Chapter 2: The nature of knowledge and the implications for teaching

Scenario C: A pre-dinner party discussion

List of characters.

  • Peter and Ruth (hosts)
  • Stephen (a mechanical engineer and Peter’s brother)
  • Caroline (a writer and Ruth’s friend)

Peter to Stephen. I think Caroline’s arrived. Now I know you’ve not met Caroline before, but for goodness sake, do try to be polite and sociable this time. The last time you were here, you hardly said a word.

Stephen. Well, nobody said anything that interested me. It was all about books and art. You know I’m not interested in that sort of thing.

Peter: Well, just try. Here she is. Caroline – lovely to see you again. Come and sit down. This is Stephen, my brother. I don’t think you’ve met, although I’ve told you about him – he’s a professor of mechanical engineering at the local university. But first, what would you like to drink?

Caroline. Hi, Stephen. No, I don’t think we have met. Nice to meet you. Peter, I’ll have a glass of white wine, please.

Peter. While you’re introducing yourselves, I’ll go and get the drinks and give Ruth a hand in the kitchen.

Stephen. Peter says you’re a writer. What do you write about?

Caroline (laughing). Well, you do like to get straight to the point, don’t you? It’s a bit difficult to answer your question. It depends on what I’m interested in at the time.

Stephen. And what are you interested in at the moment?

Caroline. I’m thinking about how someone would react to the loss of someone they love due to the action of someone else they also love deeply. It was prompted by an item on the news of how a father accidentally killed his two year old daughter by running her over when he was backing the car out of the garage. His wife had just let the girl out to play in the front garden and didn’t know her husband was getting the car out.

Stephen. God, that’s awful. I wonder why the hell he didn’t have a rear view video camera installed.

Caroline. Well, the horrible thing about it is that it could happen to anyone. That’s why I want to write something around such everyday tragedies.

Stephen. But how can you possibly write about something like that if you haven’t experienced that kind of thing yourself? Or have you?

Caroline. No, thank goodness. Well, I guess that’s the art of a writer – the ability to embed yourself in other people’s worlds, and to anticipate their feelings, emotions and consequent actions.

Stephen. But wouldn’t you need a degree in psychology or experience as a grief counsellor to do that in that situation?

Caroline. Well, I might talk to people who’ve undergone similar kinds of family tragedies, to see what kind of people they are afterwards, but basically it’s about understanding how I might react in such a situation and projecting that and modifying that according to the kind of characters I’m interested in.

Stephen. But how do you know it would be true, that people really would react the way you think they would?

Caroline. Well, what is ‘truth’ in a situation like that? Different people are likely to act differently. That’s what I want to explore in the novel. The husband reacts one way, the wife another, and then there’s the interaction between the two, and all those round them. I’m particularly interested in whether they could actually grow and become better people, or whether they disintegrate and destroy each other.

Stephen. But how can you not know that before you start?

Caroline. Well, that’s the point, really. I don’t. I want the characters to grow in my imagination, and the outcome will inevitably be determined by that.

Stephen. But if you don’t know the truth, how those two people actually responded to that tragedy, how can you help them or others like them?

Caroline. But I’m a novelist, not a therapist. I’m not attempting to help anyone in such an awful situation. I’m trying to understand the general human condition, and to do that, I have to start with myself, what I know and feel, and project that into another context.

Stephen. But that’s nonsense. How can you possibly understand the human condition just by looking inwards at yourself, and making up a fictional situation, that probably has nothing to do with what actually happened?

Caroline (sighs). Stephen, you’re a typical bloody scientist, with no imagination.

Peter (arriving with the drinks). Well, how are you two getting along?

Obviously at this point, not very well. The problem is that they have different world views on truth and how it can be reached. They start from very different views about what constitutes knowledge, how knowledge is acquired, and how it is validated. As always, the ancient Greeks had a word for thinking about the nature of knowledge: epistemology. We shall see that this is an important driver of how we teach.