One issue in the conversation has been puzzling me. Two quotes on research attributed to Robert Filliou have puzzled me ever since they came up. The first is: “Every time we turn our attention to what we don’t know, we are doing research.” The second is: “Research is not the domain of those who know; on the contrary it is the domain of those who do not know.”

While these comments make a kind of oracular sense, I’d have to say that I’d generally disagree.

After a life of active engagement in the world of political action and resistance during World War II, Robert took a master’s degree in economics at the University of California at Los Angeles. Economics in those days was even less oriented toward human experience and more focused on quantitative analysis than it is today.

The humane and philosophical context of Adam Smith was fairly well obscured in those days, and even those who acknowledged Smith as the pioneer of modern economics neglected his emphasis on the common good and the flow of resources through society in favor of a rational homo economicus whose behavior we could study through the manipulation of macro-economic statistical data.

But it was, in fact, the common good that lay at the heart of Smith’s concern. In 1752, Smith moved from the chair of logic and rhetoric at Glasgow University to the chair of moral philosophy formerly held by Francis Hutcheson, Smith’s old teacher. The proper and beneficial nature of relations between and among human beings was always a great concern to him. His firstgreat book addresses these issues, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. These ideas reappear a decade and a halflater in The Wealth of Nations, though they take different forms. Smith asks how we might create a web of balanced relations that enables all to prosper fairly without favoritism and without disadvantage.

If we consider Smith’s own views without distorting them through the views of people who use his work selectively, we see many issues that apply to communities and to networks. I titled my chapter in Norie Neumark and Anne-Marie Chandler’s book on networked art as an homage to Smith. “The Wealth and Poverty of Networks” plays off the title of Adam Smith’s classic 1776 text, The Wealth of Nations. Smith was a moral philosopher before he became the first economist. The title referred to both aspects of Smith’s work.

As Amartya Sen (2009) noted in an elegant essay in the New York Review of Books, contemporary economists and politicians distort Smith’s views to their own political ends. Around the same time, Sen – a Nobel laureate in economics and a distinguished philosopher – wrote a new introduction to Smith’s Moral Sentiments.

The point of my chapter in Chandler and Neumark was that networks are not disconnected events that serve goals in a magical way. Again, you will find the book chapter (Friedman 2005) at this URL:

Effective networks require continuous investment. This involves communities and the flow of human energy that keeps networks alive. Understanding these issues requires research – but research involves far more than turning our attention to something we don’t know.

Now this is where we get back to Robert Filliou and research.

What research meant to Robert after a few years studying economics at UCLA must have been quite different to anything that made human sense to him. All those folks who seemed to know something were not building a better world in any sense that he understood. To me, looking back, economics, which was classified as a behavioral science, had nearly nothing to do with the empirical, conceptual, or theoretical study of human behavior.

An oracular and nearly mystical statement of the kind attributed to Robert would probably make sense in the context of the world that Robert left to become an artist: “Every time we turn our attention to what we don’t know, we are doing research. … Research is not the domain of those who know; on the contrary it is the domain of those who do not know.” As it is, I’d be curious to know the sources for these statements. I couldn’t find anything quite like this in the three books I have still by Robert (Brecht and Filliou 1967, Filliou 1965,Filliou 1970).

Whether he said this or not, though, this kind of statement is a truth – but only a partial truth. To say, “every time we turn our attention to what we don’t know, we are doing research” is only partially true. People can turn their attention to what they don’t know in puzzlement without finding an answer or trying to find one. They can write stories, make myths, or shape fables as answers. I’d argue that a great deal of what we see in politics, for example, masks ignorance with fable … Hardly anyone would label the confabulations of right-wing politicians as research, yet they are, indeed, turning their attention to “what they don’t know” in an effort to solve serious policy problems.

And this leads to the second troubling statement, that “research is not the domain of those who know; on the contrary it is the domain of those who do not know.” For years, people explained the causes of such problems as depressions, recessions, and even famines without serious reference to empirical data. Economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Krugman, Elinor Ostrom, and Amartya Sen have demonstrated new and better answers through the painstaking accumulation ofempirical data and reasoned argument from evidence. These people do know something, and the answers to what we don’t know are built on the evidence of what we have learned.

Rather than describing research as the domain of those who don’t know or those who know, it is more useful to describe research as a process that asks questions in a systematic way. The systems vary by field and purpose. There are many kinds of research in the natural and social sciences and in the humanities. In addition to analytical, statistical, and mathematical traditions for empirical and theoretical research in physics, chemistry, medicine, biology, engineering, and more, the social sciences and humanities offer a massive range of research traditions –hermeneutic, naturalistic, statistical, analytical, historical, sociological, ethnographic, ethnological, philosophical and many more. These traditions draw on many methods and traditions. Each has its own foundations and values. All involve some form of systematic inquiry, and all involve formal theorizing and inquiry of some kind that usually goes beyond the specific research at hand to bridge the unknown to the known, fitting it into a larger picture of the world.

Research is neither what we know nor what we don’t know. Research is the “methodical search for knowledge. Original research tackles new problems or checks previous findings. Rigorous research is the mark of science, technology, and the ‘living’ branches of the humanities” (Bunge 1999: 251). Exploration, investigation, and inquiry are synonyms for research.

Webster’s Dictionary defines research with elegant simplicity. The English noun dates from 1577 from an Old French verb, “recerchier” meaning “to investigate thoroughly.” For Webster’s, research means: “1: careful or diligent search, 2: studious inquiry or examination; especially: investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws, 3: the collecting of information about a particular subject” (Merriam-Webster’s 1993: 1002).

The word research is linked to the word and concept of search in general. Merriam-Webster’s (1993: 1059) defines the word search: “1: to look into or over carefully or thoroughly in an effort to find or discover something: as a: to examine in seeking something <searched the north field>, b: to look through or explore by inspecting possible places of concealment or investigating suspicious circumstances, c: to read thoroughly: CHECK; especially: to examine a public record or register for information about <search land titles>, d: to examine for articles concealed on the person, e: to look at as if to discover or penetrate intention or nature, 2: to uncover, find, or come to know by inquiry or scrutiny – usually used without intransitive senses, 1: to look or inquire carefully <searched for the papers> 2: to make painstaking investigation or examination.”

The notion of research as the domain of those who “don’t know” has a glorious historical provenance. Socrates, the teacher of Plato, claimed to be wise only in knowing what he did not know (Plato 1997: 21-22). But Socrates came to suspect that he had little aptitude for knowing and not knowing about most issues other than ethics. In the Phaedo, Socrates describes his early curiosity about the sciences, feeling that it would be quite splendid to know the explanation of everything, why things come into being, why they perish, why and what they are (Plato 1997b: 83-84). But explanation makes empirical demands, and Socratessoon came to believe that he had no way to know about many things he did not know.

Plato’s student Aristotle understood this, and to learn things, he became a practitioner ofempirical observation. Although limited by human imperfection and availabletechnology, Aristotle was concerned with apprehending the mortal, physical world in an attempt to explain. As much an empirical biologist as a speculative philosopher (Morowitz 1993: 160-163), Aristotle was ill served by the scholastic philosophers who neglected Aristotle’s research and writing on the life sciences and social sciences.

Nevertheless, something was missing, even in Aristotle – experimentation. Of the “three great conceptual approaches to science – observation, experimentation, and theory – experimentation was unknown to the classical Greek savants. They worked back and forth between observation and theory and therefore lacked the powerful weapon of falsification to prune wrong theories” (Morowitz 1993: 161-2). Plato’s science stood on one leg, Aristotle’s on two. In the great age of physics, Galileo, Newton, and Bacon developed the concept of robust experiment. This made scientific progress possible by stabilizing scientific method with its third leg. Experiment allows us to choose among alternative theories, moving in increasingly better directions. But Newton’s physics functioned in a deterministic, linear Cartesian framework of absolute space and time, and it took several centuries of scientific experiment to recognize that many problems are non-linear. It has only been in the past few decades that economics took on such forms of inquiry as behavioral economics or complexity theory. Major contributions by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, or Sendhil Mullainathan have begun to reconfigure how economists think about the world of human action, while economists such as Eric Beinhocker, Doyne Farmer, and Brian Arthur approacheconomics using complexity theory. None of this work was on the horizon when Robert studied economics, and he died well before most of it became visible – let alone influential.

It is possible to think about Robert as a kind of modern Socrates, even to the point of asking questions. Of course, the questions in such books as Ample Food for Stupid Thought (Filliou 1965) weren’t focused of what people do or why, as was the case for Socrates.

Paul Johnson’s short and lively biography of Socrates points to the fact that Greek science lacked experiment, a way to find out what one might not know (Johnson 2011: 77-78). Interestingly, Johnson hints at but does not describe a different way of understanding empirical forces that emerge in the technological arts – the techne – of the ancient Greeks. Johnson (2011: 48-52) describes the slight curvature departing from straight lines that gave to the Parthenon its dynamic sense of tension and a feeling of organic life.

The more to be said about research, about knowing and not knowing, but I won’t say it here.

What is worth saying is that research is a way of asking questions. All forms of research ask questions, basic, applied, and clinical. The different forms and levels of research ask questions in different ways. To ask good questions requires a balance between what we know and what we do not know, and it requires a well-balanced combination of heuristics, experience, and methodological sensitivity.

Perhaps Robert would have had a different view of research if he had lived a bit longer. Perhaps not. Research is a part of the world of illusion from which Buddhism ought properly to liberate us. But then, this is also the case of art. It never seemed to me that Robert Filliou was a Buddhist monk in the sense that Leonard Cohen was. Robert took far greater risks in life. Despite the fact that hisviews on research and economics were lodged in a moment in time, his views of life were lodged in eternity.


Ken Friedman, PhD, DSc (hc), FDRS | University Distinguished Professor | Swinburne University of Technology | Melbourne, Australia | [log in to unmask] | Mobile +61 404 830 462 | Home Page

Guest Professor | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China



Brecht, George, and Robert Filliou. 1967. Games at the Cedille, or the Cedille Takes Off. New York: Something Else Press.

Bunge, Mario. 1999. The Dictionary of Philosophy. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.

Filliou, Robert. 1965. Ample Food for Stupid Thought. New York: Something Else Press.

Filliou, Robert. 1970. Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts. Koln: Verlag Gebr. Konig.

Friedman, Ken. 2005. “The Wealth and Poverty of Networks.” At A Distance: Precursors to Internet Art and Activism. Annemarie Chandler and Norie Neumark, editors. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 408-422.

Johnson, Paul. 2011. Socrates. A Man for Our Times. New York: Viking.

Plato. 1997a [ca. 400 BCE]. “The Apology.” G.M.A. Grube, trans. Plato: Complete Works. John M. Cooper, ed. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, pp. 17-36.

Plato. 1997b [ca. 400 BCE]. “Phaedo.” G.M.A. Grube, trans. Plato: Complete Works. John M. Cooper, ed. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, pp. 49-100.

Sen, Amartya. 2009. “Capitalism Beyond the Crisis.” New York Review of Books. 26 Mar. 2009. Web. Feb. 24 2012.