The Subject-Typology-Epistomological Status

An example of a short subject-typology could be:

  1. Material of interest for contemporary history,
  2. Biographical material concerning known personalities,
  3. Ethnologically and culturally interesting material, and
  4. Material of interest for the arts.

Now, one can ask, what is the condition of possibility for creating such a typology? What must necessarily be known before the typology can be formulated? The answer to these questions is of course that it is necessary to have a more or less conscious or clear conception of what it is essential to know about man, combined with a conception of the way in which the audiovisual material in the archive can be expected to contribute. Some of the most important aspects of the problem of selection are to be found in the thinking connected with formulation of the subject-typology. The distinction between essentials and inessentials, which in the typology is formulated in a general way and in relation to the archive’s purpose, rests on criteria derived from conceptions of a metaphysical character such as conceptions of ‘man’, of ‘society’, of ‘culture’ etc. It is in these concepts, which in our knowledge and actions work in a heuristic and not a deterministic way, that our personal ‘philosophy of history’ or our personal ‘metaphysic’ are to be found. All these concepts are often very vague and only partly consciously analysed, but nevertheless they are necessary and form the basis for our image of world. They are a kind of a priori, torso-like, but absolutely necessary total-image of our life-world, and in reality it is this flickering and unanalysed image, which is fundamental for our thinking knowledge, when we act, and when we select. It is the flickering, metaphysical image, which is behind both the formulation of the general subject-typology and the specific selection decisions. In the typology the image has been formulated in a general way - in the specific selection the image has the character of a heuristic basis for a decision. Everyone who has made decisions about essential/unessential has to find his arguments in these metaphysical conceptions if his selection decision is being criticized and therefore needs some kind of argument. It is an eventual critique, which makes clear the metaphysical character of selection work - and metaphysics does not mean pseudo-religious conceptions, but the common principles and concepts, which create coherence and integration in our thinking. Coherence and integration are the key words!

It can be seen therefore that the problem of selection is founded one kind of metaphysics; but it also has other philosophical aspects. One of these lies within theory of knowledge. One could say, that the metaphysical part of the problem is concerned with the answers to the question: what are the conditions of possibility for selections - what is the a priori in selection? But the theory of knowledge problem is concerned with the answers to the question: why must this material be selected and that erased? It is the structure or logic of thinking in practical selection work we are looking to find. How does the selector motivate a specific selection?

At this point the discussion can take advantage of the previously mentioned debate about the relationship between general and specific knowledge, between nomological and ontological knowledge. In the space available we can mention only a few elements in the dominant conception of the problem and some of the points of critique. The dominating school is positivism, and it is the positivistic conception which underlies what many Americans call ‘hard’ science’.

The literature about positivism is very large, but a classical representative is Carl G Hempel, whose articles The Function of General Laws in History, (1942) and Studies in the Logic of Explanation (1948) are worthy of reading. In short, the positivistic ideal is, that when you must explain an event, then it is necessary to split it up into several parts, so that every part can be explained by means of the general laws formulated within secure sciences. If, for instance, you must explain a specific traffic accident, the first thing to do is to establish the experiential data; influence of alcohol, braking distance, the specific traffic situation, mental condition of the driver, etc., and then you will investigate these data by means of the relevant sciences, which in the case will be: medical science, technical science, traffic-sociology, psychology and so on. The general knowledge from these sciences, which can be used, is called ‘covering laws’ because they are considered to cover the established facts. After the analysis of the facts by means of the respective sciences, the positivist nominates the sum of these separate explanations to be the explanation.

The same kind of procedure is involved when a selector motivates a specific selection by referring to it being ‘covered’ by one or often several categories in the subject-typology of the archive. But this kind of explanation suffers from great weaknesses and the critique of positivism is about to uncover some of them. A brief critique of positivistic theory of knowledge can be found in Maurice Mandelbaum’s article: The problem of covering laws, in History and theory, (1961), and a very profound critique can be found in one of the most exciting, modern philosophical works, Bernard Lonergan’s Insight. A study of human understanding, (1958).

The starting point for Lonergan’s theory of knowledge is the analysis of the event, which we call an insight. He is not interested in insight as a psychological phenomenon, but analyses the character of the increase of our knowledge, which is involved when we get an insight. For Lonergan it is, so to speak, the insight, which is the atoms of knowledge – for the positivists the atoms are verbally, formulated, elementary statements about what is considered the reality. There are of course many problems involved in this, but the point is, that the positivistic summing up of their many separate explanations involves an insight, an epistemological operation, which is overlooked by the positivists. The separate explanations of the mentioned traffic accident are: influence of alcohol, bad brakes, bad traffic conditions and a depressed driver, and the positivist considers it unproblematic to put a circle around all these separate explanations and to nominate the sum: The explanation!

What is overlooked is that the circle or summing up involves an increase of our knowledge, and therefore it must be motivated. The positivistic theory of knowledge is unable to motivate the summing up! There are perhaps secure sciences which can be used in explaining the separate parts of the event - but there is no science which can explain how the specific parts of the event are integrated again; remember the key words are coherence and integration! The positivistic theory of knowledge will only be able to create explanations in the form a long string of possible separate explanations. In the same way, a positivistic selector can only motivate his specific selections by referring to this or that point in the explicit subject-typology of the archive - that is the reason why a positivistic selector always has an explicit and very detailed subject-typology: he simply cannot live without it.

In short, the problem for the positivist is, that his theory of knowledge does not include principles by means of which coherence and integration can be created. In practical work there are no differences between a positivist and a non-positivist. The difference is in their philosophical and methodological understanding of what is involved in their practical work. To the positivist, the integrating principles of coherence are ‘unscientific’ or ‘subjective’ and are, therefore, not included in his theory of knowledge. But the selector with a fully developed self-awareness will recognise the integrating insights, which are involved as a necessary part of his work and these integrating principles are exactly the same metaphysical principles, which have been mentioned before. It is, therefore, a self-delusion to believe that a reference to some selection-typology can be used as a proper motivation for selection - unless of course the typology is so restricted that the problem of integration does not exist. Then the positivistic understanding can be used, because no integrations of separate explanations or motivations are involved. If, for instance, the archive must select every kind of material on a certain person, then it is obvious that the motivation problem does not exist. However, in that case the question remains as to whether selection is involved at all.

The problem of selection has only been solved in a very general way in the formulation of the archive’s subject-typology. The kind of general solution of the problem in the subject-typology cannot be directly used to solve specific problem of selection. Often you will have a feeling that the selection problem is buried in the typology. For instance, the typology contains the category ‘contemporary history’, but within this very category there are essentials and inessentials. And furthermore, the category contemporary history cannot be defined in relation to history as a science. It is defined in accordance with the nature of audiovisual material or the needs of the programme producing departments. This means that the criteria traditionally used in the science history cannot be directly applied. A typology can only in a very restricted sense be used to solve specific ad hoc selection problems. It can be used to give potential customers a general idea of what can be found in the archive, and it can be used to define in a formal way the working-purpose of the archive. It can also be used in the selection of material, which may be unambiguously described as in a particular category.

Application of a general typology presupposes an integrated insight into the elements of the specific problem of selection. Otherwise you will not be able to discover that the typologies or categories are involved in the specific problem - and in the same way you are unable to discover the specific integration of the categories. In short, the application of a general typology needs interpretation in every specific selection decision. The typology is only one out of several factors involved in specific selection work, and it must be stressed that the typology itself does not contain principles by means of which the integration can be motivated. The principle of integration is to be found in ourselves in the form of the aforementioned heuristic, pre-scientific, but necessary total-image, which is activated in the meeting between the selector and his specific selection problem.

Therefore selection is a kind of metaphysical achievement resulting in a creative, integrating insight and decision, and it is founded on a complicated combination of our more or less conscious and educated total-image, explicitly formulated general subject-typology and understanding of the specific selection-problem involved. Selection is not in the category objective, secure, hard science, but in the category meaningful, subjective action. For that reason a selection decision will always have to live with the possibility of being questioned. The selection decision is not a science but an action, which is open, creative and perhaps even playful - and long may it continue to be so. Objectivity in selection, for instance in the form of percentage selection or the impossible (in the long run) total selection will transform archives into stores and the creative, educated selection into automatic, mechanical sorting.

Therefore, in reply to the first of the two questions raised in the paper’s introduction, I am of the opinion that the problem about the philosophical conception of selection is best solved by conceiving selection as meaningful subjective action, always open to debate, and as a philosophical method I would recommend self-awareness in relation to the practical selection work based upon the epistemological phenomenon insight as understood by Bernard Lonergan.

The second question, which was raised in the introduction, concerned the methodological conception of selection. The problem has only been touched upon and space decrees only a very brief mention of the research-discipline, which will be staid the selector to make his practical work transparent. What I have in mind is the decision-making theory.

To recapitulate, I tried at the beginning to show the presence of a kind of metaphysical heuristic total-image, our subjective-reality, as a foundation for selection-work. This image was formulated in the general subject-typology as a description of what categories of material the archive must select to fulfil its purpose. The general subject-typology has the character of a normative description, however specific selections are not description, but decisions! The typology and the specific selection are two different ways of thinking about the same problem and that is why the problem of essential/unessential seems buried in the typology when you try to motivate specific selections by means of the typology. The typology is not a set of rules to be followed blindly; rather it is a kind of framework for creativity. The specific selection is a creative decision, and it is of course unwise not to use the large literature about this subject to reach a more profound understanding of what is involved in decisions.

Some of the fundamental works within the discipline are to be found in the general action theory, but the most directly usable works are strangely enough to be found in the special elaboration of the theory for analysis of political decision-making. Richard Snyder, Graham T Allison and John D Steinbruner ought to be mentioned and if you are interested in analysis of the concept meaningful subjective action, Alfred Schutz ought to be consulted. Space forbids me to enter into details of decision-making theory, but the self-understanding of the selector will be much improved by studying the decision-making theory’s analysis of the many very complicated factors involved in decisions, from the cultural blind spots, through the organisational forms of the archive itself and on to the individual psychology of the selector.

Understanding these factors cannot, of course, make selection objective but it can make the selection decisions less arbitrary - and the selection debate can profit from the definitions and the very differentiated concepts within the decision-theory. Another problem, which can be illuminated by decision-making theory, is the problem of differentiating between types of selection. Earlier in the paper I outlined the type of selection in my own archive, but there are of course a lot of other types - one of them I have referred to elsewhere as sorting. In the decision-theory there are at least six different paradigms or types, each of them characterizing a type of decision. For instance, there is an analytical paradigm, a cognitive paradigm and a cybernetic paradigm - the last one can, with advantage, be used to characterize the very simplified and automatic form of selection, which I have called sorting. But these differentiations and refinements will come in connection with the intensified selection debate, which we can expect in the years to come.

Poul von Linstow is the Radio Archivist of Denmark Radio, Copenhagen.
This paper was given at the Brussels Conference in 1982.