The philosopher is tasked with the work of responding to a series of complex and evolving questions: What is being? How do we know? What is a good life? Who are we? Such inquiries are so formative in the history of philosophy that gaining a solid grip of their influence on philosophic practice is itself almost tautological: Philosophy is the pursuit (love, etymologically) of these questions, and the emergence of the right questions is in turn the wisdom or love of philosophy itself. In philosophy the role of such deep questioning has always been of central importance.
But there are also smaller questions that are easier to study as they unfold and shape the dynamics of a specific philosophical event. One such event is evidenced by the back and forth between a conference speaker and her audience. The speaker presents her material and patiently awaits a response from her peers. Here an important deconstructive moment occurs when responding to the question. The philosopher must determine what the question being asked does to the content of what she has presented. We find such practices of deconstruction widespread in philosophy. One can find, for example, a Jacques Derrida painstakingly analyzing the conditions within which questions are framed, what is made possible by the question, and what becomes inaccessible by framing inquiry in a certain way. The philosopher can decide whether the question is adequate to her content and proceed to respond based on her assessment.
The question I ask myself when observing this phenomena is how does the question impact the content of what is being said. Much ink has been spilled in twentieth century philosophy over the importance of “paradigms” (Kuhn) or “epistemes” (Foucault). To my mind the paradigm and the episteme provide deeply ecological accounts of human subject formation, and the recursive relationships enacted between human knowledge production, on the one hand, and the evolving plasticity of the human subject, on the other. For Foucault an episteme refers to the historical conditions of possibility within which the knowledge and discourse of a particular epoch is grounded. For Kuhn the paradigm refers to a very particular mode of research questioning enacted to stabilize the puzzle solving practices of “normal science.” These puzzle solving strategies have consequences for how humans and technical instruments are assembled, the goal being to refine the acceptable methods for studying a particular constellation of phenomena.
In the case of both epistemes and paradigms disruption is an always present possibility (“epistemic rupture” to crib a phrase from Gaston Bachelard, or “scientific revolution” to borrow Kuhn’s term). However, when I use the phrase “ecology of knowledge” what I am interested in is less the background conditions within which questions are framed (Foucault’s “historical a priori”) and more with giving an ontological description of the ecological relationships that emerge between the content of a philosophical statement and its encounter with a mode of questioning; or, more deeply: My concern is with the sensitive plasticity of modes of thought to different kinds of knowledges, and how these sensitivities shift during encounters with certain kinds of questions. In this sense the deconstructive moment remains an important aspect of understanding knowledge ecologies; it recovers the background of historical relations that shift in and out of different species of subjectivity.
However, beyond this archeological task, giving a descriptive ontological account of the encounter between knowledges and subjectivities is also central. (Of course there is no actual binary between the “archeological” or “deconstructive” moment and the ecological one. I am drawing a line of convenience to help organize my own thinking.) It is in this sense that I have begun to think about knowledges and questions as mediums of the kind that media ecologists interpret. In other words, just as different kinds of technological assemblages enhance, reverse, retrieve, and obsolesce different experiential possibilities within human organisms and the sensory ecology of a certain social epoch, so to can we study different kinds of questions and knowledges as mediums that reframe the ecological conditions within which human subjectivity is shaped. In fact, given the wide diversity of world views active on the planet today, I believe that giving such an ecologically descriptive account is essential to questions framed under the term “Cosmopolitics.”
A cosmopolitics of knowledge must explore and describe the influence of knowledge ecologies on human subject formation. The human organism, and possibly all organisms, is immersed not just in ecologies of other beings and constructed environments, but also within ecologies of knowledge that play every bit as profound a role in constituting the conditions of a given epoch. In this sense “the question” is an ecological actor capable of either sustaining the activity of the epoch (“normal science”) or of asking a new question, calling forward new modes of thought not yet believed possible (“epistemic rupture”). We should be able to produce an ontologically thick description — a genuinely radical empiricism — that takes into account the ecological relationships between knowledges, knowers, and questioners; and not just in terms of the episteme or paradigm, but in terms of the ongoing ecological signaling between all organisms and species of subjectivity. To the questions-themselves!