Monday, 11 July 2011

Hirst's "Forms of Knowledge"

The great educational philosopher Paul Hirst wrote a paper in 1973 entitled "Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge" (reprinted in Hirst, P (1974) "Knowledge and the Curriculum"). In this he writes that:
"to acquire knowledge is to become aware of experience as structured, organised and made meaningful in some quite specific way, and the varieties of human knowledge constitute the highly developed forms in which man has found this possible. To acquire knowledge is to learn to see, to experience the world in a way otherwise unknown, and thereby to come to have a mind in a fuller sense"
 In rejecting various forms of mentalism and behaviourism, he asserts that
"to have a mind basically involves coming to have experience articulated by means of various conceptual schemata. It is only because man has over millenia objectified and progressively developed these that he has achieved the forms of human knowledge, and the possibility of the development of mind as we know it is open to us today"
In attempting to identify the 'forms of knowledge', Hirst sets about identifying 'distinguising features:

  1. They each involve certain central concepts that are peculiar in character to the form. For example, those of gravity, acceleration, hydrogen and photo-synthesis characteristic of the sciences; number, integral and matrix in mathematics; God, sin and predestination in religion; ought, good and wrong in moral knowledge.
  2. In a given form of knowledge these and other concepts that denote, if perhaps in a very complex way, certain aspects of experience, form a network of possible relationships in which experience can be understood. As a result the form has a distinctive logical structure. For example, the terms and statements of mechanics can be meaningfully related in certain strictly limited ways only, and the same is true of historical explanation.
  3. The form, by virtue of its particular terms and logic, has expressions or statements (possibly answering a distinctive type of question) that in some way or other, however indirect it may be, are testable against experience. This is the case in scientific knowledge, moral knowledge, and in the arts, though in the arts no questions are explicit and the criteria for the tests are only partially expressible in words. Each form, then, has distinctive expressions that are testable against experience in accordance with particular criteria that are peculiar to the form
  4. The forms have developed particular techniques and skills for exploring experience and testing their distinctive expressions, for instance the techniques of the sciences and those of the various literary arts. The result has been the amassing of all the symbolically expressed knowledge that we now have in the art and the sciences. 
However Hirst also points out that "All knowledge involves the use of symbols and the making of judgements in ways that cannot be expressed in words and can only be learnt in a tradition. Thus Polanyi's tacit knowledge is seen in the same light as knowledge of concepts: knowing-how is the same as knowing-that. 
A further classification is introduced to deal with the fact that not all knowledge falls within the remit of 'disciplines'. So he argues that a further classification between 'forms' of knowledge and 'fields' of knowledge:
  1. Distinct disciplines or forms of knowledge (subdivisible): mathematics, physical sciences, human sciences, history, religion, literature and the fine arts, philosophy.
  2. Fields of knowledge: theoretical, practical (these may or may not include elements of moral knowledge)
The quality of Hirst's analysis and thinking puts most thinking in e-learning (particularly noticeable in the recent MOOC debate) to shame. I was struck by the use of his term of 'form' of knowledge, since this was a term I've recently been thinking about too.

However, I don't necessarily agree with Hirst. For his analysis stops short of looking at the ontology of knowledge. And looking at the ontology of knowing, we have to consider the causal efficacy of knowledge and its relationship to being. Hirst seems a bit Cartesian in his emphasis that "coming to know" concerns the "development of mind". Equally, "coming to know" concerns the development of society. 

Critical Realism can help here. In exploring the causal efficacy of knowledge, the disciplinary distinctions he draws attention to break down further in a way which (I think) can help us understand the relationship between knowledge and teaching. Hirst is right to point out the differences between knowledge of mathematics and moral knowledge, but he stops short of saying how they are distinct in their causal mechanisms. Mathematical knowledge does something to mathematicians which is distinct from what theological knowledge does to theologians. What we perceive on encoutering a mathematician or a theologian are the effects of what their knowledge does. And the realm of causal effects and the scope of their mechanisms is distinct in each case. Thus, looking at Hirst's categories, we might discern:
  1. biological mechanisms
  2. psychological mechanisms
  3. social mechanisms
In fact, to be more precise, we will determine the differences between our own biological, psychological and social mechanisms through the effects of the social mechanisms displayed by the knower.

I think (and have argued: see that these differences are detected in four principal areas when encountering a teacher:

  1. In the causal effects of knowledge on the way of being of the knower (personal form of knowledge)
  2. In the causal effects of the esteem and moral judgement of the knower (purpose form of knowledge)
  3. In the causal effects of the presentation of what is known on others (content form of knowledge)
  4. In the causal effects of practices with tools and techniques (tool form of knowledge)
Understanding the nature of education is precisely about understanding the conditions under which knowledge can occur. At the end of  his paper, Hirst quotes Michael Oakeshott:
"As civilised human beings, we are inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognised as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages... Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure... Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skills and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognise the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance." (Oakeshott: Rationalism in Politics and other essays, 1962, pp 198-9)

For more recent thoughts on this topic, see 


sendkathy said...

Hi Mark, I stumbled upon your thoughts while investigating Hirst. I found your final thought rather quotable. "Understanding the nature of education is precisely about understanding the conditions under which knowledge can occur." It cuts through the morass of educational theories and gets to the heart of teaching.

Mark William Johnson said...

Thank you!

Of course, it does raise the question about what knowledge is... I came across a quote by Newman in "The idea of a University" that was given by Edward Saeed where Newman talked about knowledge and intellect. For me, this goes a bit deeper. Newman says:

"The intellect of man [...] energizes as well as his eye or ear, and perceives in sights and sounds something beyond them. It seizes and unites what the senses present to it; it grasps and forms what need not have been seen or heard except in its constituent parts. It discerns in lines and colours, or in tones, what is beautiful and what is not. It gives them a meaning, and invests them with an idea. It gathers up a succession of notes into the expression of a whole, and calls it a melody; it has a keen sensibility towards angles and curves, lights and shadows, tints and contours. It distinguishes between rule and exception, between accident and design. It assigns phenomena to a general law, qualities to a subject, acts to a principle, and effects to a cause"

Under what conditions can that occur?