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Participative knowing and an extended epistemology

John Heron and Peter Reason

Adapted from ‘A Participative Inquiry Paradigm’, Qualitative Inquiry, Vol 3 No 3, John Heron and Peter Reason, 1997.

Participative knowing

The participatory paradigm asserts that we cannot have any final or absolute experience of what there is. In the relation of participative knowing by face-to-face acquaintance, the experiential knower shapes perceptually what is there. And this is still so when the perceiving mind is relatively free of conceptual labels imposed upon its imaging of reality. However, the point about experiential knowing is that the very process of perceiving is also a meeting, a transaction, with what there is. To touch, see or hear something or someone does not tell us either about our self all on its own, nor about a being out there all on its own. It tells us about a being in a state of interrelation and co-presence with us.

When I hold your hand, my tactual imaging both subjectively shapes you and objectively meets you. To encounter being or a being is both to image it in my way and to know that it is there. Knowing a world is in this felt relation at the formative interface between a subject and what is met. To experience anything is to participate in it, and to participate is both to mould and to encounter. In the relation of meeting, my subjectivity becomes a perspectival window that frames and is filled with a world which also transcends it.

Hence experiential reality is always subjective-objective. It is subjective because it is only known through the form the mind, perceptually and conceptually, gives it; and it is objective because the mind interpenetrates the given cosmos which is shapes.There is an analogue here with Rahner’s modern theology of revelation, in which he speaks paradoxically of ‘mediated-immediacy’: we experience divine presence always in mediated form (Kelly, 1993).

Merleau-Ponty shows how perception itself is participatory so that

… in so far as my hand knows hardness and softeness, and my gaze knows the moon’s light, It is as a certain way of linking up the the phenomena and communicating with it. Hardness and softness, roughness and smoothness, moonlight and sunlight, present themselves in our recollection not pre-eminently as sensory contents but as certain kinds of symbioses, certain ways the outside has of invading us and certain ways we have of meeting the invasion. (Merleau-Ponty, 1964: 317)

As Abram has it, this means that there is ‘underneath our literate abstractions, a deeply participatory relation to things and to the earth, a felt reciprocity….’ (Abram, 1996:124).

Or as Skolimowski puts it

Things become what our consciousness makes of them through the active participation of our mind (1994: 27-28).

The cosmos or the universe is a primordial ontological datum, while the ‘world’ is an epistemological construct, a form of our understanding. (1994: 100)

Bateson makes the point that between the extremes of solipsism, in which ‘I make it all up’, and a purely external reality, in which I cease to exist, there is

… a region where you are partly blown by the winds of reality and partly an artist creating a composite out of inner and outer events. (in Brockman, 1977: 245)

From all this it follows that what can be known about the given cosmos is that it is always known as a subjectively articulated world, whose objectivity is relative to how it is shaped by the knower. But this is not all: its objectivity is also relative to how it is intersubjectively shaped. For there is the important if obvious point that knowers can only be knowers when known by other knowers: knowing presupposes mutual participative awareness. It presupposes participation, through meeting and dialogue, in a culture of shared art and shared language, shared values, norms and beliefs. And, deeper still, agreement about the rules of language, about how to use it, presupposes a tacit mutual experiential knowing and understanding between people that is the primary ground of all explicit forms of knowing (Heron, 1996). So any subjective-objective reality articulated by any one person is done so within an intersubjective field, a context of shared meanings – at one level linguistic-cultural and, at a deeper level, experiential.

Critical subjectivity and four ways of knowing

A participative worldview, with its notion of reality as subjective-objective, involves an extended epistemology (Heron, 1992, 1996). A knower participates in the known, articulates and shapes a world, in at least four interdependent ways: experiential, presentational, propositional and practical. These four forms of knowing constitute the manifold of our subjectivity, within which, it seems, we have enormous latitude both in acknowledging its components and in utilizing them in association with, or dissociation from, each other. This epistemology presents us as knowers with an interesting developmental challenge, that of critical subjectivity. This involves an awareness of the four ways of knowing, of how they are currently interacting, and of ways of changing the relations between them so that they articulate a subjective-objective reality that is unclouded by a restrictive and ill-disciplined subjectivity.

Experiential knowing means direct encounter, face-to-face meeting: feeling and imaging the presence of some energy, entity, person, place, process or thing. It is knowing through participative, empathic resonance with a being, so that as knower I feel both attuned with it and distinct from it. It is also the creative shaping of a world through the transaction of imaging it, perceptually and in other ways. Experiential knowing thus articulates reality through felt resonance with the inner being of what is there, and through perceptually enacting (Varela et al, 1993) its forms of appearing.

Presentational knowing emerges from and is grounded on experiential knowing. It is evident in an intuitive grasp of the significance of our resonance with and imaging of our world, as this grasp is symbolized in graphic, plastic, musical, vocal and verbal art-forms. It clothes our experiential knowing of the world in the metaphors of aesthetic creation, in expressive spatiotemporal forms of imagery. These forms symbolize both our felt attunement with the world and the primary meaning embedded in our enactment of its appearing.

Propositional knowing is knowing in conceptual terms that something is the case; knowledge by description of some energy, entity, person, place, process or thing. It is expressed in statements and theories that come with the mastery of concepts and classes that language bestows. Propositions themselves are carried by presentational forms – the sounds or visual shapes of the spoken or written word – and are ultimately grounded in our experiential articulation of a world.

Practical knowing is knowing how to do something, demonstrated in a skill or competence. Practical knowledge is in an important sense primary (Heron, 1996). It presupposes a conceptual grasp of principles and standards of practice, presentational elegance, and experiential grounding in the situation within which the action occurs. It fulfils the three prior forms of knowing, brings them to fruition in purposive deeds, and consummates them with its autonomous celebration of excellent accomplishment.

It is equally important that action not only consummates the prior forms of knowing, but is also grounded in them. It is in this congruence of the four aspects of the extended epistemology that lie claims to validity. The bipolar relationship can be shown as in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Bipolar congruence of four forms of knowing

Critical subjectivity means that we attend both to the grounding relations between the forms of knowing, and also to their consummating relations. It means that we do not suppress our primary subjective experience but accept that it is our experiential articulation of being in a world, and as such is the ground of all our knowing. At the same time, naively exercised, it is open to all the distortions of those defensive processes by which people collude to limit their understanding. So we attend to it with a critical consciousness, seeking to bring it into aware relation with the other three ways of knowing, so that they clarify and refine and elevate it at the same time as being more adequately grounded in it.

In addition, since our knowing is from a perspective and we are aware of that perspective, of its authentic value and of its restricting bias, we articulate this awareness in our communications. Critical subjectivity involves a self-reflexive attention to the ground on which one is standing. It also extends to critical intersubjectivity. Since our personal knowing is always set within a context of linguist-cultural and experiential shared meaning, having a critical consciousness about our knowing necessarily includes dialogue, feedback and exchange with others, and this leads to the methodology of co-operative inquiry.

Methodology: co-operative inquiry

The inquiry method within a participative worldview needs to be one which draws on this extended epistemology in such a way that critical subjectivity is enhanced by critical intersubjectivity. Hence a form of research in which all involved are both researchers and subjects: they engage together in democratic dialogue as co-researchers in designing, managing and drawing conclusions from the research, and as co-subjects they engage in the action and experience that the research is about (Heron,1971,1981a,1981b, 1985, 1988, 1992,1996; Heron and Reason, 1986; Reason, 1988a, 1994a, 1994b; Reason and Heron, 1995).

In such co-operative inquiry people collaborate to define the questions they wish to explore and the methodology for that exploration (propositional knowing); together or separately they apply this methodology in the world of their practice (practical knowing); which leads to new forms of encounter with their world (experiential knowing); and they find ways to represent this experience in significant patterns (presentational knowing) which feeds into a revised propositional understanding of the originating questions. Thus co-inquirers engage together in cycling several times through the four forms of knowing in order to enrich their congruence, that is, to refine the way they elevate and consummate each other, and to deepen the complementary way they are grounded in each other. In simple terms, people move, in successive cycles, from experience of a topic to shared reflection on it, which revises the way they next explore it experientially, and so on.

Research cycling is itself a fundamental discipline which leads toward critical subjectivity and a primary way of enhancing the validity of inquirers’ claims to articulate a subjective-objective reality. There are also a range of further of procedures which develop this effect. These include: managing divergence and convergence within and between cycles; balancing reflection and action; securing authentic collaboration; challenging uncritical subjectivity and intersubjectivity; managing unaware projections and displaced anxiety; attending to the dynamic interplay of chaos and order. These are mentioned in a little more detail later on. For a full discussion, together with a set of radical skills of being and doing required during the action phases of the inquiry, and for a comprehensive account of co-operative inquiry, see Heron (1996).

Co-operative inquiry has been applied in diverse fields: altered states of consciousness, black managers and subordinates, child protection supervision, co-counselling, co-operation between conventional and complementary practitioners (Reason, 1991), dental practitioners, district council organizational culture, health visitors, obese and post-obese women, other people with a particular physical or medical condition taking charge of how their condition is defined and treated, whole person medicine in general practice (Heron and Reason, 1985; Reason, 1988b), womens’ staff in a university, young women managers, youth workers, and more. For further references see Reason (1988a, 1994a) and Heron (1996).