David Weinberger
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Unclear and indistinct ... and uncertain

12 July 2007

René Descartes (1596-1650) had an architectural view of knowledge. So do we. We and René think beliefs have a basis, and that fundamental ideas provide a basis we can build on. Putting one thing on top of another to build a structure that shelters us is one of our primordial experiences. If the foundation teeters, so does the structure. And that’s how we think of knowledge.

For logic, that makes sense since logical systems start with axioms and develop via rules of derivation. If you start your argument, "Now, as is well known, the moon is made of cheese," then it doesn’t matter how well you derive what follows, you just can’t trust the idea that, therefore, there are giant mice on the moon. Knowledge needs a firm foundation, at least when it comes to logic.

Descartes’ problem was coming up with the initial axioms. He was engaged in a project of radical self-doubt. After throwing out everything about which we could possibly be wrong, what remains? He worked himself down to the fact that since he is doubting, he must also exist. That may be a firm foundation, but it’s a thin floor on which to rebuild the entire house of knowledge.

So, he came upon a heuristic for deciding which of his ideas are worthy of belief. It is modeled on how we decide which of our perceptions are reliable. Descartes writes: "I call ‘clear’ that perception which is present and manifest to an attentive mind: just as we say that we clearly see those things which are present to our intent eye and act upon it sufficiently strongly and manifestly." He defines "distinct" as perception that is clear but also so "separated and delineated from all others that it contains absolutely nothing except what is clear."

Now that we know the criteria for believing our perceptions, Descartes then applies them to "intuition," by which he means our ability to grasp the truth; this is almost the direct opposite of what we mean by the term today. Intuition is "the conception which an unclouded and attentive mind gives us so readily and distinctly that we are wholly freed from doubt about that which we understand."

He needs clearness and distinction as criteria because otherwise we can’t trust our thoughts, no matter how hard we try. Behind this is not mere wishing it were so; Descartes assumed that God wouldn’t have given us faculties designed to fool us. He gave us faculties by which we can know His world.

Clearness and distinction work not only because they give us a mental state we can trust, but because that state reflects what Descartes assumed was the nature of the world. The things of the world are well-formed and distinct. Clear and distinct knowledge thus reflects the world that it’s knowing.

But Descartes was wrong. The world isn’t any one way. Knowing things means identifying things. Identifying them means classifying them. But how we classify them—and thus how we know them—depends on what we’re up to. If we’re in the forest looking for creatures that carry disease, we’ll distinguish a different set of critters than if we’re looking for creatures that have high-price pelts.

It gets worse as the topics get more interesting. For example, I recently blogged admiringly about a post by Rob Styles that carefully and usefully distinguished content, data and metadata. These are shifty terms that need some precision. Styles’ post nailed it, as far as I was concerned.

But, the next day Tom Matrullo left a comment in response to my post. "Styles’ point is superb, but we need to look at the obvious (and perhaps not so obvious) exceptions," he began. He then listed examples of metadata that are themselves content, including playlists, a list of top-ten films, etc.

Rob is right. Tom is right. Rob clarified. Tom messied it up. Neither has the last word, and we’re all smarter for it. We need both, and we do both at different stages of our investigation of the truth.

Descartes is the apogee of a particular moment in the dialectic of knowing. In that moment, all is clear, distinct and certain. The conversational nature of the Web is the apogee of the other moment, in which the clear and distinct gets to shine but only until someone notices it, points to it and explains why it’s really more complicated than that.  Rob Styles’ post is http://tiny url.com/2tv4dj.