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Thursday, June 03, 2004

Expulsion From the Garden of Eden
(Thomas Cole, 1828)
The Poverty of Communitarianism

Communitarianism harkens back to methods of knowledge production and decision making in traditional closed societies, where decision making in both knowledge and social processing relied heavily on community consensus and on cultural traditions that are strongly supported and reinforced by an organic tightly knit community. I'll distinguish two types of Communitarianism: epistemological  and political.

Epistemological Communitarianism

Epistemological Communitarianism includes a theory of knowledge claim evaluation which makes an appeal to a consensus or community-held view as a basis for justifying knowledge claims as true and certain, or, more recently, as probable, or at least, acceptable.  It is often associated with Thomas Kuhn’s characterization of ‘paradigms’ and the views of the prevailing scientific community upon which they rest. Today, it is also often associated with fallibilism, and with any of a number of theories of knowledge including: realism. coherentism, instrumentalism, pragmatism, and relativism.

There are other theories of knowledge claim evaluation, apart from epistemological communitarianism, that involve attempts to justify knowledge claims in terms of some foundation. These include: Expertise-based, paradigm-based, and managerial-based justificationisms. Each is dominant in its sphere. Epistemological communitarianism, however, is the form of justificationism that is most frequently seen in peer-based groups such as communities of practice.

The poverty of epistemological communitarianism is due to its justificationism, the idea that knowledge claims must be justified and established relative to some foundation of unquestioned statements. Justificationism is false, because no statement can be justified, nor does it need to be, in order to be considered knowledge. Nor is it true that knowledge claims which have the consensus support of some professional community are true. So justificationism, including epistemological communitarianism, doesn't just lead to impoverished results: it leads to holding basic ideas beyond questioning and test. It closes off the possibility of change in these ideas and thus restricts the range of adaptations and co-evolution available to us in the face of environmental change.

The alternative to justificationism is criticalism, the idea that adds to fallibilism the notion that we are rational only to the extent that we hold our knowledge claims open to continuous criticism and testing in order to eliminate the errors in them. Criticalism, like justificationism represents a general category of theories of evaluation. Just as epistemological communitarianism is a type of justificationism, critical rationalism, comprehensively critical rationalism, critical coherentism, and critical scientific realism are types of criticalism. I'll wait for future blog posts to explain the distinctions among these, but you can learn more about most of these distinctions from a graphic white paper written by Mark McElroy and myself called "Corporate Epistemology".

Political Communitarianism

Political Communitarianism is a form of political system in which decisions are made according to the perceived consensus of the system's members. It is different from Democracy in that it does not specify majority rule or formal voting as mechanisms for decision making, though it sometimes may make use of these. Instead, a group elite, with the authority to make binding decisions, attempts to make these on the basis of attempts to evaluate what that consensus is on a particular issue. It is a salient characteristic of political communitarianism that the elite views itself as representing the community and as obligated to make any decision about the group on which there is a perceived consensus. That is, the elite recognizes no limits on the community's authority to legitimize its decisions by the means of perceived consensus.

Thus, political communitarianism, like Greek Democracy and Rousseau's popular democracy, is not a constitutional political system. Its poverty is due to its failure to protect the rights of individual participants against "the general will" of the community. It does not constrain the emergence of tyranny and specifically the expression of community-based authoritarianism in decision making affecting the rights of individual members. From the viewpoint of adaptation, it restricts membership in the system to those who accept the consensus norms, and thereby, ceteris paribus, it restricts the adaptive range of the community, because it restricts the variety of opinions, ideas, and creative expressions available to it in distributed problem solving. Political communitarianism then, is poor in freedom, and in its capability to adapt.

Epistemological and Political Communitarianism

Epistemological and political communitarianism are logically independent, but also frequently correlated. When both are present, they reinforce one another, and a stable communitarian system. When neither are present, communitarianism is absent. When epistemological communitarianism is present and political communitarianism is absent, epistemological communitarianism may still be quite stable, because it may be quite compatible with alternative political forms other than constitutional regimes. Even with a constitutional, open political order however, epistemological communitarianism can still survive if members accept such philosophical doctrines as paradigms and their inescapable incommensurability, expert authority, social constructivism, and epistemological relativism. When political communitarianism is present and epistemological communitarianism is absent, there is great pressure placed on the knowledge processing system by the political order to move toward epistemological communitarianism, because failure to do so would suggest that the communitarian political order is illegitimate. In addition, the present world intellectual climate is fertile for epistemological communitarianism, given the spread of relativism, radical and social constructivism, and the "floating foundationalisms" of Wittgenstein, Quine, Rorty, and Polanyi.

Communitarianism and Communities of Practice

An important issue in creating CoPs is whether they will evolve toward communitarianism or other types of political systems. Since participation in CoPs is voluntary, I believe there are only two stable forms of CoPs, communitarian and constitutional or open CoPs. The interesting question this raises is whether there are differences in generating conditions that enable one or another of these types (keeping firmly in mind that each of these CoP attractor states is an emergent that cannot be determined simply by its generating conditions)?

I think there are such conditions. They have to do, first, with the Ideology of the people forming the community. Ideology matters. If the people who form a community believe that no decisions are beyond the authority of the community's "general will" as expressed in community interaction, then it will be the case that the community's founders, who are often its elite, will not hesitate to express "the general will" without recognizing any constraints arising from individual rights. In other words, in communities, the ideology of its founders, if reflected in its initial rules and interactions, is likely to be carried over into its practice and into its developing norms and values. This is especially true because the natural (biological) pragmatism reflected in the reinforcement learning dynamics affecting all life is biased toward avoiding the short-term conflict accompanying dissent. Members in such communities are all too likely to accept that they are "apprentices" whose participation should be peripheral and non-disruptive for some time, and that learning in the CoP is about socialization into the community, rather than contributing to the recognition and solution of its problems.

In open CoPs, which are constitutional in character, the Ideology of those who form a community may be very different. To begin with, it is likely to view the CoP as an interactive group, that may or may become a community for some time, if ever. It also may view the CoP's purpose in terms of the primacy of member problem solving and inquiry and not in terms of the primacy of "negotiating meaning" and "creating community".  Finally, it will view the community as built on the inalienable individual rights of its members to express any content on any issue related to the domain of the community; either by asserting a knowledge claim, or by criticizing one that has been asserted -- provided only that that expression is civil enough to moderate the conflict that is to be expected from inquiry possessing a vigorous and unremitting critical dimension. These Communities of Inquiry (CoIs), in contrast to Communitarian Communities (CCs) have no "apprentices," only contributors. Learning in them is about solving problems, not about "negotiating meaning". CoIs reduce the force of community social sanctions against individuals who express views dissenting from the community at large. One result is that the community can develop a higher tolerance for conflict and a more diverse membership. This, in turn, means, that this type of community is likely to have a wider range of adaptive possibilities in its tool box, and consequently a greater capacity to co-evolve with its environment than CCs.

Communitarianism and KM List Servs

KM List Servs are wedded to political communitarianism. I don't say that lightly, and certainly you won't hear most people in these list servs "'fess" up to it. But you can see it in the way many group members and group moderators act when people begin to vigorously express views that they disagree with, even when the expression of these views is polite, or at least far more polite than the responses from defenders of the community view.

Not only do the moderators of these e-mail-based CoPs bar future postings from those who express dissenting views persistently and vigorously, but before such action takes place they tolerate uncivil posts from those defending prevailing views. They also react strongly to any hint of incivility from those trying to develop the case for new perspectives. Members in such groups believe that there is nothing inappropriate about writing to moderators to urge action against those expressing views they don't agree with, or simply don't want to see expressed for whatever reason. And moderators think nothing of abandoning a level playing field by restricting the posting rights of the targets of those who ask for moderation, purely on the basis of the number of people who complain, and regardless of whether the behavior of those to be censored is civil, or if not entirely so, at least far less uncivil than many of those who are doing the complaining.

The dominant theory of knowledge claim evaluation in KM list serv groups is epistemological communitarianism. Knowledge is viewed as that which emerges from the practices of the group through its attempts to negotiate meaning. And it is assumed that the knowledge outcomes of meaning negotiations are justified by community interaction/negotiation processes producing community practices. This justificationism goes unremarked and unquestioned, as if there is no alternative basis for knowledge production other than epistemological communitarianism based on the community's situated negotiation of meaning.

I will document these views about KM list serv groups in future blog posts by describing recent occurrences in the comprac, act-km, and AOK-net yahoo groups, three groups in which I've acted as a participant observer. First, however, I want to consider the question of why these KM groups are communitarian in character.

Why Communitarianism?

Why should the three KM list serv groups all be communitarian in character? Groups outside of KM, for example, The Fabric of Reality, The Critical Café, The Critical Rationalist, and The Post-Popper Groups, all yahoo groups like the three KM groups, are anything but communitarian. There are rules in some of these groups, but others are not even under moderation. Sometimes moderators do intervene in Fabric of Reality when they think a discussion has become circular. But this is very rare and only occurs after very detailed exploration of questions. I have never seen participants in these groups complain to moderators about the posts of other participants. In the unmoderated groups, I have seen members bitterly complain to one another or to other participants about someone else. But I have never heard of anyone in these groups asking the moderator to stop someone from posting, or restrict their participation.

I think the explanation for communitarianism in the KM groups lies in KM itself, and specifically in the widespread popularity of the reigning theory of Communities of Practice developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, and others since the early 1990s. I think that it is from that theory that the moderators of the three groups, as well as their members, have adapted communitarian ideology, which easily becomes reflected in the practice of their list servs.

The moderators of all three KM Groups may fairly be said to revere Communities of Practice as one of the primary, or even the primary, advance introduced by KM. All are quite familiar with the CoP literature and with various stories about CoPs and their successes and failures as knowledge sharing tools. All seem to view themselves as servants and instruments of the list serv communities they serve, as obligated to reflect the consensus of the members, and as dedicated to preserving their communities and protecting them against excessive conflict caused by too vigorous interchange. All seem to believe that knowledge is "enacted" and negotiated in their communities, and that knowledge in these communities is what the members think it is, or what they practice. None seem to believe that any members have basic and inalienable individual rights of self-expression relating to their substantive views that cannot be limited by the community at large if it decides, as evidenced by behind the scenes complaints to the moderator, that it wishes to censor those expressions.

In these various groups, the moderators' outlooks are reinforced by many who actively seek censorship of "offending" parties and who reward the moderators with praise when they show "courage" by supporting popular sentiment rather than individual rights. Some members actually believe that people should keep their posts short so that these members can continue to enjoy the convenience of using e-mail digests instead of subscribing to individual e-mails, so that they may simply delete posts they do not wish to read. Thus, they oppose all lengthy discussions of issues, which, of course, means that they oppose all in-depth exploration of issues in the group. Still other members believe that knowledge is relative, and that in the context of CoPs it is relative to the community itself.

In short, the explanation for the occurrence of communitarianism in KM list servs lies in the influence of CoP theory, and in the ideologies of the moderators and members of these KM groups. The ideologies at issue encompass both political and epistemological communitarianism. And the results are restrictions in the range of membership and adaptability of these groups, and the development of legitimacy for structures of knowledge processing that are fundamentally opposed to constitutional democratic values and to long-term adaptiveness and innovation.

The alternative to such groups is the Community of Inquiry (CoI), a type of open community that is focused on problem solving and inquiry and individual rights of self-expression, on producing new knowledge, and on adaptation. CoIs also let the development of community take care of itself, a by-product of its success in problem solving, rather than an end in itself. In future blogs, I will provide case studies of each of the KM groups and illustrate both political and epistemological communitarianism in each.

5:08:19 PM    comment []

Ad Hominems, Personal Attacks, Labeling, and Learning In List Serv Communities

Until recently, I've been taking some time to participate in the act-km yahoo group where there has been an active discussion of Management vs. Governance-based approaches to Knowledge Management (KM). While I think the discussion has been a good one and that many useful views have been expressed during it, I've also noted, and not for the first time, the use of ad hominem arguments, personal attacks and labeling in exchanges within the group. Behavior of this sort has occurred in the AOK and  com-prac groups as well. It also occurred in the  KMCI Groups (the KMCI Virtual Chapter and KM Best_Practices groups) during the time of their sustained activity, until I changed and enforced rules prohibiting these practices.

One of the key responsibilities of Knowledge Managers is to facilitate knowledge production, and I've made clear in previous posts that knowledge production is critically dependent on knowledge claim evaluation and its smooth functioning. But knowledge claim evaluation cannot function smoothly when the error elimination process, along with its necessary component of criticism, becomes conflictful, rather than collaborative. How can KM prevent this from happening? How can it enable knowledge claim evaluation so that it is performed collaboratively and with, at most, moderate conflict?

I've written a good bit in answer to this question in my paper on "Bridging Knowledge Gaps" and I don't want to repeat what I've said there in this post. However, I will make a few remarks on how KCE can be encouraged by the moderators (the Knowledge Managers) of list serv groups who presumably have an interest in facilitating dialog that can help participants to create new knowledge (learn), and not merely to share information.

The key to facilitating dialog that can lead to learning is to establish a perspective on how exchanges, designed to both produce and share knowledge, will be carried out by members of the group. The perspective should be reinforced by adopting some basic rules, constantly and consistently applied by moderators, to prevent the inevitable conflicts expressed in the content of dialogue from getting out of control.

The Perspective

One perspective and, I conjecture, the best one from the viewpoint of producing knowledge through dialogue and exchange, has been offered by Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies (Vol. 2, p. 225), and, more recently, in The Myth of the Framework, p. 12, edited by Mark A. Notturno. It was also expressed in Mark Notturno's, Science and the Open Society, p. 38, which I follow here. This perspective may be characterized as the critical rationalist attitude toward exchange and was expressed by Popper as:

  • "I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get closer to the truth."
This statement admirably expresses both the idea of our fallibility (See the quotation from Xenophanes in "All Life Is Problem Solving"), and the idea that our regulative ideal is to seek truth. Popper extended the critical rationalist attitude by offering three ethical principles that "form the basis of every rational discussion, that is, of every discussion undertaken in the search for truth" (See Karl Popper, In Search of a Better World, 1992, p. 199) The principles are:
  1. The principle of fallibility: perhaps I am wrong and perhaps you are right. But we could easily both be wrong.
  2. The principle of rational discussion: we want to try, as impersonally as possible, to weigh up our reasons for and against a theory; a theory that is definite and criticizable.
  3. The principle of approximation to the truth: we can nearly always come closer to the truth in a discussion which avoids personal attacks. It can help us to achieve a better understanding; even in those cases where we do not reach an agreement. (p. 199, above)

For our purposes here, I'll substitute the phrase "knowledge claim" for the word "theory", in Popper's second principle.

In viewing these principles please note that they emphasize (a) our fallibility, (b) the regulative ideal of getting closer to the truth, (c) rational discussion focused on knowledge claims that are criticizable, and (d) civil, impersonal exchange focused on critical analysis of the alternative views that parties to a discussion hold. The need for impersonality and civility is especially important in view of the emphasis on critical analysis of knowledge claims as the method of getting closer to the truth. The parties to an exchange are viewed as having the common goal of getting closer to the truth. But, because the method of getting there requires conflict, the form of the discussion must be disciplined to focus only on the views at issue and not on the holders of those views.

Now clearly, this idea of rational exchange is no "silver bullet". Many people are not interested in rational discussion and don't believe in its utility in arriving at knowledge. Many others don't believe that our objective in seeking knowledge should be to get closer and closer to the truth. They believe that they should seek "what works", or what predicts well, or what management will approve, or what the community can agree on. Finally, even if people do believe in seeking truth, and also trust and perform civil rational discussion, the conflict embodied in critical exchange may escalate, destroy civility and fail to produce new knowledge. In spite of these difficulties however, it seems to me that civil rational exchange, combined with truth seeking, is the method that, in the long run, is more effective than other methods of exchange in growing knowledge. For others who believe this, it is, perhaps, not unreasonable to suggest that we should organize our list serv groups based on the critical rationalist attitude and the principles I've expressed. I will provide more context for this perspective by considering the distinction between Communities of Practice and Communities of Inquiry.

Communities of Inquiry vs. Communities of Practice

A Community of Practice (CoP) is a group of individuals who freely associate in order to communicate with one another about knowledge claims each of them have, and about their experiences in attempting to solve work-related problems in areas in which they share an interest.  CoPs vary in their focus. Some may be primarily concerned with knowledge sharing; others with knowledge production as well as knowledge sharing. Among those focused on both, some CoPs may be characterized by testing and evaluation processes in which a few control access to previous knowledge claims, or have authority to evaluate them, or in which knowledge claims are evaluated by consensus. But truth is not a function of consensus – not a kind of popularity contest. It is also not a function of the voice of managerial, or even expert, authority. It is a function of how well statements correspond with the facts, regardless of what authority believes, or what the majority opinion happens to be.

A type of CoP is a Community of Inquiry (CoI). A Community of Inquiry is distinguished by its:
  • Objective of producing knowledge that is closer to the truth
  • Emphasis on continuous testing and evaluation in knowledge claim evaluation attempting to eliminate falsehoods
  • Refusal to accept that community agreement on the survival of a knowledge claim establishes or justifies it
  • Members having equal and open access to the community’s previously produced knowledge
  • Equal opportunity to produce new knowledge claims, and
  • Equal access to the means to communicate new knowledge claims produced within the community

I hope you can see that the critical rationalist perspective already discussed is further specified by the CoI idea, which when applied to list serv groups emphasizes that the organization of participation in such groups should be democratic, and that continuous testing and evaluation of knowledge claim performance through open discussion is the standard for these groups, rather than community agreement claiming to establish or justify certain knowledge claims over others.

The Rules

While it's important to be clear about the principles guiding activity in a list serv group, it's also important to have rules expressing boundary constraints that may prevent the system state one is attempting to facilitate (the CoI state) from moving toward an alternative attractor that is not focused on producing knowledge that is closer to the truth. I believe there are three simple rules, that, if continuously enforced by moderators, can provide the sought for boundary constraints.

First, no personal attacks should be allowed in posts. This rule should be enforced post-by-post. The moderator should evaluate whether an attack has occurred. If so, the post should be rejected with an explanation of the reason for rejection and an invitation to resubmit after appropriate revision. No further censure or barring of the offending poster should be added to the post rejection. The emphasis here should be on instruction about what a personal attack is from the viewpoint of the moderator, and on the clear communication that they are absolutely prohibited.

Second, casual evaluative labeling of points of view in the absence of explanation should also be prohibited. Labeling can easily be seen as a personal attack by the party whose view is labeled. I know one well-known KM practitioner who punctuates his disagreement with others with single word pejorative labels wrapped into lengthier arguments. The labels express the practitioner's undocumented opinion of the views of those he disagrees with. Recently, in the middle of a longer explanation related to another argument, he characterized his correspondent's view as "naïve" without further explanation of why he thought so. This called forth an impassioned, perfectly well-reasoned response from the correspondent, which however, only served to escalate the intensity of conflict between the two. "The bottom line" is that labeling poisons the atmosphere of discourse. Our second rule therefore prohibits it and suggests that moderators should return posts with labels with instructions to eliminate them.

Lastly, no ad hominem arguments should be allowed in posts. Such arguments proceed by attacking the characteristics, circumstances, or actions, of a person making a claim, and then proceed to suggest or imply that because of these characteristics, circumstances, or actions, the claim, or a related argument made by the person from which the claim follows by deduction, is either false or invalid. The invalidity of the conclusions of ad hominem arguments are not, by the fact of their occurrence, particularly damaging, and they are easily countered in exchanges by persons subjected to them. The problem with them, however, is that the attacks on the characteristics, circumstances, or actions of the authors of the knowledge claims they are directed against, poison the atmosphere of civility, and elicit answering personal attacks from others. If moderators reject posts with ad hominem arguments in the first place, conflict in exchanges will be moderated and people are much more likely to learn something from their dialogues.


I can put the argument of this post pretty simply. We need list serv groups whose purpose is to produce knowledge and support learning. For those to work right, they need to be communities of inquiry, not just communities of practice. That means people in them must agree on the goal of getting closer to the truth, on doing this by using the method of evaluating competing knowledge claims exchanging critical evaluations, and by doing in this in a civil manner that avoids personal attacks. In my view this can be done by clearly stating the purposes and policies of such groups while applying the critical rationalist CoI model, and, still more specifically, by implementing rules prohibiting direct personal attacks, "labeling" of points of view, and ad hominem arguments. In the next post, I will take up a related topic called "The Poverty of Communitarianism".

11:39:32 AM    comment []

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