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Co-operative inquiry and the primacy of the practical

John Heron

Adapted from Chapter 2, Co-operative Inquiry, London, Sage, 1996.

Holistic knowledge and systemic logic

I propose a multi-dimensional account of knowledge, and so of the research outcomes of a co-operative inquiry. This approach rests on systemic logic, which holds that intellectual or propositional knowledge together with the validating principles internal to it, is interdependent with three other kinds of knowledge: practical knowledge, that is evident in knowing how to exercise a skill; presentational knowledge, evident in intuitive grasp of the significance of imaginal patterns as expressed in graphic, plastic, moving, musical and verbal art-forms; and experiential knowledge, evident only in actually meeting and feeling the presence of some energy, entity, person, place, process or thing. These three other basic kinds of knowledge also have validating principles internal to them.

Valid knowledge, on the multi-dimensional view, means that each of the four kinds of knowledge is validated by its own internal criteria, and also by its interdependence and congruence with all the others within a systemic whole. The notion of validity as used here is defined in terms of a participative paradigm, not a positivist one.

I argue that this systemic whole is an interdependent up-hierarchy, a dynamic pyramidal process in which what is below supports, grounds and empowers what is above. Experiential knowing – direct, lived being-in-the-world – at the base of the pyramid, supports presentational or pattern knowing, which supports propositional or conceptual knowing, which upholds practical knowing, the exercise of skill. At the same time, what is above consummates and celebrates at a new level of relative autonomy what is below. Practical knowing, with the standards internal to it, consummates the propositional knowing which grounds it. Propositional knowing, with the standards internal to it, consummates the presentational knowing which grounds it; and so on.

Primacy of the practical

Practical knowledge, knowing how, is the consummation, the fulfilment, of the knowledge quest. It is grounded on and empowered by all the prior forms of knowing, and is immediately supported by propositional knowing, which it celebrates and affirms at a higher level in its own relatively autonomous way. To say that practice consummates the prior forms of knowing on which it is grounded, is to say that it takes the knowledge quest beyond justification, beyond the concern for validity and truth-values, into the celebration of being-values, by showing them forth. It affirms what is intrinsically worthwhile, human flourishing, by manifesting it in action.

This kind of dynamic up-hierarchy is in marked contrast to the classical Greek down-hierarchy, in which the intellect is on top and controls everything below it in the psychological system, without being empowered by any of it. It also follows from it that practical knowledge, knowing how to exercise a skill, is the primary kind of research outcome.

If this is so, then it inescapably underlines the importance of all or most of the researchers also being the subjects of their own research, since practical knowledge as a research outcome cannot be about anyone else, since it is not about anything and is not cast in propositional form. It can only be evident as a skill the researcher has cultivated as a consequence of being a co-subject within the research. As a research outcome it is also a researcher outcome. Nor can the secondary propositional knowledge, which is also a research outcome, exclude the researcher, since it is supportive of the practical skill which the researcher as co-subject has acquired.

I take the view that going for practical outcomes of a co-operative inquiry and going for propositional outcomes are complementary approaches; and while the deeper way, the route of primacy, is to choose practical outcomes supported by propositional ones, there is clearly a case for pursuing propositional outcomes supported by practical ones. They exhibit a fundamental interdependence characterized by a radical asymmetry, the primacy of the practical.

This thesis about the primacy of the practical in research outcomes does pose a special challenge for university-based researchers, surrounded by an academic culture with an entrenched Aristotelian bias in favour of propositional outcomes. For a skill, knowing how to do something, can never be reduced to written descriptions of doing it. Being able to write such a description is no evidence of being able to perform the skill. The only evidence that you have the skill, and have it up to a certain standard of competence, is your demonstration of it. The only skill that can be demonstrated conclusively by writing a research report is the skill involved in writing such reports.

Thus the challenge to the academic research establishment of the primacy of the practical is that published research reports become entirely secondary to the researcher’s demonstration of competence in action. I imagine that at least one or two of the human science research conferences of the future, the main proceedings will be a variety of demonstrations, portrayals and dramatizations of different kinds of skill, variously combining physical, psychosocial, transpersonal elements. Also a range of training workshops in which others can acquire them or at least have a go at them in rudimentary form. And for all this the written papers will simply provide the supporting programme notes. And at conferences where there are only papers on offer, it will at least be acknowledged that they are offering second best, the programme notes without the performance.