Posts Tagged ‘epistemology’


July 18, 2009

It’s a chilly morning, I actually debated coming out to greet the sun. But not heatedly. That’s what long sleeves are for. *** Younger Daughter is having a reunion sleepover with her best friend since kindergarten, who moved away to Cleveland. And at around midnight, she had her usual pangs of homesickness and called to tell us so. Growth opportunity for us all. *** Walter Cronkite died, I see. He’s the short answer to all those kooky Moon Hoaxers: Uncle Walter wouldn’t have lied.


So, what’s wrong with epistemology, the systematic study of what we can know and how we can know it? Some of my best friends are epistemologists, and they do good work. Nothing wrong with them.

The fact is, most of my prejudice probably stems from an unexamined reaction to the personal demeanor of one epistemologist in particular, a sallow and stoic fellow with a constant smirking expression, who knew nothing of pop culture or sports or my  version of “the real world.”  I thought he sucked the life out of every question he addressed.

Then, I got to know him a little better and realized for real what philosophers are supposed to know implicitly: appearances can’t be trusted, ad hominem observations bake no bread . He was a nice guy. He’s gone on to do great work in the field.

If epistemology can help correct such leaps of ignorant presumption then I should embrace it wholeheartedly.

But it wasn’t the systematic study of knowledge that overturned my false belief about my peer, it was experience.

OK, experience plus reflection. We need both.

If epistemology can be practiced without detaching knowledge from the rest of life, without reducing philosophy to an impersonal, uncompelling set of conceptual problems about the conditions of “justified true belief,” without failing to connect the dots between those beliefs  and the totality of our experience, then I’ll withdraw my objections.

more congenial

July 17, 2009

Thoreau’s congeniality reminded me of James’s. This one I recalled correctly.

A linchpin of his commitment to humanism, pluralism, and free will was the conviction that we have the capacity (“power”) to do what needs to be done. We are not without resources to meet the challenges of living. All great periods of progress and achievement attest to it:

“Each and all of them have said to the human being, ‘the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.'” (“Sentiment of Rationality“)

We can do it if we try, maybe. The world might just match and multiply our exertions, you never know. It’s worth an effort. Nothing ventured etc.

A useful conviction, whether we intend to do great things (like launching a rocket)  or small (like getting out of bed to face another dawn). Some of us sometimes need reminding.

But is it true? It better be. That’s the audacity of hope, whose opposite (for those of a certain temper) is despair. As a twenty-something, James would literally have killed himself if he couldn’t have justified (to himself) his right to believe this.

That’s the center of his pragmatic pluralism: believe what you must, then make appropriate revisions and course corrections when you see where that belief has taken you. It’s not epistemologically correct. But then, the world may not be safe for epistemology. Or congenial to it.