Resolving Conflicts and Making Subtle Distinctions
Systematicity presupposes narrative coherence within a given context and is therefore, situational. On this assumption what is important are not merely individual statements, but the linkage of various statements to each other in a given investigation. While each one may be accorded legitimacy on its own, inconsistencies may be evident in their grouping, which then requires some type of resolution. Thus, Rescher refers to “an aporetic cluster…a family of philosophical relevant contentions” (93) that in their collectivity contains an inconsistency, which needs to be worked through to move the investigation forward. As an example, consider the following set of potentially conflicting statements, which Rescher refers to as an “apory”:
Literacy is a metaphor for knowledge acquisition drawn upon in the symbolic grappling with print-based texts.
Literacy refers to the capacity to read, write, and comprehend print-based texts.
Efficacy is determined through the ways in which readers draw meaning from texts, including its appropriation, however elliptically, into their lives.
Efficacy is determined by the degree of gains made in reading, writing, and the comprehension of print-based texts.
Literacy as a metaphor resides in the transaction between the reader and the text.
On its face, there is nothing intrinsically contradictory about these statements, which depend on the contexts to which they refer. As identified throughout this essay, our context is that of deriving a definition of literacy based upon the two choices previously identified. Thus, if one accepts the first premise the definition is contained in the statement. On this interpretation, statements 3 and 5 invariably follow, while statements 2 and 4serve as supplementary sources of the overall definition. A problem sets in when no evidentiary progress is discernable in the support of statements of 2 and 4 regardless of the definition of literacy. The problem is heightened if evidence actually points to lack of progress in those areas. That does not mean that the definition in statement 1 cannot pertain, but it does require a radical embrace of its assumptions in which the metaphorical description dominates without equivocation. By contrast, if literacy is defined by progressive mastery of the technologies of reading and writing, then the definition is contained in statement 2 and directly supported by 4. Similarly, statements 1 and 3 could serve as supplementary sources of the overall definition. However, if no discernable progress on the mastery of reading and writing is made can it be meaningfully inferred that progress in literacy education has been achieved based only on the elusive concept of “meaning making?” Based on the definition in statement 2, one would have to draw a negative conclusion.
The critical question for those who adhere to the following position is whether a meaning making, transactional definition of literacy pertains regardless of how much progress or lack thereof is made in the decoding and encoding tasks of mastering the text. As Rescher maintained, that depends, in this case on the operative definition of literacy in play. What is brought out in the five points listed is the need to resolve potentially contradictory statements, each one of which could conceivably stand on its own when sharply distinctive definitions are contrasted. In terms of moving toward systematic resolution, such contradictions need to be made sense of in one way or the other lest the inquiry project be marred by internal incoherencies. It is not that such inconsistencies are not endemic, for on Rescher’s reading they surely are. His point, rather, is that their manifestations at various places throughout the inquiry process require substantive confrontation if progress toward coherent systematicity is to be achieved.
When sharply polarized “rival ‘schools’ resolve an aporetic cluster in different and discordant ways…different priorities are by nature incompatible and irreconcilable” (p. 102). Such points of clear antinomy play an important role in determining precise points of signification at various places along the axis in grappling with certain philosophical issues that sharply conflict. Thus, if one is satisfied with simply one or the other of the two definitions of literacy, then further resolution of the potentially conflicting statements may not be that important. One chooses one definition and blocks out the other. Even still, each of the statements listed has an independent validity, which has some relevance to adult literacy education in any definition short of an extreme embrace of either statement 1 or 2.
The need, therefore, is for further qualification. Clarity may be gained through sharply honed definitions, yet at the cost of neglecting a more sophisticated definition that could emerge through a subtle modulation of the conflicting polarities. Through such modifications, on Rescher’s argument, one is in a better position “to give proper recognition to a fuller range of considerations that initially led to the aporetic difficulty” (p. 116) in which “appropriate distinctions” can assuage the need of “abandoning” one position or the other “altogether” (p. 118). All things being equal, as Rescher has it, such a “Hegelian” approach adds important sophistication to the effort, thereby contributing toward a more systematic resolution. In his words:
The operative principle at work here is that of achieving optimum alignment with experience – the best overall balance of informativeness (answering questions and resolving problems) with plausibility by way of negotiating with the claims, which, on the basis of our relevant experience, there is good reason to regard as true. We want answers to our questions but we want these answers to make up a coherent systematic whole. It is neither just answers we want (regardless of their substantiation) nor just safe claims (regardless of their lack of informativeness) but a reasonable mix of the two – a judicious balance that systematizes our commitments in a functionally effective way (p.96).
Using our example of exploring the relationship between literacy and the mastery of the technology of reading and writing, one might make the following provisional statements:
1. Literacy facilitates knowledge acquisition in the grappling with and mastery of print-based texts.
2. Literacy is enhanced to the extent to which individuals gain the capacity to read and write print-based texts.
Growth in literacy is experienced to the extent to which readers progressively comprehend and draw meaning from texts and appropriate them into their lives.
4. Literacy has a technological component in the mastery of reading, writing and the comprehension of texts, and a metaphorical dimension that resides in transactions between the reader and the text in which meaning making and significance lies beyond the text into that of appropriation, however variously that may be defined.
As put by Rescher, this represents “a duly hedged synthesis” (p. 121) that in the final analysis may raise as many problems as it seeks to resolve. Clearly it does not resolve the antinomy when the polarities of definition are pressed and there may be contexts where such clarification remains essential. Thus, there is no final synthesis achieved as a result of the distinctions provided here, which are those primarily of qualification. However, and this is the critical point, a modulation of perspectives as reflected in this second list of attributes offers the possibility of drawing on more of each of the independent statements in the first list that were individually consistent, but did not hang together. The second list represents a proximate synthesis. To the extent that it is effective, it provides a more complete definition of literacy than if one or the other of the antinomies had prevailed over the other. This may appear as a mere blending. Yet, the critical new factor is the flexibility in what is opened up through a creative synthesis on what at first blush may seem like a polarized distinction. Thus, literacy, after all, may not be an either/or phenomenon. It may be a matter of degree in which each of the new statements allows for the flourishing of competency in one or the other of the blended definitions without ruling out progressive mastery in both, even if not necessarily on an equal level. As Rescher explained:
Distinctions provide for a higher synthesis of opposing views; they prevent thesis abandonment from being an entirely [italics in original] negative process, affording us a way of salvaging something, of giving ‘credit where credit is due’ even to those theses we ultimately reject. They make it possible to remove inconsistency not just by the brute force of thesis rejection but by the more subtle and constructive device of thesis qualification (p. 121).
Even still, the process of resolution through inquiry is continuous. New syntheses arise and break down as the press of new problems persists, pointing to the subtle tensions inherent in value clarification and what it is that can stand for intellectual satisfaction, however temporal, in the pursuit of a processive reality, in which the reach perpetually outflanks the grasping at any given time. The investigative process, in short, is continuous and needs to be worked out on an ongoing basis or at least as long as the effort seems worth the investment.