Friday, 5 October 2012

Hirst's Forms of Knowledge and Recursion

A little while ago, I considered Aquinas's distinction between Will, Appetite and Intellect as different levels of recursion rather than distinct categories (see Now I'm wondering about my interest in Hirst's Forms of Knowledge and whether a similar approach might be useful (see

There's a lot of interest in Hirst's work - of all the searches that lead to my blog, the most dominant one has to do with the Forms of Knowledge. I wonder why this is. Possibly because, when it comes down to it, the differences between mathematics, physics, history, music, drama and physical education are at once palpable and yet mysterious. Yet, I am in agreement with M. F.D. Young, who criticised Hirst saying that it represented an "absolutist conception of distinct forms of knowledge". But this is the problem. How can we account for the obvious difference between mathematics and literature without being absolutist?

In my work on metagames, I have begun to think how these kind of absolutist distinctions can be accounted for. To begin, absolutist distinctions are moves in a game within the world of academic education studies, and particularly the philosophy of education. To say this is not to disparage Hirst's work, but simply to acknowledge that certain kinds of utterance are acceptable in different academic communities. The tradition which Hirst belongs is a philosophical tradition of musing about education which goes back to Plato - and indeed, the forms of knowledge is a very Platonic idea, which he clearly acknowledges.

But the academic game of the philosophy of education takes place, unlike philosophy itself, within the context of very real and practical problems of classroom practice and educational organisation. Where philosophy can explore explore its own internal consistencies (and inconsistencies), an educational philosophy becomes a kind of calculus for taking measurements from things that happen in education which are profoundly complex. In this way, the philosophy of education stands in relation to education practice in the same way that mathematics stands in relation to economic phenomena. Where mathematics itself can explore its own internal properties (and so, fundamentally is about epistemology), economic mathematics retreats from this esoteric world to apply itself as a means of calculation.

At the root of this is the relation between concepts and experience. 

The deep question regarding Hirst's work is to unpick the domains of experience he addresses. For on the one hand, there is a domain of experience in the classroom which he seeks to explain. Then there is a domain of experience within the professional group of educational philosophers. There is also the domain of experience within the esoteric world of philosophy itseslf. These are different kinds of game, but they are ones which he must balance carefully. Step too far into the world of practice (and talk the language of practitioners), and the philosophers will disregard you; step too far into the world of philosophy, then no-one doing 'real stuff' will relate to you. In short, Hirst's job is to establish a complex coalition, where his utterances resonate across the different concerns of very different kinds of individuals.

I suspect that it is in trying to play this complex coalition game that Hirst finds his way into absolutism. His forms of knowledge acknowledge their dept to Plato - so there is a game that can be played with the philosophers. It also acknowledges the reality of the palpable difference between subjects, as so appeals to practitioners. But it unsettles people like Young (and me!) who seek a more holistic picture and for whom absolutism carries the dangers of uncriticality and dogmatism.

Hirst is no holist. Like many who have made their professorial careers in education, he is a strategist. To be holistic requires awareness of the game one is caught in. It is not to go seeking a categorical answer to the distinction between the subjects, but, having suggested a categorisation (the forms of knowledge) and for this to have gained traction, to then ask "why has this gained traction?". It is not to assume that the answer to this question is "because it's right", but rather to consider what new knowledge might be gained from studying the acceptance of the concept of the "forms of knowledge". This is to ascend to the next level of recursion.

For the forms of knowledge is a form of knowledge. It is palpably distinct from philosophy, or from education, or from mathematics, etc. What is the form of the forms of knowledge? If I respond by saying "it's a move in a metagame", and I follow the logic of that argument, then (I would suggest) the forms of knowledge itself looks rather less absolutist and instead more organic.

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