Definitions of Knowledge
As Walker Percy explores the "dogfish" of perception and knowledge in his essay, "The Loss of the Creature," I wonder if he realizes how slippery and feisty the topic squirming on his desk is. Although anyone who has taken a guided tour will surely agree that the traditional tourist experience is necessarily divorced from that of a discoverer, the broad epistemological claims that Percy extracts from this scenario seem more complicated than Percy gives them credit, or space, for. When Percy suggests that an individual should aim to "extract the thing from the package," he insists that the individual seek out some solid bedrock beneath the surface of perception (519). In this statement, he implicitly calls the reader to believe that such bedrock exists and is accessible to humans, a controversial position in the postmodern world.
By arguing that excavation towards a static and fixed "creature" is possible, Percy echoes the voice of Plato, who argues that humans should strive to know the essential "forms" lying beneath ephemeral existence. Plato and his mentor, Socrates, devised their theory of forms in large part to reconcile a constantly changing physical universe with the criterion of permanence inherent in the Greek definition of knowledge, an important problem for philosophers of the time, and still today. In other words, the Greeks, believing that only permanent and unchanging entities could truly be "known," needed a way to attain knowledge in light of a constantly changing natural world
. With the forms, Plato provided a solution to this problem, saying that "beneath" the physical world a human perceives there exists a dimension of forms, or essences, which persist throughout time, independent of human perception
but accessible to it. Plato, through the voice of Socrates, the main character
of his dialogues, argues that only through philosophical pursuits can a man approach the form of an object he perceives in the physical realm.
Platonic essentialism emerges right away in "The Loss of the Creature" in Percy's quest for the true Grand Canyon, and develops throughout the essay to culminate in his consideration of beings as "prizes to be won" (523). Images of individuals like the Harvard sophomore and the tourist striving towards a stable truth, a "prize" beneath reality, play a prominent role in Percy's essay. From his first notion of the tourist's attempts to "reclaim" the Grand Canyon through his description of students trying to "salvage" sonnets and dogfish from their respective packaging, Percy clearly sets up the search for essence as a struggle, as Socrates did throughout his career. Percy's essential claim is that there is an unwavering, permanent, and absolute essence beneath any being, whether it is a fish, a canyon, or a sonnet, and that certain "stratagems" (512) can provide "access" (515) to this true being.
In writing about the loss of the creature and the disparity between experiencing being and experiencing its superficial attachments, Percy uses poignantly devised contrasts, showing first his ideal-seeing as an individual, then presenting its "inferior" counterpart-viewing as a consumer. By configuring his essay this way, Percy tries to awaken the reader to the disappointment of experiencing only the surface phenomena of the material world. Percy begins his essay by presenting the image of Garcia López de Cárdenas' discovery of the Grand Canyon, subsequently assuring the reader that "it can be imagined," then discussing the plight of the tourist from Boston trying in vain to "really see" the Canyon Cárdenas discovered (511-512). The contrast here is meant to draw the reader into the letdown Percy sees when someone fails to gain access to true being, a letdown similar to that of the tourist who "measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex" that he has borrowed from the guidebook (512). Interestingly, here, Percy's own preformed complex regarding the absolute plays a significant role in his own disappointment at his characters' failure to experience "the true creature."
Percy's argument informs his rhetoric in other ways, too. Throughout his essay, he formulates his examples to sound authoritative and absolute. For example, he tells the reader that "Garcia Lopez de Cárdenas discovered the Grand Canyon and was amazed at the sight" (511). Here, the presentation of the argument in such an authoritative and unwavering manner mimics the argument's emphasis on an unchanging absolute. With his attempts at decisive statements like this one, perhaps Percy is trying to convince the reader that such a statement is possible, or perhaps he is trying to establish an absolute beneath his own experience. Regardless, the irony is that he doesn't really know how Garcia Lopez de Cárdenas felt when he discovered the Grand Canyon, and that this statement, meant to establish some firm ground for the absolute to stand on, winds up thrusting doubts in the reader's mind and subtly shaking any ground that Percy's argument could rest on. This passage may even lead the very skeptical to question Percy's understanding of knowledge itself.
Jane Tompkins, in "'Indians': Textualism, Morality and the Problem of History," raises just such a question with her investigation of the literature relating to the first encounter between Native Americans and Europeans. Although she searches for a unified historical essence of the events, just as Percy searches for the "creature" underneath each being, she encounters many interpretations-some wholly contradictory-of the same historical events. Her essay, then, can be understood as a struggle to reconcile a romantic desire for stability of meaning, like Percy's, with the stark reality that there is "no unanimity on the subject" (619). This seems, at least initially, to render knowledge impossible for Tompkins, who, "faced with an array of mutually irreconcilable points of view . . . decided to turn to primary sources for clarification, only to discover that the primary sources reproduced the problem all over again" (626). Throughout her investigation of texts describing the Europeans' encounters with native peoples, she finds a multiplicity of interpretations, each filtered through its writer's perspective. Much like the symbolic packaging that Percy bemoans, this perspective distances the thing itself from its representation. The radical differences Tompkins encounters in the firsthand accounts she reads seem to indicate that Percy's suggestions for recovering the creature may be ineffective, and that the "citadel of symbolic investiture" that Percy discusses may be an inevitable part of human perception (514). If this is the case, then even Garcia Lopez de Cárdenas, the first European to "discover" the Grand Canyon, must have had hopes, fears, and preconceptions clouding his perception of the canyon's essence. Percy neglects the very important fact of Cárdenas' role as a commissioned explorer, and all the baggage that necessarily must have come with this role. Indeed, Cárdenas' view of the canyon was most likely blocked by his expectations about his expedition and his recognition that his discovery would make him famous, just as the perception of a Falkland islander stumbling upon a dogfish on a beach might be obscured by his passion for geometry or the hunger burning in his stomach.
Tompkins recognizes this problem of perception when she says, "The historian can never escape the limitations of his or her own position in history and so inevitably gives an account that is an extension of the circumstances from which it springs" (630). She deftly mirrors this realization with her rhetoric, in which she recognizes that hers is just one of many viewpoints. So, in presenting her experience, she gives personal examples, indicating uncertainty, instead of the generalized and authoritative cases used by Percy, which seem to say, "Mine is the way to see the world." Likewise, she allows her own viewpoint to evolve during the course of her essay, presenting herself as a teacher with a dilemma, following her progress, and finally narrating her solution.
Although Tompkins' rhetorical style is more flexible and less authoritarian than Percy's, and despite her recognition of the complexities of knowledge in an inevitably perspectival world, the solution she finally reaches unearths an important link between her essay and Percy's. Her solution, to judge the historical situation "as best one can given the evidence available" (633), ends her essay on an absolute note and indicates a definition of knowledge similar to Percy's. Knowledge, for both Tompkins and Percy, and for most Western thinkers from Plato to Newton, requires that an object be stable and unchanging in order to be truly known. This is equally as evident in Percy's notion of the creature as it is in Tompkins's need to formulate a "best guess" of what actually happened and in Newton's formulation of mechanistic laws for the movement of corpuscular bodies.
However, in the 20th Century, quantum physicists like Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr have cast doubt upon the stability previously perceived in the universe. In accepting dynamic systems as candidates for knowledge, these men have worked to redefine knowledge as understood by Percy and Tompkins, arguing that there is no need to guess, as Tompkins essentially does at the end of her essay, when she tries to come to a stable, (albeit interpretive) picture of reality. By her desire to complete her picture of historical reality, she fogs her looking glass with unnecessary and hasty judgements, largely because the classical definition of knowledge requires her to do so. Shortcomings in her approach are evident when she discusses her emotional reaction to the Comanches' cruel treatment of their captive girl. Her emotions, while compassionate and heartfelt, necessarily limit her overall grasp of the historical situation in all its complexity, a fact that Tompkins understands all too well after her grapple with other historians' contradictory messages. However, this understanding of perspectivism, that all accounts are perception-dependent, does not push her to work on her definition of knowledge, only to throw up her arms and offer a best guess at what actually happened, a necessarily futile strategy. The best guess method, like Percy's lunge for essence, is hampered by the very multiplicity of perspectives that Tompkins deals with in her essay. It seems both Percy and Tompkins could learn from quantum physicists like Heisenberg and Bohr, who effectively redefined "knowledge" to account for the nuances of quantum phenomena.
The uncertainty principle, attributed to Heisenberg and explained for the first time in his 1930 book, The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory, states, in its most general terms, that a particle's position and momentum cannot be determined simultaneously. Further, the accuracy with which either quantity can be measured is related inversely to the accuracy of the other quantity's measurement. In the words of Heisenberg, in his later work Physics and Philosophy, "If we know the one [momentum or position] with high accuracy we cannot know the other with high accuracy, still we must know both for determining the behavior of the system" (49). The relationship between these two uncertain quantities, momentum and position, allows quantum physicists to translate their observations into mathematical terms. Heisenberg explains, "A probability function is written down which represents the experimental situation at the time of the measurement, including even the possible errors of the measurement" (45). This probability function, which deals with what Heisenberg calls a "tendency to exist" in a certain time with a certain amount of energy, forms the cornerstone of quantum physics and contrasts sharply with the deterministic system of Newtonian physics (46). "The probability function does-unlike the common procedure in Newtonian mechanics--not describe a certain event but, at least during the process of observation, a whole ensemble of events" (54).
Most significantly, uncertainty enters the picture again when quantum physics deals with the question of objectivity that Percy and Tompkins struggle with. Specifically, quantum physicists like Heisenberg and Bohr have scrutinized what scientific experiments actually observe. Traditionally, scientists have focused their experiments on a small portion of the natural universe, marking off a certain territory as pertaining to the experiment, and deeming the rest "outside." Percy makes exactly this demarcation when he argues for essential "creatures" independent of theories and interpretations. However, quantum physics has recognized the impossibility of such a strict division. Heisenberg notes that the "object has to be in contact with the other part of the world, namely, the experimental arrangement, the measuring rod, etc., before or at least at the moment of observation" (53). This is similar to Tompkins' realization that "the historian can never escape the limitations of his or her own position and history and so inevitably gives an account that is an extension of the circumstances from which it springs" (630).
Like Tompkins' notion of accounts that necessarily contain part fact and part interpretation, Heisenberg finds a similar scenario in the probability function, which "combines objective and subjective elements" (53). However, it is here that the striking contrast appears in the way Tompkins and Heisenberg deal with these hazy mixtures of fact and interpretation. While Tompkins is content to "decide as best [she] can given the evidence available," quantum physicists abolish the need to decide in favor of a more inclusive knowledge, as illuminated by one of Heisenberg's examples in Philosophy and Physics. The scenario involves an atom moving in a closed box divided into two equal parts, with a very small hole in the divider to allow the atom to pass between the two sections. Classical logic here would require that the atom have a fixed position at any one time, either in the left half of the box or the right one. According to Heisenberg, "If the atom would always be in the left half or the right half of the box, the final intensity distribution should be a mixture (according to the fraction of time spent by the atom in each of the two parts)" of the light intensity distributions when the atom was confined to each of the two halves (183). However, because of the experimental results, which show otherwise-due to what Heisenberg calls "interference of probabilities"-quantum physics must recognize that the question of which half the atom is in is not decidable. Importantly, Heisenberg is quick to point out that "the term 'not decided' is by no means equivalent to the term 'not known'" (184). However, Tompkins, in "'Indians,'" isn't able to see the distinction between the two terms, a failure that forces her to flail towards certainty and "decide" on a situation based on her classical definition of knowledge, which requires a stable essence. On the other hand, postclassical scientists have vastly revised their definition of knowledge to account for the impossibility of stable, unchanging knowledge.
Like the texts that Percy and Tompkins struggle with, the particle has been recognized as a problematic entity, "subject" to interpretive perceptions of scientists. However, unlike Percy and Tompkins, who still cling to the classical definition of knowledge that requires a fixed object, the scientists faced with this quandary have, in a way, transcended their limitations, redefining knowledge to fit their understanding of perspectivism. Their new definition of knowledge involves observing a text, registering relationships, gathering as much information as possible, and then realizing that certainty is impossible. This idea of knowledge means recognizing limitations and boundaries as much as it does certainty about specific events. So, Percy need not worry if he can't avoid interpretation and Tompkins need not attempt to come up with a "most-plausible scenario," because, as Heisenberg puts it, "we cannot completely objectify an observation" (50). Tompkins, when discussing "Indian"-European affairs, can present indeterminacy, due to contradictory texts, as part of her understanding of the problem, just like quantum physics can learn a great deal from relationships between uncertain quantities. This understanding, as presented by Heisenberg, suggests an important re-interpretation of knowledge that can certainly help thinkers like Percy and Tompkins come to grips with epistemology in the postmodern world. Through a redefinition of knowledge, Percy and Tompkins can recognize the complexities inherent in knowledge, and appreciate and understand these complexities in order to "know" about Indians or dogfish. Like the physicist, they can benefit from recognizing elements of uncertainty inherent in the "creature." In a way, the postmodern knower is much like the man in Percy's essay, who takes the Grand Canyon bus tour as "an exercise in familiarity" (513). He intakes the same interpreted information as those who are on the level below him, yet he recognizes its limitations and understands what he sees all the more because of this awareness.
Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky, eds. Ways of Reading. 3rd Ed. New York: Bedford, 1995.
Percy, Walker. "The Loss of the Creature." Bartholomae and Petrosky. 423-436.
Tompkins, Jane. "'Indians:' Textualism, Morality and the Problem of History." Bartholomae and Petrosky. 584-601.