… and I am saying it

Excerpt from a paper given at the 8th International Network for Psychiatric Nursing Research conference, Oxford University, September 2002

In 1949, the musician John Cage gave a talk entitled Lecture on Nothing that began ‘I am here, and there is nothing to say’. Later in the talk, he added ‘there is nothing to say and I am saying it’, a sentiment epitomised in perhaps his most famous composition 4 minutes and 33 seconds for piano, in which the performer sits at the piano, lifts the lid, and does nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds before closing the lid again. Cage ended this Lecture on Nothing with the following words: ‘All I know about method is that when I am not working I sometimes think I know something, but when I am working, it is quite clear that I know nothing’. Cage was talking about the method of composition, but I suspect that his remark applies equally to method in general. This, for me, is a familiar feeling. I have experienced it as a practitioner, as a teacher and as a researcher. When I plan beforehand, when I reflect afterwards, I sometimes think I know something. But when I am working, I realise that I know nothing about how I am practising, about my modus operandi, my method of work. In a very real sense, then, I have nothing to say, at least, I have nothing to say about what I do for a living. But I am going to say it anyway. (Rolfe 2002)

I believe that Cage was right: when I am not working I sometimes think I know something, that I have something to say, but when I am in the midst of practice I realise that this is an illusion. I only truly know when I am engaged in doing.

This sentiment resonates with John Dewey’s assertion that knowledge is not something that we can possess, it is not something to be found in books, reproduced in essays and applied to practice. For Dewey, it makes little sense to think of knowledge as existing independently of people or of human inquiry. To know something is to enter into an active relationship with it; it is a process of experimentation, of trying things out to see what happens. As Dewey said, ‘we learn by doing and realising what came of what we did’. Knowing and doing are therefore two aspects of the same activity. It is only when I am in the midst of practice that I know, and in that sense, knowledge is created in and by practice. Knowledge is a form of practice, or at least, an essential and integral component of practice. This is as true for the practice of writing as it is for the practice of nursing. As Max van Manen noted: ‘not until we had written this down did we quite know what we knew’. 

The purpose of this blog is not to tell you what I know. It is not even to tell myself what I already knew. It is to initiate a process of knowing through doing, of coming to know through dialogue, debate and dissensus which everyone is invited to join.

I am here and there is nothing to say, but I am going to say it anyway.