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)

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McDowell on Plato and Empiricism

‘What figures in plato as a distance between mere appearance and reality is not the distance that generates the characteristic anxiety of modern epistemology. Perhaps both Platonic and the Cartesian conceptions can be captured in terms of an image of  penetrating a veil of appearance and putting ourselves in touch with reality, but the image works differently in the two contexts. In the Platonic context, appearance does not figure as something that after all constitutes access to knowable reality, although it takes philosophy to show us how it can do so. Philosophy in Plato does not show how to bridge a gulf between appearance and an empirically knowable reality: it does not picture appearance as an avenue to knowledge at all. Correspondingly, the acknowledged and embraced remoteness of the knowable in Plato is quite unlike the threatened, but to be overcome, remoteness of the knowable in modern philosophy. Plato is nothing like a Cartesian sceptic or a British empiricist.’ (John McDowell, ‘The Engaged Intellect’, p. 207)

Emotional Intelligence

In a fascinating essay, it’s argued that Aquinas viewed human understanding of the world as a unified dynamic of reason and emotion in action. Here’s a few thoughts on that subject (this isn’t a gloss on the essay, though)

– Meaning is bound up with emotion – it’s through emotion that we understand and even perceive a situation as a situation, and it’s through emotion that our experience itself is shaped.

– The trick here is to not think in terms of faculty psychology – there’s not one faculty, emotion, and another, reason (or intelligence here), with one being more important than the other. In fact, as Paul Moes argues in a fascinating article on emotional regulation , the two, far from being competing faculties, are simply differing aspects of one, unified dynamic. Moes cites a number of clinical cases in which brain damage caused a patient who suffered an assault caused serious problems in her ability to reason precisely because of the impact the assault had on her emotions:

‘It is not that Phillipa is incapable of learning or appreciating the cognitive aspects of social rules, or that she does not have any creative capacity, it is that she has become emotionally disconnected from these events. So, for Phillipa, external events do not trigger the normal internal signals (at least as processed at the cortical level) as part of a feedback system telling us that our actions may be inappropriate, that we should alter our strategy, or that we should consider an alternative understanding of a situation. In sum, without an appreciation for the emotional feedback from others, and the internal emotional consequences of our actions, we fail to make reasonable and responsible judgments concerning the world.’

–  So emotional feedback from others is crucial to our being able to reason and to make judgements – or, perhaps more importantly, to be able to judge things as things of importance, or to be able to reason in a responsible way.

– Taking a page or two from Aquinas, we might say that the ‘understanding’ of reality means being informed both by appetites and goals as well as the external world. To this let us add, the understanding is also informed by emotion.

– Emotion develops and emerges primarily socially – this is hinted at in the quoted paragraph above on emotional feedback. Moes cites a number of important points in the social emergence of emotion made by Piaget –  a key one being that concepts developed on one’s own, as it were, are more fully and more completely understood when the individual is part of a group:

‘Piaget felt that human mental processes such as schemata and groupement are parallel to mathematical principles. For example, the mathematical formula, A + (-A) = 0, is a corollary to the idea that objects or their representations have constancy and that there is reversibility to concepts. He felt that children gradually acquire these more abstract concepts through interaction with the world, but more importantly through interaction with people. So by age six or seven, children understand the schema of constancy, i.e., an object retains its mass, despite a change in shape. The child also begins to learn that if he has a sibling, that the sibling has him or her as a sibling (i.e., reversibility)—something a typical three-year-old does not understand. The notion of groupement not only captures some presumed final state of affairs (i.e., a cognitive abstraction or schema), but also the process and conditions through which that abstraction occurs. The abstraction is accomplished through the interaction with significant others whereby the child comes to a more complete understanding of the concept than would be possible from a single perspective. The process is considered complete when the child no longer requires additional input or interaction to form a complete working model that appears to accurately represent the process or situation.’

– We can see how a loss of social, emotional feedback would be a hindrance in the reasoning process – a lack of such feedback would entail a lack of ability to fully reason and understand the world.

– This conclusion isn’t reached because emotion is more important than reason, but because reason and emotion are one, unified way of understanding the world.

T.F. Torrance on Kant and Theoretic Structures

‘There is certainly a profound element of truth here, the fact that in all our knowing there is a real interplay between what we know and out knowing of it. Man himself is a part of nature and is so intimately related to nature that he plays a formative, and nature a productive, role in scientific inquiry, discovery and interpretation. This is everywhere apparent in the magnificent achievements of empirical and theoretic science, but the way in which Kant himself combined the theoretical and empirical components of the epistemic process has grave consequences.

It is certainly to be granted that we do not apprehend things apart from a theoretic structure, but if the theoretic structure actually determines what we apprehend, then what we apprehend provides no control over our understanding. The one way out of that impasse requires a theoretic structure which, while affecting our knowledge, is derived from the intrinsic intelligibility of what we seek to know, and is open to constant revision through reference to the inner determinations of things as they come to view in the process of inquiry. But this is ruled out by the Kantian thesis that the theoretic structure is aprioristically independent of what we apprehend and that there is no possible knowledge of things in their own inner determinations or relations.

While Kant was certainly concerned to show the limits of the pure reason, his theory of knowledge served to reinforce the Enlightenment doctrine of the autonomous reason (e.g. in its Lockean and Cartesian forms alike) and even to exalt it into a position beyond what had hitherto been claimed, where through prescriptive legislation it subdued nature to the forms of its own rational necessities. As F.C.S. Northrop expressed it: ‘For neither Locke nor Hume was the human person as a knower a positively acting creating being. With Kant the position is entirely changed. Apart from the knowing person, which Kant termed “the ego”, the a priori forms of sensibility and categories of the understanding which this ego brings to the contingent data of sense, there would be no single space-time world whatever, with its public, material objects and knowers. In this fashion Kant transforms modern man’s conception of himself from a merely passive into a systematically active and creative being.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, p. 42, reformatted for ease of reading)

A Problem for Direct Realism

Here I take a central thesis of a direct realism theory of perception to be the idea that if we are directly aware of objects, and not a sense-datum or idea, then we have to say that things such as colour must be such that reference can be made to them without reference to any subjective or phenomenal experience of perceivers- we cannot reference colour except by way of referencing it as we experience it, ergo phenomenal concepts. However, how can colour be referenced in a way that avoids phenomenal concepts and still be about colour in any coherent way?

John McDowell explains further, referencing J.L. Mackie’s view of primary and secondary qualities (in which experiences of, say, red do not need to be understood in terms of the experiences the red object gives rise to):

‘According to Mackie, this conception of primary qualities that resemble colours as we see them is coherent; that nothing is characterized by such qualities is established by merely empirical argument. But is the idea coherent? This would require two things: first, that colours figure in perceptual experience experience neutrally, so to speak, rather than as essentially phenomenal qualities of objects, qualities that could not be adequately conceived except in terms of how their possessors would look; and, second, that we command a concept of resemblance that would enable us to construct notions of primary qualities out of the idea of resemblance to such neutral elements of experience. The first of these is quite dubious…But even if we try to let it pass, the second seems to be impossible. Starting with, say, redness as it (putatively neutrally) figures in our experience, we are asked to form the notion of a feature of objects which resembles that, but which is adequately conceivable otherwise than in terms of how its possessors would look (since if it were adequately conceivable only in those terms it would be secondary). But the second part of these instructions leaves it wholly mysterious what to make of the first: it precludes the required resemblance being in phenomenal respects, but it is quite unclear what other sense we could make of the notion of resemblance to redness as it figures in our experience.’ (‘Values and Secondary Qualities’, in ‘Essays on Moral Realism’, ed. Geoffrey Sayre-Mccord, p. 169)

I think the following argument can thus be extracted:

Direct realism holds that reference to colour (or any phenomenal quality) can be made apart from phenomenal concepts – or, there is a neutral figuring in experience for colour.

We cannot reference colour except by way of phenomenal concepts – or, there is no neutral figuring in experience for colour.

Therefore, a direct realism theory of perception is false.

Kant and Non-Materialistic Naturalism

Kant is, interestingly enough, concerned to uphold naturalism without materialism. While this seems odd at first blush, his reasons for doing so are fairly interesting and constitute a universally acknowledged important (though to what degree it’s successful is somewhat more in doubt) project. Let’s bracket to the side the fact that Kant has only a small number of not-so-good arguments for his position as well as some serious questions of coherence and see just what happens when we dig through his thought.

In more contemporary terms, metaphysical naturalism generally cashes out to a kind of materialism or physicalism – the only things that there are are material things (or, if we want to Quine things up, whatever we’re committed to by our best theories). It is, at its broadest, non-supernaturalism. The physical, causal order is all there is, in one way or another.

Kant was a naturalist in a slightly different sense: he took everything to be governed by mechanical laws but wanted to resist and undermine the assumption of materialism, which is more or less one of the driving reasons behind his transcendental idealism, which may be best understood as contrasting with its opposite, transcendental realism.

As I see Kant, he means two things by ‘transcendental realism’ (TR). (1) The epistemological thesis that we are fully aware of of the limitations of our own mind and can thus know the things in themselves, and (2) the metaphysical thesis that things exist in time and space apart from human cognition.This is a problem because the mathematical and mechanical laws of nature, on this scheme, govern literally every thing, including the things in themselves – and from this, Kant takes it, follows materialism.

Kant’s idealism needs little introduction, but setting it against TR, we can see that the basic gist is that (1) we aren’t fully aware of the limitations of our mind and can’t know the things in themselves and (2) the objects of our experience, things in time and space, exist as a result of our cognition and conceptual activity.

What this doctrine secures is this: a naturalism without materialism. How? By restricting the mathematical and mechanical laws of nature to the objects of our experience, Kant has protected the things in themselves from being naturalized or material-ized.

Put another way: if we can experience or know the things in themselves, then the universal laws of nature apply to them, because they apply to everything. By restricting our knowledge and experience from the things in themselves, Kant has both secured his naturalism (because the laws of nature apply to everything we experience) and attacked materialism (by showing that the universal laws of nature do not apply to everything).

If Kant is right then, naturalism is correct in the sense that universal laws govern everything we experience – but by restricting this to the appearances, he can both avoid and attack materialism, since the laws apply only to our experience and not to the things in themselves. Thus, while everything we expereince is ‘natural’, not everything is in nature.

Postmodernism, a Failure of Nerve?

‘Postmodernists nearly all reject classical foundationalism; in this they concur with most Christian thinkers and most contemporary philosophers. Momentously enough, however, many postmodernists apparently believe that the demise of classical foundationalism implies something far more startling: that there is no such thing as truth at all, no way things really are. Why make that leap, when as a matter of logic it clearly doesn’t follow? For various reasons, no doubt. Prominent among those reasons is a sort of Promethean desire not to live in a world we have not ourselves constituted or structured. With the early Heidegger, a postmodern may refuse to feel at home in any world he hasn’t himself created.

 Now some of this may be a bit hard to take seriously (it may seem less Promethean defiance than foolish posturing); so here is another possible reason. As I pointed out, classical foundationalism arose out of uncertainty, conflict, and clamorous (and rancorous) disagreement; it emerged at a time when everyone did what was right (epistemically speaking) in his own eyes. Now life without sure and secure foundations is frightening and unnerving; hence Descartes’s fateful effort to find a sure and solid footing for the beliefs with which he found himself. (Hence also Kant’s similar effort to find an irrefragable foundation for science.)

Such Christian thinkers as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Kuyper, however, recognize that there aren’t any certain foundations of the sort Descartes sought—or, if there are, they are exceedingly slim, and there is no way to transfer their certainty to our important non-foundational beliefs about material objects, the past, other persons, and the like. This is a stance that requires a certain epistemic hardihood: there is, indeed, such a thing as truth; the stakes are, indeed, very high (it matters greatly whether you believe the truth); but there is no way to be sure that you have the truth; there is no sure and certain method of attaining truth by starting from beliefs about which you can’t be mistaken and moving infallibly to the rest of your beliefs. Furthermore, many others reject what seems to you to be most important. This is life under uncertainty, life under epistemic risk and fallibility. I believe a thousand things, and many of them are things others—others of great acuity and seriousness—do not believe. Indeed, many of the beliefs that mean the most to me are of that sort. I realize I can be seriously, dreadfully, fatally wrong, and wrong about what it is enormously important to be right. That is simply the human condition: my response must be finally, “Here I stand; this is the way the world looks to me.”

There is, however, another sort of reaction possible here. If it is painful to live at risk, under the gun, with uncertainty but high stakes, maybe the thing to do is just reduce or reject the stakes. If, for example, there just isn’t any such thing as truth, then clearly one can’t go wrong by believing what is false or failing to believe what is true. If we reject the very idea of truth, we needn’t feel anxious about whether we’ve got it. So the thing to do is dispense with the search for truth and retreat into projects of some other sort: self-creation and self-redefinition as with Nietzsche and Heidegger, or Rortian irony, or perhaps playful mockery, as with Derrida. So taken, postmodernism is a kind of failure of epistemic nerve.’ (Alvin Plantinga, ‘Warranted Christian Belief)