Saturday, September 06, 2014

Epistemic Virtues (1)

"The aim of education or culture is merely the development of good taste in knowledge and good form in conduct." (Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, p. 393)

What's so good about knowledge? Why is it better to know than not to know? Indeed, is knowledge always a good thing? Is it sometimes better not to know? Certainly, we cannot realistically pursue a goal of knowing everything there is to know, even about a specific subject. And whatever we do know derives its value, its virtue if you will, from its contribution to the important business of living. Life, we might say, has an "epistemic" component, and worrying about that dimension suggests an epistemological one.*

I worry about the epistemic component of the problem of living. That makes me an epistemologist, just as an ethnographer is interested in the "ethnic side" of life, if you will.* The ethnographer is not, qua ethnographer, interested in becoming a better native, a more upstanding member of the community, but what it means to be a native in a particular land. I'm less interested (or at least I sometimes tell myself I'm less interested) in actually knowing something, than in understanding the difference that knowing it will make to our lives.

I'm not really very curious person, perhaps. But I am obsessed with what happens when we satisfy, or fail to satisfy, our curiosity. When I consider carefully how our research and teaching environments are organised (my experience is mostly with universities) I sometimes worry that we let real curiosity go unsatisfied, and glut ourselves with trivia instead. Sometimes, I think I'm against curiosity altogether. I suppose that's a bit like an ethnographer who has a low of opinion of nationalism. You can understand something well enough to be afraid it.

It seems life would be easier if we were less naturally curious. Or perhaps the problem lies with how easily we let ourselves be satisfied. Maybe I just think we have poor taste in knowledge.

I'd like to try to affect our taste in knowledge. In particular, I think we need to have a much more refined taste for social science. We're much too eager to learn how society works, how people live together. We're much too ready to believe what social scientists tell us, what some recent study has shown. We need to hold claims about the society in which we live to a much higher standard. After all, what we think is true of our society is very much a part of how that society works. If you think you live in a democracy your political activities look very different from how they'd look if you thought you were living in an oligarchy. If you think people's decisions (including your own) can be manipulated by "priming", your negotiating tactics will probably show it.

I'm interested not just in how we practice what we know, but in how we go about our knowing. What sorts of practices lead to better kinds of knowledge. Our knowledge will never be perfect, but there must be a sense that we're striving to improve. What criteria, then, can we come up with for "good" epistemic practices? This is a somewhat different question than the one philosophers classically raise: what are the criteria for knowledge? Instead of asking how we can know that we know one thing or another, I want to describe a set of practices such that, if we practice them, what is likely to result is "good" knowledge. I think it's much less important to believe the right things than to cultivate the right attitude about our beliefs. I think epistemology should be about that attitude, not about the beliefs that emerge at the end of it.

I'll have some more to say about this later.

*It should be possible to distinguish between "epistemic" and "epistemological" as easily as we distinguish between "ethnic" and "ethnographic". Knowers have have epistemic traits just as people have ethnic ones; our interest in these traits is epistemological and ethnographic respectively. When they produce "an ethnography" of a group of people (sometimes called "natives") ethnographers delineate their "ethnicity"—the nature of their particular humanity, or what we call culture. When epistemologists produce "an epistemology" of a group of knowers (sometimes called "scientists") they delineate their "epistemicity"—okay, that's not a word, but epistemologists do delineate the nature of the knowledge, sometimes the nature of the knowledge that belongs to a particular group of knowers. Ethnos just means "people" in Greek. Episteme means knowledge. Foucault talked about epistemes in part to avoid talking about "sciences". He preferred to talk about "field[s] of scientificity" over talking of "scientific theories".


Presskorn said...

An aside thought on Wittgenstein and Social Science (that I'm not entirely certain of): Perhaps W would agree that we need a better and more refined taste in social science (perhaps even appreciating your intended category mistake in speaking of "a good taste in knowledge"). But perhaps, his point would be slightly different. It's not that we are too curious and too eager to know, but rather that we are too easily *surprised*. Too easily that convinced that the social scientist has discovered something profound that calls for us to revolutionize our concepts or society (or both). The social scientist knows stuff alright and he is right to be curious, but don't fall for his act of seeming profound and don't act surprised at what he tells you.

"Don't act surprised" should perhaps here be taken in both an "epistemic" and "ethnic" sense: Don't let Luhmanns analyses surprise you and lure you into saying that our concept of communication should be revised. But also: You know very well that democracy tends towards oligarchy and that ethnic cleasing still goes on in the Balkans, don't act surprised!

Presskorn said...

PS: I haven't read your two last posts yet, if my comment seem uninformed "by the latest development" (another trope used by social science and the media alike to lure us into surprise)...

Thomas said...

I think you make a good point. It was that sort of thing I was after when I mocked scientific management for discovering the value of "periodic rests" in the organization of industrial labour in the early twentieth century. What was it Paul Simon sang?

"as if I didn't know that
as if I didn't know my own bed."

Thomas said...

I meant to link to this post.

Presskorn said...

Phrased from the producer rather than consumption side: It should be part of the ethos of the university to resist the temptation of seeming surprising. After all, Kuhn despised the revolutionary reading of his work and urge us to do normal science just as Foucault consistently rejected the "radical" consequences of his work and instead urged us to dig into the historical archieve.

Thomas said...

Yes, the university is, should and can only be a conservative institution. It should be a conservatory.

See also Andrew Gelman's "Scientific Surprise Two-Step".