Reasons for Knowing Knowledge

There are many theories of what knowledge is. That is clear enough from the past 400 years of philosophy, never mind the thousands before that. What has drawn less interest is that there are different reasons we may wish to know what knowledge is.

René Descartes and David Hume were quite clear on why they wanted to know of knowledge. Though they had radically different theories of knowledge, each believed that epistemology was necessary to shore up the foundations of other fields. From this perspective, historians and physicists and linguists need to wait around for philosophers to sort out how they can tell if they actually know anything about their fields. That is the central conceit of the so-called “demarcation problem,” for example.

It is against this sort of epistemology that Richard Rorty framed his pragmatism as anti-authoritarian. Imagine historians thinking they were the authorities on statecraft or politics. It’s laughable. Much has been said about the value of knowing history so one doesn’t repeat past mistakes, but to think of history as primarily a source of practical insights is to seriously misunderstand the field. I have to wonder if anyone who suggests such a thing has ever actually read a history book. Or, on the flipside, perhaps they are a little too well read in history and too short on practical experience. In any event, one needs to be deeply disconnected from either history as it is written, or the practical affairs of the world, to think that the former could be a manual for the latter, or that historians are in a special position to tell practitioners how to do what they do.

To Rorty, the image of philosophers lecturing scientists on when they can know they know anything in their own fields is even more absurd than the image of the historian telling politicians and public officials how to do their jobs. Scholars and scientists did not wait around for the perfect theory of knowledge to be developed before getting to work. And the notion that outsiders to those fields are in a position to dictate the terms of inquiry for insiders is highly questionable. I won’t reconstruct Rorty’s argument here, but suffice it to say that he sees epistemology of the Cartesian and Humean sort as a sort of will-to-tyranny over other disciplines.

His pragmatism is cast as a liberation of the disciplines to pursue their own discourses on the terms negotiated by fellow practitioners, rather than by interfering outsiders. Its value is akin to the counter-punch in boxing; rather than making the first move, it comes as a response. If we imagine historians and physicists minding their own business and pursuing their work, when a interlocutor comes along with an argument drawing on philosophical positivism or related frameworks, pragmatism is the tool to get that interlocutor to back down.  It nullifies the stultifying effects of tyrannical philosophy, rather than offering a substantive alternative.

Because he deflates all of philosophy’s big claims to value, Rorty concludes that there’s little use for philosophy any longer, except as a field of caretakers for a set of classic texts. This is where I must part ways with him.

I look instead to Hans-Georg Gadamer, the pivotal figure in 20th century hermeneutics. Like Rorty, Gadamer didn’t see his theory of interpretation as a guidebook for the social scientists whose fields he discussed in the course of Truth and Method and other works. He had no interest in dictating the terms of inquiry for practitioners. And like Rorty, in as much as it has practical value, it is of the counter-punch variety. Unlike Rorty, however, Gadamer views hermeneutics as discipline itself, as legitimate a field of inquiry as history. Like history, it is a study of human doings. Yet as hinted above, the relationship between these fields and practical insight is a complex one. Gadamer no doubt underplayed the practical value of hermeneutics, but, as mentioned, historians and especially history enthusiasts too often overplay the practical significance of history.

The reasons for knowing knowledge, interpretation, or history that align with the spirit of inquiry in these fields is much more indeterminate than something as simple as generating practical know-how. It is more like satisfying intellectual curiosity, or attempting to deepen your knowledge of the human story, or simply taking pleasure in developing and exercising the skills of inquiry and argument in a specific domain. I would sum up this non-authoritarian (contra Descartes and Hume) but non-eliminative (contra Rorty) sort of reason as seeking wisdom. That is an appropriately vague and indeterminate answer for the question I wished to pose in this post.

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