Knowledge, narrative, and insight
Have you ever shared one of your experiences and got a hearty “I know just how you feel!” in reply? Were you skeptical that your conversation partner actually did know how you feel? Because of what we share, we are tempted into believing that we know more about each other’s experience than is justified.
Achieving understanding of another person’s experiences isn’t quite like achieving knowledge of some state the world is in. I’ll oversimplify and make this point with some examples.
Achieving knowledge of whether it’s raining outside is relatively straightforward: You can get yourself in a position to use your senses to establish this “fact” for yourself. Achieving knowledge of whether the angles of a (Euclidean) triangle add up to 180 degrees is perhaps a bit more involved, but there, too, you can get yourself in a position to use your reasoning ability to establish this fact. In both these cases, there are what we might call the material means of doing the establishing: in the case of rain, it’s the features of the world and your constitution as an animal with senses; in the case of the triangle, there are those “elements,” the basic concepts of geometry. Fundamentally, whether made of matter or abstractions, the material means are the “ingredients” on which you perform certain operations that we recognize as “establishing” something — which brings us to conceptual means. Those are the operations that, in our collective experience, we have found to be effective at establishing things. Again, it doesn’t matter whether those operations are concrete (like using our eyes to look at something) or abstract (like using our minds); the result of performing those operations results in what we loosely call “knowledge.”
Equipped with these elementary tools, let’s ask: What are the material and conceptual means involved in establishing a claim like “I know how you feel”?
In some ways, my senses are involved, but the senses alone won’t do the job. Consider: Using just your senses, can you establish whether I have a headache? In other ways, reasoning is involved, but reasoning can only assist us in the process. Reasoning might help you develop an explanation of my headache, but it’s hard to see how reasoning could establish that I have a headache to begin with.
My next move conceals a great deal of philosophical analysis, but for now, I’ll put this possibility on the table: Maybe the problem isn’t the means, but what we mean when we say “I know how you feel.” In other words, what we know when we know that sort of thing is a different kind of thing than knowing it’s raining or knowing that the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees.
Suppose you play a musical instrument at a fairly high level of skill: You “know” things about playing that instrument that are grounded in your experiences of playing. Are those things shareable with me in the same way you can share knowing that it’s raining or that the triangle has this characteristic? If so, what are the conditions of that sort of sharing?
One possibility is that I also play that instrument — in which case I will have a repository of experiences that could provide a basis for our sharing. But what if I don’t? Should we give up and say that, without that basis, I just can’t understand what you know?
I’m not ready to give up.
Description alone gets you some distance down the road of understanding, but genuine understanding requires “resonances” between the parties. How do we discover and leverage those resonances? Narrative provides a way: the narrative self includes bits of narrative that capture and, in a sense, preserve, the kind of knowing we’re seeking.
It turns out that you and I both have repositories of material, grounded in our lived experience, that we can leverage for understanding. Hearing you talk about your experience, I can search among my experiences for those that seem to resonate in meaningful ways with what you are telling me. Of course, if I want to achieve genuine understanding, I will have to check those resonances with you — which means that you, too, will need to search for resonances among your experience. Working together, we can find narrative elements that resonate in a kind of mutual harmony, as a basis for building greater/deeper understanding. In short, we leverage the experiences we can share because of their resonances to achieve understanding about the experiences we do not share.
This process, which we might call dialogue, can’t lead me to the full immediacy of the way you know your experience. If it could, then, hearing you talk about your experience and knowledge of playing your instrument would enable me to play it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand anything about your experience or knowledge; rather, it means that the job of understanding in this way is never final.
Then again, does it need to be final for us to share genuinely?
I think of this kind of dialogue and the knowing it produces by way of shared narratives as insight. Think about that word: in-sight. We typically use that word for a kind of understanding that goes beneath the surface of description or argument. It’s useful, in the context of narrative understanding, to think of insight as the kind of knowing that involves seeing by looking inward — not just “registering” what you say, but finding resonances in my own experiences that serve our quest for deeper understanding.
When I know how you feel as a result of this kind of dialogue, I don’t know something conclusive, like whether it’s raining. Rather, I know something about a new set of meanings that you and I have generated, in and through the process of sharing our stories. Engaging in this process of generating meaning isn’t easy, but the understanding that results is worth the time and effort.