Knowing as We Are Known: The Transactional Approach to Science (3)

Richard Vytniorgu completes his survey of the transactional approach to science.

In my previous post I explored the dynamics of the transactional view of reality and how this relates to scientific inquiry. In this post, I want to draw out some implications of the transactional view – to see transactional inquiry as a spiritual journey, whereby, to quote the American educator Parker Palmer, we come to know as we are known.

            Palmer’s bestselling book, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (1983) begins from the same premise as transactional philosophy. It critiques objectivist epistemologies by referencing the work of the philosopher Michael Polyani. As Palmer writes, ‘[Polyani] shows that both the individual scientist and the community of scientists are subjectively interested in every discovery of scientific fact’. Put another way, scientists are part of their own dynamic, transactional ecosystem. However, Palmer offers a scathing attack on objectivism because it has a faulty understanding of truth. Objectivism, writes Palmer, ‘begins by assuming a sharp distinction between the knower and the objects to be known. These objects exist “out there,” apart from and independent of the knower. They wait, passive and inert, for us to know them’. Only scientists are the active agents in the paradigm of objectivism: ‘we attempt to observe and dissect the objects by means of empirical measurement and logical analysis’. In short, in the objectivist worldview, truth ‘consists of propositions or reports that conform to the canons of evidence and reason, reports that can be reproduced by other knowers operating by the same rules’. Palmer is right to critique objectivism; he argues that even though philosophers have shifted their views on how knowledge is arrived at (such as the transactional approach), old ways still linger in institutionalised practices. Deeper change happens at a more personal level, where transactional epistemology is given an ethical mandate.

            Instead of objectivism, Palmer seeks to elaborate on his belief that to know in truth is to face transformation: ‘truth is not a statement about reality but a living relationship between ourselves and the world’. Palmer argues that etymologically, truth means to become betrothed to someone or something, and that to be in obedience to the truth means to submit oneself to listening to another, be it another person or one’s ‘subject material’. ‘The deepest calling in our quest for knowledge’, writes Palmer, ‘is not to observe and analyse and alter things. Instead, it is personal participation in the organic community of human and nonhuman being, participation in the network of caring and accountability called truth’. The transactional stance requires a shift in our understanding of how knowers engage with what is known. Whereas objectivism seeks mastery over one’s material, a personalist, transactional approach seeks mutual transformation, a willingness to see oneself in a horizontal relationship with what is known, rather than a vertical one, with the knower standing imperiously over the known.

            A final implication of the transactional approach concerns the nature of disciplines. Objectivism seeks insularity within a walled-in discipline. The transactional paradigm envisages a dynamic, inclusive ecosystem. To remain locked within the confines of one’s discipline is to close oneself to transformation. As Palmer writes, ‘To know a subject too well, and not to venture into others, is to risk becoming closed to fresh insight in favor of familiar facts. But when a teacher [or scientist] is continually exploring alien, unchartered territory, humility and openness to grace are cultivated’. Engaging in ever-new transactions with our environment and with our subjects, we move into spaces where truth emerges as a transformative force for the good. We learn to know as we are known.

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