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Epistemology & Philosophy of Science

Volume 55, Issue 4, 2018

Amanda Machin
Pages 84-97

Bodies of Knowledge and Knowledge of Bodies
“We Can Know More than We Can Tell”

Classic epistemological accounts, as far back as Plato, have regarded knowledge as essentially disembodied. Bodies are seen as either distracting objects or passive instruments of knowledge. In this paper I attend to the knowledge of human bodies. Using insights from Michael Polanyi and feminist epistemology, I not only argue that bodies have a tacit and habitual knowledge of their own, but I also challenge the idea that scientific knowledge is itself separable from the bodies of scientists. I focus upon the arena of environmental governance, an arena in which scholars have already challenged the dominance of scientific knowledge over other forms of knowledge. I aim to extend this challenge, by highlighting the bodily knowledge that is relevant in environmental science and policy. I do not query the value of the knowledge of scientific experts, but I show that this knowledge is always embodied. I consider, first, critiques that challenge the assumption that scientific knowledge is universally applicable and demand the inclusion of different type of knowledge in environmental governance. Second, I argue that not only local, but also bodily knowledge is relevant in detecting, understanding and responding to environmental concerns and implementing, resisting and extending policy. Third, using Polanyi I show that science itself is entangled with bodily knowledge. Finally, I suggest that far from undermining the value of scientific knowledge, acknowledging its corporeality may allow a reassessment of the role and responsibilities of scientists. Polanyi’s ideas lead him to defend the authority of “the body of scientists”. In contrast, I argue that his ideas rather compel an on-going critical attentiveness to the constitution of this body. The aim of the paper is to underline is the omission of the body from prevailing epistemological discussions, and to show that bodies are tricky objects, critical subjects and situated agents of knowledge.

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