from novels and other written  and literary sources. However, it isn’t just that we have at some time had a specific experience that permits us to understand what is explicitly written (though past experience obviously plays a large role), it is that our tacit knowledge and experience is such that the explicit statements we read can evoke within us an experience which provides tacit knowledge of events we have not experienced in ‘real life’ which we would not otherwise have come to know— we can have an experience and gain knowledge of experiences we have never been directly involved in. (The nature of language, as metaphor, plays a large role in this, of course, but is a subject best left for another time.)

Of course our experience can be misdirected, and we may end with tacit knowledge that is not appropriate to the actual experience had we experienced it directly. This is one of the challenges of explicitly derived knowledge in particular: it may be wrong in a manner that directly experienced tacit knowledge cannot be wrong, and it may lead us to erroneous tacit knowledge, but this does not stand against the point that the explicit can and does lead to tacit knowledge via the evocation of experience and the very nature of the manner in which we experience the world generally.

This, needless to say, is a highly contentious point, but I am prepared to be wrong, even as I assert that I cannot see a manner in which tacit knowledge can be wrong. It may lead to explicit assertions which others disagree with and argue about, but it seems to me that much, perhaps all, of our explicit assertions are interpretations of our tacit knowledge. Without this being the case, it would be impossible to be wrong, to be found to be wrong in a scientific theory, e.g. Indeed, if Polanyi and Kuhn—who use different terminologies to describe what seems to be essentially the same thing—are correct, then it is this aspect of tacit knowledge which enables our re-interpretation of the world and our theories about it. A paradigm shift in science, e.g., would not be possible without this being the case, or so it seems to me. This is a fine point which, if ever I return to my doctoral work, will need a lot of work.

Another important point, furthermore, is that this is not an argument against objectivity; rather it suggests that the objective is derived from the subjective, i.e., that the explicit is derived from the tacit.

Clearly there are many technical philosophical issues which arise from this and, just as clearly, I am not going to go into them here at this stage. It is more interesting to me to turn to what this means in terms of photography.

Backyard flowers

Backyard flowers

The most obvious point that arises from the foregoing is that my views on photography stem from a theory of knowledge rather than an explicit aesthetic or cultural theory. Furthermore, to the extent that postmodern/cultural theories also are theories of knowledge (and they are strong, albeit disguised and in my opinion aberrant theories), it is clear that I stand apart from them.

As I understand it, the postmodern/cultural view seems to be that knowledge  always is cultural and never can be anything but cultural, and that it therefore is situated, context driven and changeable as the culture changes. An upshot of this, for those believers who have spoken to me, is that there is no possibility of objective knowledge, only cultural knowledge. (My caveat here is that I am reporting what my past supervisors have said rather than declaring conclusions arrived at via my own research.)

The cultural implications of the theory I began to investigate and build, and what it may mean for cross-cultural knowledge, clearly entails the possibility of seeking and even finding some form of objective knowledge (via, perhaps, some form of Nietzschean perspectivism).

More immediately interesting, however, is that there is no doubt that, in some sense, a photograph is a form of explicit presentation or statement; that it provides explicit visual knowledge, and that what is shown in any particular photograph can be explicitly described. There is a sense, therefore, in which a photograph can be said to provide the viewer with explicit knowledge. But this seems to be so only in the same sense that being physically in front of what was photographed and looking at it provides the (possibility of) explicit knowledge.

However, when we look at a photograph, we experience this looking at what is shown in the same manner that we experience any other thing we look at, and we take tacit knowledge from the experience of looking, of what is shown in the photograph. To the extent that what we see in a photograph is the result of choices taken by the photographer, what we experience is the result of the photographer’s thought. This much is obvious. What is less obvious, perhaps, is that much of what we see is, firstly, the product of tacit thought and, secondly, is a presentation of tacit thought, by which I mean to say that the photograph is an attempt to show the tacit knowledge the photographer has of their subject.

Of course it can be claimed that this isn’t always the case, that it depends on the purpose behind the photograph, on what it is being used for. But this does not seem to be the case, in as much as, if the intent behind the taking of the photograph is to create a ‘true’ record of what has been seen—a purely documentary intent—it none the less is the case that the photographer is attempting to pass on their tacit (and visual) knowledge of the subject.

Take the above photograph of flowers. I manipulated it in a variety of ways, including converting it to a black and white and then toning the image, altering the contrast, and so on. It now ‘says’ something close to what I wanted to say. Now look at an unaltered jpg of the original shot.

The original backyard flowers

The original backyard flowers

I could have turned this into a glossy colour image and tried to show people what was in some sense there. Had I done this, my intent would have differed (the intent to show what the flowers ‘really looked like’); but my tacit knowledge of the flowers as they were would continue to be present, and I would be attempting to show that tacit knowledge to others. In a sense, the attempt is to show what the photographer has experienced, and so ‘re-create’ this experience and knowledge in others.

At this stage, it behooves me to state clearly that it is my basic theory and belief that art is the attempt to convey the unsayable in the only way that it can be communicated, as something which provokes an experience which can give us tacit knowledge.

The difficulty, of course, is that when art is taught at university and everyone is expected to have an academic theoretical framework that explains their work, the idea of simple communication of something which cannot otherwise be stated, seems a little strange, a little ingenuous. And yet I think it is what most people actually are doing.