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Wisdom beyond language in research and the place of narrative

Gough, A.Martin (2009) Wisdom beyond language in research and the place of narrative. In: European Society for Research on the Education of Adults Life History and Biographical Research Network Conference “Wisdom and knowledge in researching and learning lives: diversity, differences and commonalities”, 12-15 March 2009, Società Umanitaria, Milano, Italy. (Unpublished) (KAR id:25299)

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My aim in this paper is chiefly one of conceptual clarification, linking with issues arising within certain current debates. I propose a typology to underpin the various applications of the “tacit” and the “non-discursive” for describing our state of knowledge as regards respectively both the practice (the phronesis) and the object of research.

The tacit/explicit dichotomy is a different one from the non-discursive/discursive (or non-linguistic/linguistic) one. This is key if we are to understand how the process of learning to research, as well as learning most practices, occurs. The UK national research training agenda is crystallized in the 2001 document “Skills training requirements for research students: joint statement by the research councils/AHRB”. This is an attempt to lay out in generic terms the categories of skills that researchers should develop during their course of study. It is meant to be applicable to all subjects and therefore to educational and other social science and humanities newer researchers. Critics, such as Stephen Rowland, of the national policy point out that aiming to teach skills conceived generically out of context is a flawed approach. This is true but misses the point that codifications of practice inevitably fail to capture the practice in its entirety. This is for two reasons. The first is a function of the informal and non-discursive components of any practice, the particular actions of more experienced researchers which may need no discursive explanation for the novice to be able to pick them up in context, “on the job”. The point is not that this is essentially tacit knowledge, learnt unwittingly (tacitly?). Rather, it may or may not be explicitly recognized and considered by the learner, even in the “hot action” workplace scenario (Eraut, Beckett & Hager), but it is effectively non-discursive.

Much of what we learn will turn into tacit knowing through the more straightforward process expounded by Michael Polanyi, in that it would become “second nature”, so we would not need to be explaining it to ourselves anymore to achieve phronesis. Polanyi allows us to see that much of what seems mysterious in what people do, because people are not inclined to say much about it, is not at the same time mystical. Immanuel Kant's concept of the noumenon, or noumenal world, by contrast is what has been always beyond our powers of cognition, a statement of our finitude, if you like, although we may make gradual incursion into it as we find out more about the world. The noumenon, tacit because ineffable, is therefore a way to conceive the nature of research generally from the point of view of its object, what it is trying to uncover. Does this framework apply to biographical research?

1) One answer says no. If the research outcome is the discursive telling of a biographical narrative of a particular person then, arguably, it is the latest arrangement of concepts that are already known to us, a life story which makes sense because familiar. This view plays into the hands of those, such as Galen Strawson, who are sceptical of the claims of narrative to be articulating what has actually happened to a person and what they are like as a person. This challenge is compounded when we introduce Robert Kirk’s “raw feeling” thesis, which claims that there is an important aspect in our experience which is beyond language and this aspect is all the richer: language can only fumble towards capturing it. A life story is just a story in this context, only able to brush the surface of the life proper.

2) But this gives us a clue to how we may answer yes to the question. Research is not just the uncovering of what is previously covered up but is the process of making sense of it. Even the PhD thesis in Chemistry must embody a narrative. The turning into sense of what is at first indeterminate is a function of narrative and is also a version of Kant’s epistemology insofar as he describes how we make cognitive judgements about the phenomenon at issue. Although this account of the biographical research process does push us towards turning people into ideal types rather than particulars, it does also allow us permanently to posit that there may be something as yet beyond the articulated phenomenon, something sitting tacitly in the noumenal world, perhaps the self and its possibilities, which cannot be fully captured by the narrative articulation.

Item Type: Conference or workshop item (Paper)
Subjects: L Education > LC Special aspects of education > LC5201 Education extension. Adult education. Continuing education
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2300 Higher Education
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BD Speculative Philosophy
Divisions: Divisions > Directorate of Education > Centre for the Study of Higher Education
Funders: University of Kent (
Depositing User: Martin Gough
Date Deposited: 16 Aug 2010 13:41 UTC
Last Modified: 12 Jul 2022 10:40 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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Gough, A.Martin.

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