Changing Focus. Or: Bees, knives, and the guy under the desk.


“What a weird title,” you say? Why, thank you! I made it myself.

Recently, my research took another one of those turns. You know: it’s all going well, and then suddenly you’re in a darkened alleyway surrounded by 20ft-high walls. You look back at all that distance you’ve travelled, and slowly realise that you’ve got to start retracing your steps.


dog-meme-srsly-e1356148080271This isn’t the first time that this has happened, and it’s likely that it won’t be the last. However, a recent lecture on epistemology helped me to understand that it probably wasn’t just a brick wall I faced: it was a brick wall covered in bees and knives.

Allow me to explain this bizarre analogy… and don’t worry, there are PLENTY more coming up!

A while back, I made this post based upon my fear of using a linguistic framework called “Systemic Functional Linguistics” with a signed language. After doing lots of reading and theorising, I was certain that I could take this framework, typically used with spoken language, and apply it to a signed language. Even though I had tiny doubts in the back of my mind, the overwhelming inner-voice of “THIS IS WORKING KEEP GOING DAMMIT KEEP GOING!” was pretty loud. It wasn’t until contact with professors who know far more than I in this field calmed that voice down and say, actually, this would not be a good idea – it’d be a square peg in a round hole (covered in bees and knives).

So where does epistemology – the study of knowledge – fit into this?

It’s the duty of a Ph.D researcher to create new knowledge. Knowledge is a tricky thing to define, as there are countless definitions and we often get it confused with strong (yet unsubstantiated) beliefs. Generally, knowledge is classed as “justified true belief:” if we can sense it, and support it, and it’s real, then it’s knowledge.* But what if our senses are lying to us? What if we’re dreaming? How much support is needed? What is “real”? The whole thing can leave you feeling a little like this:


Let’s add another layer to this. The concept of justified true belief was challenged in the mid-20th century by Edmund Gettier, who proposed a set of Gettier Problems, turning this idea on its head. Here’s a breakdown of one of them, and how this all ties in to my current situation:

Imagine you work in a building where each person has their own office. Each office can be accessed through one corridor, and the fronts of the offices have a “glass wall” so you can see who is in there. Every day, you walk past the office of Mr Overworked, looking through the glass wall, and you see him at his desk (more than likely overworking). Your senses are telling you at this point that Mr Overworked is at his desk, and there is no evidence to the contrary, thus your belief is justified and true: well done! Have some knowledge.

One day, you walk past the office again and see the same situation. But here’s where things get a little tricky: it turns out that, today, what you perceive to be Mr Overworked is actually a lifesize, waxwork model. Your senses are still the same, and through the same deductive process you say that it is “knowledge” that he is in the room.

It turns out, you’re right. He is in the room… but he’s hiding under the desk (maybe he went crazy after all the work?!).

The point of the above is this: it’s possible to get to an answer, and that answer could be “correct,” but whether or not you get to it in the right way, or whether you find the “real” answer is another thing entirely. More often than not, it’s the methods we use that produce these situations.

In short: had I have continued down my path of fitting the spoken language peg into the signed language hole, I would have ended up with waxwork knowledge. I need to change my method, and find the guy under the desk.


*This is an EXTREMELY loose definition. Please don’t shoot me, epistemologists and philospohers!



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