Communal Discernment and Academic Research: Is there a Quaker Epistemology for the study of Public Policy and Social Change?

Paper delivered at for Friends Association for Higher Education
Conference, June 2005
Gray Cox, College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, ME

In our modern age, the function of research is a basic foundation of the social order. In that context, Friends are called to help generate knowledge, wisdom and systematic insight that can inform public policy and our practical efforts to transform our society — and inform our efforts in ways that will enable us all to live more fully in virtue of that life and power that leads us to treat all humans and all of the Earth as a manifestation of the Divine.

Might it be, further, that Friends are called to do this in research institutions that are governed by Quaker practices of communal discernment? Might it also be,further, that Friends are called to explore the development of research methods themselves which are spirit-led and that provide a way of living out, in the realm of research, our calling to be Friends of the Truth who are guided in that activity by that Power and Presence that, in Fox’s words, has come to “teach his people himself”?

In this session I would like to invite you to consider and begin to explore some of the ways in which there might be a distinctive Quaker Epistemology that should inform — and perhaps dramatically transform — contemporary research practices and institutions. I want to invite dialogue around these issues – so the format I have chosen for this opening talk departs a bit from a straightforward academic paper defining and defending a thesis. I am going to offer some background about my own thinking about these issues, and why I think they might be of interest and then go on to share a series of open-ended reflections that may spark some ideas or doubts and help get the dialogue going. I am not sure that my thinking about this has gotten to the point that it even is worthy of being called “work in progress” – but I am most clear that this session is not intended as a “clearness meeting” because I, at least, am no where near clearness – think of it then as a kind of “threshing session”, perhaps – or a friendly chat a bit like the rambling give and take that occurs at the start of some of Plato’s dialogues.

Depending on your own training, the notion of a “Quaker epistemology” may seem obscure, bizarre, or straightforward. For some folks the term may seem a bit obscure, it may take a moment to recall that it refers to studies how we know – the Greek word “episteme” refering to knowledge so that it is, in effect, the “ology “ of knowledge in the way that endocrinology is the “ology” of endocrines. To many philosophers, the nature of knowledge would seem to be universal in character. Epistemology studies the criteria and methods that yield truth in science and elsewhere and which are independent of particular creeds and cultures. To them, the idea that there would be a Quaker epistemology might seem a bit bizarre – as though there would be a Presbyterian physics or Episcopalian endocrinology. On the other hand, to many anthropologists the idea might seem quite straightforward. They expect every culture and sub-culture to have its own criteria and methods for constructing their social reality and determining what is done and not done, said and not said, and true and not true in their culture. For many anthropologists, just as there are different “ways of knowing” or epistemologies for Shinto priests and Yaqui indians and Mayan H’men , it would seem quite obvious to expect that Quakers would have distinctive epistemic practices including criteria and methods for what they consider knowing.
But then the question of course might be: Do the methods of knowing that Quakers do in fact use have any normative force for others? From the philosopher’s point of view, one way of putting it might be to ask: Are the Quakers on to something? Is there anything in their particular practices for deciding on what is to be done and not done, said and not said, or affirmed as true or false that ought to be adopted by others – by, for examples, academics and others doing research on public policy questions and social change? This is a question I want to circle around as I ramble about a bit giving some more context and suggestions for thinking about Quaker ways of knowing.

Most recently the idea of a “Quaker epistemology” began to draw my interest after a meeting two years ago at Pendle Hill in which a group of Quakers were gathered for a consultation on economics and ecology. Keith Helmuth and some other folks were suggesting that there ought to be some kind of Quaker “think tank” that might look at public policy issues in the way the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute do – only from a Quaker point of view. It seemed like an important and exciting idea and a group met later in that summer to start the ball rolling and in the following year became incorporated as “The Quaker Institute for the Future”. It is aiming to host a conference on the theme “Toward a Moral Economy” next year – and is hosting a Summer Research Seminar in Bar Harbor for the month of July, this year. Having Quakers get together and do research seems like a good idea – at least in the sense that it seems like it would be a very convivial and supportive group to work with. And it seems like a good idea to have them do research on issues that are selected because they are directly relevant to issues related to Quaker testimonies on poverty, simplicity, care for Creation, peace and so on.

But the process of thinking about how to incorporate this Quaker Institute for the future raised the further questions about how Quaker practices and experiences might inform the governance structure of this academic research group – and how they might also inform the process of research itself. Might we, for example, not only run the Board meetings of the institute as “meetings for worship for the conduct of business” but also run research seminars and work sessions as “meetings for worship for the conduct of research”? To elaborate this idea in more depth, we might turn to studies of the Quaker process of corporate governance, such as Michael J. Sheeran’s BEYOND MAJORITY RULE to sketch out distinctive elements of the Quaker governance process for which we might seek analogues in the research process.

If you can take this idea seriously, the idea that we ought to hold “meetings for worship for the conduct of research”, then a whole series of other ideas begin to suggest themselves . With this basic way of framing the research process in mind – as an extension or variation of meeting for worship – we might be led to look at customs and practices of present Quakers, past Quakers, and people influenced by Quakers in order to find analogues that could be incorporated into the research practices of Quakers doing academic investigations.
First, there are other ideas about how to apply various principles and practices of present day Quakers to the process of professional research, academic investigation and studies in which we are trying to develop knowledge about how the world works and how it might be bettered. For example, at various stages of research, “threshing sessions”, clearness committees or worship dialogues might be appropriate as ways of organizing the process of shared research. And the whole process of developing research proposals – and funding them – might be modelled not on the traditional academic process of “anonymous” peer review but on the process of nurturing leadings that Friends bring as stirrings of the Spirit and share with their monthly meeting and “labor under” until they bear fruit in some new project or practice.

Second in looking to past Quakers practices, we might find, for example, that in laboring under a concern the process of “holding in the Light” that early Friends turned to might be illuminating for research today. Rex Ambler’s recent work on this provides a very interesting, practical way of interpreting and applying this practice from early Friends, including instructions on applying it in a variety of contexts. I think that the work of John Woolman provides another really interesting model of research. I think we might find it useful to think of his travels as including and modelling a specific kind of anthropological investigation – and to think of his work on the “Plea for the Poor” and his reflections on slavery as models of ways in which Quaker research in economics might be done.

Third, there are other practices that were in many cases initially developed by Friends which, though they have passed into use by a larger community of practitioners, have distinctively Quaker roots and/or features that might make them interesting candidates for inclusion in a laundary list of things to try out as part of a Quaker “epistemology “ or methodology for research. I am thinking, for example, of the Imaging a World Without Weapons process developed by Elise Boulding. There are ways in which, at least as I have seen it practiced by Elise and Warren Ziegler, with whom she developed the workshop format, that it involves a kind of spiritual discernment and deep listening that is Friendly in nature. And it provides a model for doing research that might be very fruitfully employed in Quaker counterpart to, for example, the Heritage Foundation. The Listening Project developed by Herb Walters and others provides another specific model of a practice of investigation that is Friendly in inspiration and character that might be worth also holding up as an interesting model for research.

In so far as we look to the practices of present and past Quakers and folks influenced by them, we may find methods or models we could, at least by analogy, use to develop some practices for doing research and running a research institution using what might be called “Quaker ways of knowing”. But what would be the real value of these methods? To what extent might they actually help us, in the philosopher’s normative sense, “really” know more or know better? To sharpen this question a bit more, let me recall a distinction made by philosophers of science between the “’logic’ and context of discovery” and the “logic and context of justification”. Scientists can, in the course of working on discoveries, use all kinds of wacky techniques and ideas to discover new phenomena and come up with new theories to explain them – they may practice numerology or astrology or rely on dreams or drug induced experiences or casual encounters in singles bars to generate hypotheses. In the context of discovery, that’s fine. Anything goes. But when they turn to try to justify their ideas, then a different and more rigorous logic applies, a logic and set of criteria that should be normative for all regardless of creed or subculture, rational proof that is objective. To what extent might the Quaker process of communal discernment claim to offer not just a cool though unusual way to generate ideas but actually offer a way of testing and justifying them, a way of doing so would have a normative force, a power to persuade others who are not Quaker, for example?

Here comes the part of what I have to say today that is most mixed with chaff and in need of threshing – I lay it out simply to be suggestive and to help spark dialogue.

Because Quaker practice invites us always to be open to the ways in which the Light of Truth can be found in each and every person, it seems inconsistent with the idea that there is some special method of knowing the truth which only Quakers have and which provides priviledged access to the Good or the True. So it would be odd to say that there is a “Quaker epistemology” if it meant something like that.

However, a central — perhaps the most central — testimony of the early Quakers was that which Fox voiced by saying “Christ has come to teach his people himself” — if only we would attend rightly to the inward Light and hold fast in our discerning of the Truth. In choosing to call themselves the Religious Society of Friends of the Truth, early Quakers were witnessing to the notion that there is a Presence of an power, that of God in each of us, that can provide openings to a more explict, clear, self-consistent, accurate, full understanding of reality that can have a transformative power over our lives and those of others. And they found there were methods for turning towards this power and tuning in to it – methods that could be learned, that were open to all, available at any time, practices that could be used to structure all of life – including, presumably the parts of life in which we might to research.

One way to try to sort this idea out and explore its plausibilty would be to note the role of consensus in Quaker process and examine how it might be similar to notions of consensus that inform theories of knowledge in Jurgen Habermas or in the American pragmatists. We might argue that human interests inform all human investigations, and that the attempt to develop more objective and valid justifications for knowledge claims requires us to be more conscious of the ways interests inform investigations and be more inclusive and democratic in the ways that interests do so – to avoid partisan bias in favor of more holistic ways of knowing that include all the possible perspectives relevant to the phenomena under study. If this notion of objective knowing or justification seems promising – the inclusive, egalitarian version of a consensus approach – then it might well seem that Quaker practices might provide an interesting, useful, and in some ways exemplary model of how claims to knowledge should be developed and justified – and might be practices that can and should persuade all.

Along these lines, we might think of a Quaker process as one that calls for all disciplines as well as all people to be involved in the process of investigating issues and arriving at a justification of conclusions – arriving at clearness. So we might view it as a call for inter-disciplinary research that allows the specific criteria and methods employed by ethnographers, economists and others in their studies to be employed still, but placed in a larger context, included in a larger whole of understanding when, for example, we try to understand issues around poverty or environmental degradation.

A further idea: In doing interdisciplinary research, a key part of the process is that of defining the problem under investigation. We may call it “poverty”, for example, but what that means depends, in part, on the discipline from which it is approached. Generally speaking, if we think of a discipline as something like a community of researchers who share a common paradigm in the stage of what Thomas Kuhn would call “normal science”, then the problems and puzzles the discipline normally studies are ones that are generated by its own paradigm, by values and metaphysical presuppositions that frame it and by the particular puzzles that have arisen in trying to apply its central theoretical ideas. But then when we are operating in an inter-disciplinary context, when more than one paradigm is being employed and all are subordinated to some larger project, then how do the problems under investigation get framed and defined? Often it is by political mandate – a leaders in government or in donor agencies have their own agenda for political reasons and they come up with some extra-paradigmatic phrase that will direct research in the general area of their perceived interest. If we see the process of inter-disciplinary study in this way, then it seems reasonable to say that there might be a very important place for a kind of Quaker process in the discerning of what the problems are which we should be researching. What is the right way of framing what “poverty’” or “environmental degradation” are, to define the questions at issue in doing research on them? Might it be that a process of communal discernment guided by the Inward Light might offer a more compellling and truthful way of settling this than a legislative process of wrangling and cutting deals in the context of proffered pork and threatened fillibusters?

But, of course, this way of putting it frames the question in a way that is loaded very importantly by a distinction between “mere consensus” (which legislators might, on a good day, aim at) and “communal discernment” which, for Friends, expresses, in part the notion that we aim and hope to arrive at and bear witness to a Truth that can surprise any and all of us – challenging deeply held beliefs and upsetting theories and social practices. Something very different from mere consensus.

I am led to think that a clear and systematic account of this notion of Truth can be worked out and that once worked out it could and should be found to be a persuasive way of framing the way research should be done. ( I am thinking especially of research in social theory and studies of public policy and social change here, but, I suppose, I should consider the idea that this ought to apply to natural science as well. This is something I am even more muddled about.) Perhaps it would be helpful in thinking about this to go back to Barclay’s APOLOGY and consider how he tried to give a systematic account of the Quaker notions and experiences of Truth in relationship to the truth claims and patterns of justification in other traditions. Personally I am tempted to say something like that I think an account of it that was well developed would include a notion of truth that combines coherentist elements from the Hegelian (that would include a notion that Truth includes clear and explicit and self-consistent understanding that takes all the relevant perspectives into account ) and American Pragmatist traditions with similar coherentist elements as well as a solid dose of “realism” that takes seriously the notion that there is a world around us with which our beliefs might engage and to which our beliefs might in some sense correspond and elements of Martin Buber’s account of I and Thou and the way in which there are some Truths which can be encountered but not defined and that it would insist on processes of research which are egalitarian in including all as participants in the knowing process and interdisciplinary in a similarly egalitarian way and . . .

But, I should pause and apologize. I have reached the point where I am pretty much just waving my hands around trying coax ideas out of the air. If I have been successful at all in my basic intent today, to initiate some useful dialogue, then it will be much more helpful to let you all start waving your hands and coaxing your own ideas out of the air and in to my head . . .