A Situated Historicity: or, a Brief Explanation of Why We Are Actually Able to Know Things

There is, floating about in the space of reasons, a family of arguments (or something like arguments) that has caused no shortage of ink to be spilled in the last century. This family of arguments turns on a simple principle: since we can only know things as they appear to us, we cannot know things in themselves. Let ‘appear to us’ cover a multitude of theses: falling under our concepts, our historical condition, forms of perception, their historical relation to us. In one way or another, things in themselves are closed off from us by the very things that make them knowable. There is just a whiff of pop-postmodernism here in that there is no vantage point outside of the ‘appear to us’, no final, a priori court of appeals. The only vantage point is within the condition in which we find ourselves, and this condition is a firmly historical one. All the theses mentioned above – concepts, relations, perception – are historical and since any knowledge we have comes by way of these theses, all our knowledge is historical. Thus, if all our knowledge is historical, then there is no fixed, necessary, immutable principles by which we may know – no detatched, disemboided a priori, context-free, unconditioned knowing.

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Notes on Theological Knowledge

There is no small chance that Matthew 16:15-17 contains all that is necessary for a theological epistemology. The knowledge of Jesus that is articulated here is a product of nothing else than God’s own activity, God’s own revealing action, within the context of reconciliation. There are a number of things that can be drawn out here. First, the knowledge of God that is articulated here is a product of grace: God’s own free action to reveal himself. It is only through God’s own action that God is revealed. This first point implies a second point: that if the knowledge of God is had by grace alone, it is a gift. A third point: knowledge of God is knowledge of God, and as such revelation of God is revelation of reconciliation. We can even go a bit further than that and say, with Barth, that revelation is reconciliation. Fourth: if revelation is reconciliation, then necessarily the setting for revelation is the covenant within which God acts towards the world (the covenant is the internal basis of creation and creation is the external basis of the covenant). Continue reading

Ruminations on Essences and Modal Epistemology

A neo-Aristotelian account of modal epistemology is one which is built on the idea of essences – that is, prior to both ontology and epistemology is a things real definition:

…one way to understand real definitions is to take them to be expressed by propositions which tell us what a given entity is or would be. (Tuomas Tahko, An Introduction to Metametaphysics, p. 163)

An essence is a things real definition – it is what it is, to put it another way. The cash value of this is basically that to know an essence is simply to know what a given thing is:

To know something’s essence is not to be acquainted with some further thing of a special kind, but simply to understand what exactly that thing is. This, indeed, is why knowledge of essence is possible, for it is a product simply of understanding, not of empirical observation, much less of some mysterious kind of quasiperceptual acquaintance with esoteric entities of any sort. And, on pain of incoherence, we cannot deny that we understand what at least some things are, and thereby know their essences. (Lowe, Two Notions of Being, p. 39, quoted in An Introduction to Metametaphysics, p. 164)

An interesting question for an epistemology of essence identified by Tahko is just how much of an essence do we need to grasp in order to have an accurate picture of its existence and identity? A question I would add is, does this leave room for error if we take ‘grasp’ to have a classical Aristotelian meaning, where the mind abstracts the universal from the particular. Another area where I’d question is exactly what the role of the empirical is here, especially when regarding natural kinds like gold – where does the a priori start and the a posteriori start, or vice versa? The above is clearly a priori and largely rationalistic, and so would bode well for modal epistemologies of, say, abstract objects (as well as counterfactuals, with which most modal epistemology is done), but what of actual, concrete objects, for which empirical data is needed? To what extent are our conterfactuals constrained by the empirical?

I don’t want to go so far as to say that we need an account of essences, at least in Aristotelian terms, because there’s a lot of metaphysical baggage there that can be questioned, but a neo-Aristotelian account of essence may certainly help as far as modal epistemology goes. Tahko goes on to suggest a combination of both a priori and a posteriori but is somewhat pessimistic about how well the distinctions actually serve here. The payoff here, however, is that an account of essences may serve to bolster a modal epistemology by combining the empirical with the rationalistic. Timothy Williamson suggests that ‘constitutive facts’ (basically, background knowledge that stays constant when we consider counterfactuals) may play an important role. Constitutive facts ‘fix’, as it were, our modal considerations by showing that any counterfactual without such a constitutive fact would generate a contradiction (gold having a different atomic number than 79, for instance). Tahko suggests that an account of essences would supplement an account of constitutive facts by showing us just what facts actually are constitutive – thus, we can think of essences as non-modal constitutive facts.


Barth and Torrance, Epistemology and Methodology

Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance are known for their scientific realist approach to theology and methodology. Here I want to subject their methodology to close scrutiny, and in doing so, I’m going to argue that, at a formal level, Barth/Torrance’s theological epistemology is implicitly built on both a kind of dualism and that Torrance’s method is a priori committed to a specific interpretation of realism that hindered his own engagement with both the sciences and the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Here I want to see if the Barth/Torrance thesis can be illuminated by way of the McDowell-Dreyfus debate, and then examine Barth/Torrance’s realist methodology for doing theology by looking at Torrance’s own critical engagement with the natural sciences.
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Theology’s Necessary Propositional Content

Either Gods revelation does or doesn’t have some degree of propositional content. If it does, then it can be ‘analyzed’ if we make that content explicit. From there, we can examine the propositional content in such a way that it can either be rejected or accepted. If it can be accepted, then it is true, and if its true, then it’s a fact. And thus, we can comprehend it. This wouldn’t turn on rationalism vs. empiricism – you’d have to argue that revelation doesn’t have propositional content – which is quite a thing to argue – in order to falsify it. And if it’s argued that revelation qualitativly different, then it’s a stretch, if not entirely false to call it propositional, and if it can be known as true or false, then it’s not qualitativly different.

Normative and Evaluative Justification in Belief-Practice

Or, a gloss on William Alston’s essay, ‘Christian Experience and Christian Belief’.

– Call it J(N) when we think of epistemic justification in terms of norms of intellectual obligation. This is primarily a negative justification – doing your intellectual duty means doing what is allowed. As Alston puts it:

‘Stated most generally, this is the notion of not having violated one’s intellectual obligations. We have to say “not having violated” rather than “having fulfilled” because in all normative spheres, not just the epistemic, being justified is a negative status; it consists in one’s behavior not being in violation of the norms; otherwise put, it consists in what one has done being permitted by the relevant norms, rules and regulations.’ (‘Christian Experience and Christian Belief’, in ‘Faith and Rationality’, pp. 113-114)

– Call it J(E) when we think of justification in terms of belief formation occurring in circumstances such that the belief is likely to be true. Alston says that:

‘…it is rather to assess her condition as a desirable or a favourable one from an epistemic point of view, vis-a-vis the aim at the attainment of truth and the avoidance of falsity…S is justified in the evaluative (E) sense in holding a certain belief provided that the relevant circumstances in which that belief is held are such that the belief is at least likely to be true.’ (pp. 115)

– On this account, a belief can be J(N) without it being J(E), and vice versa.

– J(N) can be expanded into J(NS) – we are justified iff we have an adequate reason (to hold the belief) – and J(NW) – we are justified unless we have an adequate reason (to reject the belief). J(NS) = guilty until proven innocent, J(NW) = innocent until proven guilty.

– Alston concludes that, so far as non-circular justification goes, J(NW) is the best we can do. In a somewhat Wittgenstein-ish vein, he argues that perceptual practices – practices of forming beliefs on the basis of experience proves itself:

‘Perceptual practice proves itself, insofar as it does, by providing us with a “map” of the physical and social environment that enables us to find our way around in it, anticipate the course of events, and to adjust our behaviour to what we encounter so as to satisfy our needs and achieve our ends. This is the basic function of sense perception in our lives, and it carries out that function with reasonable success, as it itself testifies.’ (pp. 131)

– I think we can call this ‘internal self-justification’ – the justification is internal to the practice. Perhaps we might call it coherentism-in-practice?

An Epistemic Story, pt. I

A genealogy in philosophy is a dangerous undertaking. The historical roads are long, winding and overlapping, often doubling back and forth. However, I think a genealogy of epistemology, frought with danger though it is, can be reasonably established along the following lines.

Epistemic anxiety (EA) tends to be thought of as a fairly modern phenomena, generally emerging with Descartes. This anxiety, possibly more than anything else, defines modern philosophy. How do we know? What do we know? Do we, in fact, know things? This is not, however, a strictly modern attitude. As much as we like to think of epistemic anxiety as a post-cartesian condition, it is quite clearly something that afflicts the ancients.

I think we can establish something that looks like this: EA afflicted the ancients, did not afflict the medievals until the later medieval era, and reemerged with a vengeance by the dawn of the modern era. Consider Plato as a case study in the ancient era.

Plato is interesting in that he combines what we would call metaphysics and epistemology – if we were to divide his theory of knowledge in half, one half would be a modern-esque question of justification – what justifies a person in making a knowledge claim – and the other would be a near-kantian question – what must the world be like given the fact that we do know things? His epistemology is inseparable from his metaphysics, and though a large part of Plato’s writing is spent teasing out the question of justification (Socrates being the star of this particular show), just as much if not more time is spent on the metaphysical aspect of the question of knowledge, where this cashes out to his ‘theory of forms’. Here we have a metaphysical (we might today call it a ‘transcendental’) explanation of knowledge and the possibility of knowledge (taken to task by Aristotle, but that’s another story for another day).

Now, as we move to the medieval era, let us take Aquinas and William of Ockham as case studies in both non-skepticism and the beginning of skepticism.

What appears to happen is that by the medieval era, epistemology is separated from (but grounded in) metaphysics, and becomes wedded to psychology, Aquinas being the key example of this. As Fr. Copleston notes, it is futile to look for, in Aquinas, a proof of the certainty of knowledge or a rebuttal against subjective knowledge on favour of objective knowledge. The problem for Aquinas is how to justify and safeguard metaphysics, as opposed to justification of belief in the external world. Knowledge at this point in philosophical history seems to be simply given. Indeed, there are skeptics of knowledge of God – Scotus and Aquinas both argue that we can, in fact, have knowledge of God – but not skeptics of knowledge by itself. However, towards the end of the Middle Ages, loosely situated around William of Ockham, epistemic skepticism slowly begins taking shape – Gilson traces the twofold nature of this skepticism (epistemic and metaphysical, having to do with Ockham’s empiricism in both epistemology and causality, both of which were, if not entailed then strongly implied, by his nominalism) in ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’. Simply put, Gilson locates the error of Ockham in his proto-humean psychologism – that is, the mistaking of the’ description of our ways of knowing with the correct description of reality itself’, (p 71). Gilson argues that a consequence of psychologism is that, ‘Left without objective justification, human knowledge becomes a mere system of useful conventions, whose practical success remains a complete mystery to the minds of the very scientists who made it.’ (p. 72)

The space is thus cleared for the setting of the stage of modern epistemic anxiety – though some hundreds of years in the future, as Gilson astutely notes, once Ockham’s thought took root in the universities of Europe, medieval philosophy was on, ‘the straight road to skepticism’. (p. 72)