Nov 18 #3. Are disputes over knowledge claims within a discipline always resolvable? Answer this question by comparing and contrasting disciplines taken from two areas of knowledge.

3. Are disputes over knowledge claims within a discipline always resolvable? Answer this question by comparing and contrasting disciplines taken from two areas of knowledge.

The first, and obvious, thing to note here is the use of the term ‘discipline’ rather than AoK. This  term is used purposefully, and gives us a clue as to a possible route through answering this question. Disciplines are the subjects within an AoK (e.g. Psychology is a discipline within AoK Human Sciences). Disciplines are defined by a specific scope (or area of study), specific concept use & definition, and specific methodology for studying knowledge. It is this last point which could give us one of many possible routes through this question.

The next area of interest with this question is the wording “always resolvable”, always is an absolute term, to answer in the affirmative is a very big knowledge claim in itself. It could be argued that if we claim that something can always happen we are claiming that we know something about all possible future conditions. This is a strong claim to make, and as such will require some robust arguments.

So, let’s dive in:

“Disputes”, what kind of disputes ? Well, off the top of my head, they could be disputes about:

  1. Findings of research & Interpretations of findings of research.
  2. Value of Knowledge.
  3. Methodology used to construct knowledge
  4. The ethics of knowledge
  5. The purpose / use of knowledge.
  6. The boundary of the discipline.

And so on, and so on – the possible reasons for dispute are many.

Let’s consider a well known example, a dispute within the discipline of Psychology over the causes of the development of human language in the individual. There are some psychologists (oft called ‘Nativists’) who argue that the drive to learn human language is a genetically inherited behaviour (we could approximate this school around Noam Chomsky), on the other hand there are psychologists who argue that the drive to learn language comes from social interaction, thus they are called Social Interactionists (we could approximate this school around Lev Vygotsky).

The question now arises whether this dispute is resolvable ? Well, yes and no. In many ways it has been resolved by Neuro-linguistic research which supports both Nativist and Social Interactionist theories. However, not all psychologists working within each school of the discipline will accept the apparent resolution described by the neuro-linguistic research – as such can we say that the knowledge claims have been resolved ? Furthermore, does resolution necessarily indicate the production of an answer in agreement with the claim, the disproving of a claim, the dropping of a claim or the modification of a claim ? Students could explore the different types of resolution in relation to the RLS drawn from their chosen discipline in order to test the claim “always resolvable”.

These questions may be difficult enough to answer in relation to seemingly quantifiable, and aspirantly objective, disciplines such as Physics, Economics, Psychology and Chemistry. However, when we apply them to less quantifiable, less aspirantly objective disciplines, such as Music, Art and Literature they become far more intractable.

Knowledge claims in the more aesthetic disciplines may be based upon how concepts are defined, and on the purpose of the art form.  If we were to claim that Realist Films are not as entertaining as Fantasy Films we would end up having a debate about the meaning of the word ‘entertaining’, which would probably descend into an abyss of relativism.  Again, we come back to the idea of what is meant by the term ‘resolvable’.

However, I think that this question implies more than just resolving, (or even ‘finding the correct answer’) to a disputed knowledge claim. I think that the PT implies something about the way in which knowledge develops, and how disputes over knowledge claims may influence that process of development. This could be looked at in a number of ways:

  1. Does the dispute lead to attempts to find a resolution, which may have not been evident within the discipline prior to the dispute ? I will give, in way of example, the development of Neo-Freudian Psychodynamics. The Depression of the 1930s, and the rise of violence in th 1940s led to a number of disputes over Knowledge Claims within the discipline of Psychoanalytic Psychology. The response to these disputes was the development of a Psychodynamic Theory of Adler, Jung, Erikson etc. It could be argued that this, apparent, resolution led to knowledge production which would not have even happened without the dispute. Ie the dispute itself leads to new knowledge. As such, rather than a resolution to the dispute we create new knowledge in response to the dispute, this new knowledge could, of course, lead to further disputes. This new knowledge may not have been developed without the dispute.
  2. The disciplinary nature of the question could lead us to an examination of concepts or the methodology of the discipline. Whilst the dispute may seem, prima facie, to be a dispute over a knowledge claim, it may actually be a dispute about the ways in which the knowledge was produced (methodology), or a dispute about the definition of concepts. Economics is a discipline which experiences many such disputes. Economists often experience disputes about knowledge claims (e.g. is an economy growing or shrinking ? is one economy more productive than another, is the inflation rate going up or steady ?). Economists often disagree on correct methodology (e.g. look at the many ways to measure inflation – in the US there are 2 different measures!). Then there is a disagreement over the concepts themselves, e.g. how do we define Quality of Life ? etc
  3. Does the evolution of knowledge encompass the dispute itself, and as such evolve naturally in such a way as to resolve the dispute  ? I would argue yes to this question for disciplines within Natural & Human Sciences, maybe for disciplines in The Arts, and maybe not for AoK Ethics, and RKS (however these do not constitute academic disciplines).

As such this question encompasses a number of ways of approaching & answering it. My final tip would be to get your planning in place before you write – ensure that you know what you’re doing, and where you’re doing it before you start writing.

Enjoy your ToK writing !

PS – if you’re interested in the debate around linguistic development I strongly recommend that you read Steve Pinker’s excellent book The Language Instinct.


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