Colonia del Sacramento and the Knowledge Argument

6 April 2013

Saturday


There were a number of old cars in the town, so I took this one street scene with three cars from the 1930s. There are also a couple of contemporary cars, as well as a few other clues that this is not an old photograph, but if I had been a bit more careful I see that it would have been possible to take a picture that looks like a vintage post card.

There were a number of old cars in the town, so I took this one street scene with three cars from the 1930s. There are also a couple of contemporary cars, as well as a few other clues that this is not an old photograph, but if I had been a bit more careful I see that it would have been possible to take a picture that looks like a vintage post card.

The Historic Quarter of the City of Colonia del Sacramento is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, which is always a good indication that a particular place will be worth a stop and a look. I’ve been to several UNESCO sites on the World Heritage List, and I always enjoy them, but it almost always is the case that they are different from what I expected. Colonia was not exactly what I expected, but that was great. That is why one travels: in order to have one’s concepts corrected by one’s percepts, just as one thinks in order to have one’s percepts corrected by one’s concepts. Thought and experience are an indissoluble unity; it is when we divide them and compartmentalize them that we get into trouble.

Colonia 4

Why travel? What is to be gained from travel? Travel is all about challenging assumptions. One could simply stay at home, read books, look at travel brochures, and watch travel videos, convincing oneself that one had learned all there is to know about a place, and never bother to go there oneself. But we all know that you do need to eventually go to the place — whatever the place happens to be — if you want to understand it on its own terms, rather than attempting to understand a place one has never visited on the basis of one’s preconceived idea of the place.

Colonia 1

To say that thorough knowledge of a place is not adequate to saying that one really knows a place made me realize that this suggests a generalization of a thought experiment in the philosophy of mind known as “Mary’s Room.” In the Mary’s Room thought experiment, Mary is a scientist locked in a black and white room, who studies everything that there is to know about color vision. After perfecting her knowledge of color, she leaves her black and white room, and suddenly experiences what it is like to actually see color. The question, from a philosopher’s point of view, is this: when Mary leaves her room, does she learn anything? This thought experiment is also known as the “knowledge argument,” in so far as it points to knowledge that can be attained only through conscious experience.

Colonia 3

Putting Mary’s room and the knowledge argument in the context of travel suggests a generalization of the knowledge argument: suppose, in isolation of the object of knowledge studied, one learns all that there is to learn about a given object of knowledge. Say that one learns all that there is to learn about Colonia del Sacramento. After learning about Colonia del Sacramento, does one learn anything by traveling there? Even the most experienced of travelers know that you learn something by visiting a place that you cannot learn by all the research you might possibly conduct. Another way to put this would be to say that there is something that it is like to be in a place — a formulation parallel to Nagel’s famous formulation about there being something that it is like to be a bat.

Colonia 2

The conscious experience of a place is a source of knowledge not attainable through study. As I write this I realize that this argument entails that such knowledge is ineffable, otherwise, someone who visited a place and realized what was lacking in its description could simply write it down after having visited, and every subsequent visitor would thereafter visit the place with no surprise at all, and no new knowledge would be attained by such a visit. And yet we know it isn’t like that.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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