Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The vast unconscious

I was thinking about writing a little about the difference between quantitative and qualitative studies, but then I regressed thinking about where to start. How do you talk about different types of research without having a good foundation on what research is about? And then I thought: how can I talk about research without setting a foundation of what knowledge is? And then I thought, how can I talk about knowledge without talking about the human cognitive system. I figured that would be a good starting place, though I could have regressed further. Logically speaking there is no clear point at which to stop regression, but that's beside the point. Here I am, considering the vast unconscious.

What is unconscious, are the basic ideas that bind how we see our world. We all adhere to some philosophy; most of us, however, simply accept a basic philosophy without examining it. For example, it is common to believe in a "real world". This is a basic ontological position that has been disputed by philosophers throughout the ages, but the person on the street most likely has a simpler view of this: they accept unconsciously the existence of a real world. Similarly, most people who have not studied issues of epistemology probably believe that knowledge is basically governed by what is called a "correspondence theory of truth": they believe that the truth of a statement or concept depends on whether it accurately reflects the real world.

We reason in terms of such deep understandings of the world. But philosophy, and academe (in which the traditional doctorate in many fields is the doctor of philosophy), the goal is to make such presumptions explicit and then to test them. Now, of course, at some point we choose not to question further, and we accept an understanding--a presumption that we accept as axiomatic. I accept the presumption that there is a real world--though I have consciously examined the idea and recognized weaknesses in the ability to prove the existence of a real world, it does not seem to me sensible or practical to reject the presumption that there is a real world.

Relying on such unconscious principles can cause problems when working in academia. In particular, understanding research and research principles is greatly facilitated if we can bring unconscious beliefs, like that of a correspondence theory of truth, into our conscious reasoning. Having a conscious understanding of these beliefs provides a good foundation from which to reason. If we reason from a conscious understanding of what the general project of research is about, it is easier to design a sound research project and to find a project that suits your interests.

Sadly, we often don't have a good understanding of these deep ideas. Research is often conducted on the basis of models: we imitate the research ideas of others. While this is a very effective technique in some ways--there is definitely value in modeling the behavior of others--it is also a technique that can hinder the writing up of a work, and can hinder your explanation of why you have arrived at a specific research method: "I copied someone else's research" isn't the strongest of arguments (it's not the weakest, either, but that's beside the point).

Of course, it takes time to make these things conscious, and to understand the issues at hand. But it seems to me that a researcher will facilitate his or her efforts by having a clear idea of the philosophical premises that they are trying to realize: what makes an argument strong and what doesn't?

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