The Picture of Epistemology

Modern epistemology operates, Charles Taylor argues (A Secular Age); he covers some of the same ground in Retrieving Realism), within a “closed world system” (CWS). CWS describes the various “ways of restricting our grasp of things which are not recognized as such” (551).

When one operates within a CWS, his “thinking is clouded or cramped by a powerful picture which prevents one seeing important aspects of reality.” For those within the system, the perspective seems natural and obvious. But that sense of obviousness is itself a sign that the system is closed to other data (551). Reality is always richer and more complex than our systems.

The “closed” part means that the system is closed off to intimations of transcendence, closed off to anything that might exceed the system.

What are the features of the framework of modern epistemology? In some cases “this structure operates with a picture of knowing agents as individuals who build up their understanding through combining and relating, in more and more comprehensive theories, the information which they take in, and which is couched in inner representations, be these conceived as mental pictures (in earlier variants), or as something like sentences held true in the more contemporary versions” (557-8).

Epistemology assumes a set of “priority relations.” Knowledge of the self is prior to knowledge of the external world and of others. Knowing of neutral facts comes before the attribution of values. And knowledge of “this world” precedes any inference about realities that transcend this world (558).

These priorities aren’t just about logical or temporal precedence. The picture operates as a CWS, and the priority relations govern what inferences might be made from my knowledge. If I know myself before the world, and facts before meanings and values, then it’s “obvious that the inference to the transcendent is at the extreme and most fragile end of a chain of inferences; it is the most epistemologically questionable” (558). The structure of epistemology makes arguments for the existence of God seem weak.

But that appearance depends on the viability of the epistemological picture with its CWS. And that picture has been subjected to devastating critique in modern philosopher. Taylor isolates three elements of the critique:

1.”Our grasp of the world does not consist simple of our holding inner representations of our reality.” We do have these representations, but they make sense because they are “thrown up in the course of an ongoing activity of coping world, as bodily, social and cultural beings” (558). This coping cannot be reduced to representations.

2. This coping isn’t carried out simply by individuals. Rather “we are each inducted into a set of practices of coping as social ‘games’ or activities.” We might assume a stance as individuals, but more fundamentally “we are part of social action” (558).

3. As we cope with the world, the things we encounter are not “objects” but “pragmata” (Heidegger), things that have “relevance, meaning, significance for us” from the get-go, “not as an add-on.” Treating the hammer as an object comes later, on reflection; but my first interaction with its is that it is useful for driving nails and that the handle nestles into my hand.

If we are “agents coping with a world,” then the skeptical response makes no sense: “it makes no sense to doubt [the world], since we are dealing with it.” There’s no gap opened up between inner representations and outer world. Further, there’s no priority of fact over value, or of individual knowing over social. And all this undermines the closed character of knowing; it breaks open the CWS to transcendence (559).

For the deconstructors, epistemology seem  “a most massive self-blindness.” Typically, Taylor points to the ethic that drives epistemology: “experience is carved into shape by a powerful theory which posited the primacy of the individual, the neutral, the intra-mental as the locus of certainty.” What drives the their are “certain ‘values,’ virtues, excellences: those of the individual, disengaged subject, reflexively controlling his own thought-processes, ‘self-responsibly,’ in Husserl’s famous phrase” (559).

Behind epistemology is an ethic of “independence, self-control, self-responsibility, of a disengagement that brings control; a stance that requires courage, the refusal of the easy comforts of conformity to authority, of the consolations of an enchanted world, of the surrender to the promptings of the senses” (559-60).

Epistemology is bewitched by a picture (Wittgenstein). But what keeps people attached to the picture is the powerful force of the ethic.

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