Participative knowing and an extended epistemology
John Heron and Peter Reason
Adapted from 'A Participative Inquiry Paradigm', Qualitative Inquiry,
Vol 3 No 3, John Heron and Peter Reason, 1997.
The participatory paradigm asserts that we cannot have any final or
absolute experience of what there is. In the relation of participative
knowing by face-to-face acquaintance, the experiential knower shapes perceptually
what is there. And this is still so when the perceiving mind is relatively
free of conceptual labels imposed upon its imaging of reality. However,
the point about experiential knowing is that the very process of perceiving
is also a meeting, a transaction, with what there is. To touch, see or
hear something or someone does not tell us either about our self all on
its own, nor about a being out there all on its own. It tells us about
a being in a state of interrelation and co-presence with us.
When I hold your hand, my tactual imaging both subjectively shapes you
and objectively meets you. To encounter being or a being is both to image
it in my way and to know that it is there. Knowing a world is in this felt
relation at the formative interface between a subject and what is met.
To experience anything is to participate in it, and to participate is both
to mould and to encounter. In the relation of meeting, my subjectivity
becomes a perspectival window that frames and is filled with a world which
also transcends it.
Hence experiential reality is always subjective-objective. It is subjective
because it is only known through the form the mind, perceptually and conceptually,
gives it; and it is objective because the mind interpenetrates the given
cosmos which is shapes.There is an analogue here with Rahner's modern theology
of revelation, in which he speaks paradoxically of 'mediated-immediacy':
we experience divine presence always in mediated form (Kelly, 1993).
Merleau-Ponty shows how perception itself is participatory so that
... in so far as my hand knows hardness and softeness,
and my gaze knows the moon's light, It is as a certain way of linking up
the the phenomena and communicating with it. Hardness and softness, roughness
and smoothness, moonlight and sunlight, present themselves in our recollection
not pre-eminently as sensory contents but as certain kinds of symbioses,
certain ways the outside has of invading us and certain ways we have of
meeting the invasion. (Merleau-Ponty, 1964: 317)
As Abram has it, this means that there is 'underneath our literate abstractions,
a deeply participatory relation to things and to the earth, a felt reciprocity....'
Or as Skolimowski puts it
Things become what our consciousness makes of them through
the active participation of our mind (1994: 27-28).
The cosmos or the universe is a primordial ontological
datum, while the 'world' is an epistemological construct, a form of our
understanding. (1994: 100)
Bateson makes the point that between the extremes of solipsism, in which
'I make it all up', and a purely external reality, in which I cease to
exist, there is
... a region where you are partly blown by the winds of
reality and partly an artist creating a composite out of inner and outer
events. (in Brockman, 1977: 245)
From all this it follows that what can be known about the given cosmos
is that it is always known as a subjectively articulated world, whose objectivity
is relative to how it is shaped by the knower. But this is not all: its
objectivity is also relative to how it is intersubjectively shaped. For
there is the important if obvious point that knowers can only be knowers
when known by other knowers: knowing presupposes mutual participative awareness.
It presupposes participation, through meeting and dialogue, in a culture
of shared art and shared language, shared values, norms and beliefs. And,
deeper still, agreement about the rules of language, about how to use it,
presupposes a tacit mutual experiential knowing and understanding between
people that is the primary ground of all explicit forms of knowing (Heron,
1996). So any subjective-objective reality articulated by any one person
is done so within an intersubjective field, a context of shared meanings
- at one level linguistic-cultural and, at a deeper level, experiential.
Critical subjectivity and four ways of knowing
A participative worldview, with its notion of reality as subjective-objective,
involves an extended epistemology (Heron, 1992, 1996). A knower participates
in the known, articulates and shapes a world, in at least four interdependent
ways: experiential, presentational, propositional and practical. These
four forms of knowing constitute the manifold of our subjectivity, within
which, it seems, we have enormous latitude both in acknowledging its components
and in utilizing them in association with, or dissociation from, each other.
This epistemology presents us as knowers with an interesting developmental
challenge, that of critical subjectivity. This involves an awareness of
the four ways of knowing, of how they are currently interacting, and of
ways of changing the relations between them so that they articulate a subjective-objective
reality that is unclouded by a restrictive and ill-disciplined subjectivity.
Experiential knowing means direct encounter, face-to-face meeting: feeling
and imaging the presence of some energy, entity, person, place, process
or thing. It is knowing through participative, empathic resonance with
a being, so that as knower I feel both attuned with it and distinct from
it. It is also the creative shaping of a world through the transaction
of imaging it, perceptually and in other ways. Experiential knowing thus
articulates reality through felt resonance with the inner being of what
is there, and through perceptually enacting (Varela et al, 1993) its forms
Presentational knowing emerges from and is grounded on experiential
knowing. It is evident in an intuitive grasp of the significance of our
resonance with and imaging of our world, as this grasp is symbolized in
graphic, plastic, musical, vocal and verbal art-forms. It clothes our experiential
knowing of the world in the metaphors of aesthetic creation, in expressive
spatiotemporal forms of imagery. These forms symbolize both our felt attunement
with the world and the primary meaning embedded in our enactment of its
Propositional knowing is knowing in conceptual terms that something
is the case; knowledge by description of some energy, entity, person, place,
process or thing. It is expressed in statements and theories that come
with the mastery of concepts and classes that language bestows. Propositions
themselves are carried by presentational forms - the sounds or visual shapes
of the spoken or written word - and are ultimately grounded in our experiential
articulation of a world.
Practical knowing is knowing how to do something, demonstrated in a
skill or competence. Practical knowledge is in an important sense primary
(Heron, 1996). It presupposes a conceptual grasp of principles and standards
of practice, presentational elegance, and experiential grounding in the
situation within which the action occurs. It fulfils the three prior forms
of knowing, brings them to fruition in purposive deeds, and consummates
them with its autonomous celebration of excellent accomplishment.
It is equally important that action not only consummates the prior forms
of knowing, but is also grounded in them. It is in this congruence of the
four aspects of the extended epistemology that lie claims to validity.
The bipolar relationship can be shown as in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Bipolar congruence of four forms of knowing
Critical subjectivity means that we attend both to the grounding relations
between the forms of knowing, and also to their consummating relations.
It means that we do not suppress our primary subjective experience but
accept that it is our experiential articulation of being in a world, and
as such is the ground of all our knowing. At the same time, naively exercised,
it is open to all the distortions of those defensive processes by which
people collude to limit their understanding. So we attend to it with a
critical consciousness, seeking to bring it into aware relation with the
other three ways of knowing, so that they clarify and refine and elevate
it at the same time as being more adequately grounded in it.
In addition, since our knowing is from a perspective and we are aware
of that perspective, of its authentic value and of its restricting bias,
we articulate this awareness in our communications. Critical subjectivity
involves a self-reflexive attention to the ground on which one is standing.
It also extends to critical intersubjectivity. Since our personal knowing
is always set within a context of linguist-cultural and experiential shared
meaning, having a critical consciousness about our knowing necessarily
includes dialogue, feedback and exchange with others, and this leads to
the methodology of co-operative inquiry.
Methodology: co-operative inquiry
The inquiry method within a participative worldview needs to be one
which draws on this extended epistemology in such a way that critical subjectivity
is enhanced by critical intersubjectivity. Hence a form of research in
which all involved are both researchers and subjects: they engage together
in democratic dialogue as co-researchers in designing, managing and drawing
conclusions from the research, and as co-subjects they engage in the action
and experience that the research is about (Heron,1971,1981a,1981b, 1985,
1988, 1992,1996; Heron and Reason, 1986; Reason, 1988a, 1994a, 1994b; Reason
and Heron, 1995).
In such co-operative inquiry people collaborate to define the questions
they wish to explore and the methodology for that exploration (propositional
knowing); together or separately they apply this methodology in the world
of their practice (practical knowing); which leads to new forms of encounter
with their world (experiential knowing); and they find ways to represent
this experience in significant patterns (presentational knowing) which
feeds into a revised propositional understanding of the originating questions.
Thus co-inquirers engage together in cycling several times through the
four forms of knowing in order to enrich their congruence, that is, to
refine the way they elevate and consummate each other, and to deepen the
complementary way they are grounded in each other. In simple terms, people
move, in successive cycles, from experience of a topic to shared reflection
on it, which revises the way they next explore it experientially, and so
Research cycling is itself a fundamental discipline which leads toward
critical subjectivity and a primary way of enhancing the validity of inquirers'
claims to articulate a subjective-objective reality. There are also a range
of further of procedures which develop this effect. These include: managing
divergence and convergence within and between cycles; balancing reflection
and action; securing authentic collaboration; challenging uncritical subjectivity
and intersubjectivity; managing unaware projections and displaced anxiety;
attending to the dynamic interplay of chaos and order. These are mentioned
in a little more detail later on. For a full discussion, together with
a set of radical skills of being and doing required during the action phases
of the inquiry, and for a comprehensive account of co-operative inquiry,
see Heron (1996).
Co-operative inquiry has been applied in diverse fields: altered states
of consciousness, black managers and subordinates, child protection supervision,
co-counselling, co-operation between conventional and complementary practitioners
(Reason, 1991), dental practitioners, district council organizational culture,
health visitors, obese and post-obese women, other people with a particular
physical or medical condition taking charge of how their condition is defined
and treated, whole person medicine in general practice (Heron and Reason,
1985; Reason, 1988b), womens' staff in a university, young women managers,
youth workers, and more. For further references see Reason (1988a, 1994a)
and Heron (1996).