Epistemology's Practical Sides

Very quick update just to throw some thoughts out there. I am working on a slightly longer piece on meritocracy for a blog post, so that will be my real contribution for this period. But! For now I will just say some rather unoriginal things about the practical consequences of epistemology, simply for the sakes of having my own thoughts set out and ordered.

An epistemology is a theory of knowledge. For present purposes, I will assume that differences among epistemologies correspond to differences in what one purportedly must do (in at least some cases of social or scientific interest) to have actually attained knowledge, and that people generally think it important to attain knowledge. For that latter, I am going to make the rather strong assumption that something like a knowledge norm of action is held to, and so licensing something as knowledge is the way in which something is licensed as being the kind of thing one can sensibly act on the basis of. This is probably stronger than I need, but I am writing this blog post in a rush! Hence different epistemologies correspond to different requirements or sources of advice on obtaining a valuable thing. Suppose that a society or social group comes to generally accept a given epistemology over a rival, what sort of practical difference might that choice make?

Here are two plausible differences: first, different distributions of trust, esteem, and epistemic authority will be established. In a world where one must gather detailed testimony from many witnesses to an event before one can be considered to have knowledge of what transpired, people who are good at talking to folk, drawing out their stories, and conveying them in a comprehensible manner, will be held in high esteem qua knowers. Contrast, in a world in which one must have an explicit and well confirmed deductive system in which pertinent events are related to each other in a systematic fashion before one can be said to know what transpires. In this case people who are good at building such theories will be held in high esteem. And of course this also makes a difference to what sort of skills will be instrumentally valuable: in the first world somebody who can teach me how to perform structured interviews well is teaching me how to be a better knower, in the second world somebody who can teach me how to build structural equation models (or whatever) is performing the same task.

Second, our practical projects may be more or less successful and efficiently carried out, with different sorts of costs and benefits obtained. This because I am assuming that people are acting on the basis of their knowledge, and that in particular the rival epistemologies are guiding the formation of beliefs about what would be instrumentally effective in carrying out tasks. An epistemology which stresses the importance of very detailed measurement and repeated trials of a claim before one can be said to know it will tend to better at avoiding false positives than one which licenses undefeated first-impressions as a source of knowledge. But it may do worse at false negatives, depending on some features of the population whose first impressions we are worried about.

A note on this second point: this is not to assume that there is an epistemology neutral sense of what counts as successfully and efficiently carrying out a project. Simply that often there will be projects whose success conditions are relatively uncontroversial and not such that they differ between the epistemologies in question. Suppose we agree it would be good to build a bridge over a ravine to connect two communities. (There may be many reasons such a bridge would be attractive, so this agreement does not itself have to rest on consensus about reasons.) Then it will usually be widely agreed among disputants that it would count as a failure of such a bridge were it prone to suddenly collapsing under relatively light weights, and likewise it will be agreed what it means for a bridge to collapse and what it means for it to be under relatively light weights. The sort of disputes philosophers or theorists have about epistemology do not usually result in disagreement at this level - probably because if one had an epistemology that prevented one from being able to know when a bridge collapsed this would be considered a pretty decisive objection and we wouldn't now be considering it.

 So theory-neutrality in a strong sense is not needed. All I mean instead is that there can be points of assessment which are agreed upon by all parties, and that different epistemologies do better or worse at helping us achieve our goals on such occasions. For instance, in most cases I can think of, I would certainly prefer somebody who operates by the "careful measurements, many trials" epistemology to do the dangerous-new-bridge building, rather than a undefeated-first-impressions person, and I do not think this is because I am adopting some notion of bridge-collapse that the undefeated-first-impressions person could not themselves recognise.

Here, then, is my very simple point, for all that elaborate set up: both of these matter. I care about the distribution of power and esteem for many reasons, both intrinsic and instrumental, so that gives me reason to care about the first. I also care about ensuring projects I value are successfully carried out, so that means forming beliefs about instrumental matters that I think will be sufficiently reliable to merit acting upon. Very very very frequently, however, it seems to me that people only care about one of these to the exclusion of the other - and in particular, it seems to me that my fellow humanists seeking to critique dominant or mainstream epistemologies will only address their claims as to the first kind of concern, whereas people seeking to defend a status quo (if they take practical matters into account at all) will only speak to the second. It would be a great aid to discourse, I think, if the broad class of theorists concerned with epistemology clearly acknowledged that both of these are at stake when one considers the social adoption of a given way of knowing.

It also opens up some of the interesting questions of social epistemology, like what sort of relationship should obtain between these considerations. But I have to go, so that is for another blog post!


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