September 13, 2004

KNOWLEDGE in the Wild

After writing the previous entry on heavy stress on the word 'knowledge', I ran across this bit of dialogue in Edith Wharton's story "The Debt" (emphasis in original):

"The matter?" Archie reiterated. "are you so lost to all sense of decency and honor that you can put that question in good faith? Don't you really know what's the matter?"

Dredge smiled slowly. "There are so few things that one really knows."

"Oh, damn your scientific hairsplitting! Don't you know you're insulting my father's memory?"

The first thing to notice, I think, is that Dredge really is hairsplitting. The sense of Archie's question is that Dredge should have a true belief about what the matter is--Dredge's bringing up skeptical doubts is irrelevant. (And it seems likely in the story that Dredge does know why Archie is upset--each is trying to get the other to be the first to say it.) Archie's stress on 'know' doesn't really make the skeptical doubts more salient--if they're salient at all, it's because the whole story is about the nature of scientific inquiry and the overturning of old theories.

On the other hand, it would be extremely inapt for Dredge to respond to "Don't you know you're insulting my father's memory"--I imagine the stress is on 'insulting'--by raising skeptical doubts. That may provide a bit of evidence that stress on 'know' makes skeptical doubts more salient--if not salient enough to raise without hairsplitting--but it may also reflect that the doubts have been raised and rejected, and that the ploy of raising and rejecting them has accomplished its purpose.

Posted by Matt Weiner at September 13, 2004 12:10 PM