Thursday, June 5, 2014

Kornblith (ed) Naturalizing Epistemology, and Stich: "Naturalizing Epistemology: Quine, Simon and the Prospects for Pragmatism"

I've been dabbling more and more in academic philosophy, specifically epistemology, some of which seems like it might have some use to the world.  In my 62 years, I've never been much drawn to people calling themselves philosophers, but one day many years ago, it occurred to me that, in what I was calling a "Truth Project", I was trying to do "practical epistemology" (for some idea of "Impractical epistemology" see NOTE 1 below).

The following will seem like gibberish unless you're really into epistemology, especially "social epistemology" and have probably been studying it a couple of years.  If you happen to be such a person and stumble onto this, think of the following as a "message in a bottle" because I have no connections to people like yourself, other than through reading, and would like to hear anything from you, however critical it may be.  Here goes:

 I have been puzzling over the trajectory from "Naturalized" epistemology to reliabilism to social epistemology -- which I think is clearly illustrated in the career of Alvin Goldman, and reading Kornblith (ed) Naturalizing Epistemology and Stich: "Naturalizing Epistemology: Quine, Simon and the Prospects for Pragmatism".  I find myself not wanting to see epistemology folded into pragmatism, a reaction I got even more strongly from following Social Epistemology Review and Reply Colilective, a discussion space for people who are too postmodern for my way of thinking, and they seem very prone to put epistemology strictly in the service of pragmatism.

Many people from Marxists to Ayn Rand style Objectivists (and many sorts of "-ists" in between and on totally different planes) know One Big Thing about the world which in their opinion is the key to everything.

I am far from being one of those people.  It seems to me we do best to
maintain multiple perspectives and test them against each other.  Otherwise, we are very prone to go off in some half-cocked hyper-theoretical direction.  Amartya Sen's parable of the flute in The Idea of Justice is sort of a touchstone for me for this insight.

        I wonder if there is a terminology for a drastic change of perspective such as when Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene proposes reconceptualizing a vast body of work on evolutionary processes in a gene-centric way in place of seeing individual organisms as the most central object of study.  Might "naturalizing" epistemology be construed in that way?

        While "Naturalizing" epistemology has often seemed to be about
philosophers working themselves out of a job and passing the whole thing
on to some other discipline, I'm presently most interested in what the
native traditions of philosophy can contribute.

Specifically what has seemed to me most unnatural about traditional epistemology is its really being oriented to what is "knowable" (a very big, and very fuzzy abstraction, and such fuzzy abstractions have much in common with supernatural agencies, in my opinion), and what is "natural" is to avoid thinking (or trying to think) about "knowability" and free-floating "knowledge", and ground ourselves in what person A or B knows/believes, and their self-labeled attempts at "knowing".   Traditional epistemology has, I maintain, thought and spoken as if we all shared a single mind and set of sense faculties.

So, rather than hand the whole project off to vast modern scientific disciplines, I would stay closer to philosophical discourse in general, but try to remedy that one big "unnatural" tendency - to maybe go back to the very first moves of natural philosophy - grounding ourselves in real particular physical beings (like people) rather than sticking to a world of canonical mind.

To me, this leads us inevitably to epistemology as a social phenomenon.  If we never talk about the 99+% of what we know/think we know that is due to belief in the reliability of some witness, we are being deeply unnatural and unrealistic.

NOTE 1: Academic epistemology has often dwelt on matters such as: given you believe something that happens to be true, do you truly "know" it.  E.g. suppose you're in a big corporate building, in a room with no windows, and someone asks you which way is north so you pull a compass out of your pocket, read it and say "that way", but it happened to be pointing the wrong direction due to a strong magnetic field inside the building, but you accidentally "corrected" for that by looking at it upside down.  Then you believed that was was north, and it really was, but you didn't really "know" that it was. 

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