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October 15, 2006

The Encyclopaedists’ Dream

Posted by David Corfield

I’m just finishing off a talk I was asked to give to my Machine Learning group at a retreat tomorrow. They want me to give them an ‘Epistomology for Dummies’. As I’m more at home with Anglophone philosophy of science approaches, I thought I’d better take a look at other approaches, both Anglo-American and Continental. As a first step I tried out the English, French and German Wikipedia articles. What a wonderfully varied range of accounts, from the Anglo-American Epistemology, which gives pride of place to Gettier’s demolition of the justified true belief account of knowledge, to the French Épistémologie, which dwells largely on philosophy of science, to the German Erkenntnistheorie, which finds space to talk about theology and politics, Hegel and Schopenhauer. Even when the French Théorie de la connaissance starts off with Gettier, it rapidly drifts into a ragbag of non-Anglophone topics.

In contentious subjects, such as the nature of knowledge, it is hardly surprising that little concordance of views is to be found, however ‘neutral’ the author is supposed to be. As I recounted here (p. 2), a pale imitation of the earlier dream of the Scottish encyclopaedists still haunts us.

Reading some of the links to ‘mainstream’ analytic epistemology provided by the English Wikipedia entry, I experienced something of what MacIntyre conveys in his review of Bernard Williams writings on ethics, The Magic in the Pronoun “My”, Ethics 94(1), 1983, 113-125 (available here for JSTOR subscribers):

What we need to understand is the ability of those engaged in scientific enquiry to find good reasons relative to the state and circumstances of their enquiry at some particular stage for advancing and defending theories of a kind which then will further enable them to transcend the limitations of that particular stage, and so to transform not only their beliefs about nature, but also their beliefs about what constitutes good reasons for holding a particular set of beliefs about nature. It is from its contributions to such understanding that enquiry into the nature of the large continuities and discontinuities within the history of sciences derives part of its importance. The outcome is the instructive blend of history and philosophy which we find in the writings of Kuhn, Lakatos, Grene, Shapere, and so many others.

Yet so far as moral philosophy is concerned all this could be happening in some distant galaxy. (pp. 115-116)

Having lost the pre-modern idea of moral enquiry as a long-term quest, perhaps it is not so surprising that moral philosophers should find work which treats science in similar terms as quite distant. But that epistemologists should spend their time wondering about the conditions necessary to say whether ‘X knows that Y is a barn’ or ‘X knows that the bank is open’, untroubled by the struggles of Kuhn et al. to fathom out how systems of knowledge grow, needs a longer explanation.

One response is to have nothing to do with ‘epistemology’, a term cooked up in the 1850s:

…if the Thomist is faithful to the intentions of Aristotle and Aquinas, he or she will not be engaged, except perhaps incidently, in an epistemological enterprise… (Alasdair MacIntyre, The Tasks of Philosophy CUP, 2006: 148)

In a later post I’ll say something about what this has to do with Aristotle’s distinction between knowledge of the fact and knowledge of the reasoned fact.

Posted at October 15, 2006 2:00 PM UTC

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