On modern and post-modern epistemology

On modern and post-modern epistemology


By Alexander Koudlai

Epistemology is a theory of knowledge or the whole field of such theories in philosophy which are meant to increase our understanding of the term and of the phenomena. Examining anything and everything we should collect all possible reflections and choose the most agreeable of them to our soul, those which give us better understanding of ourselves, the world and the process of "knowing" of internal, external and mixed reality. This exanimation is done in solitude and in dialogues with friends and interlocutors, in reading of monologues of other thinkers who also very often examine other thinkers to the best of their abilities. Some of us are better than others, meaning more talented to such activities, and those produce better theories or choose the better ones from the archives of ancient and modern history. Each of us adds something, even if only in terms of new examples or small original generalizations. And if we do it, i.e., read, listen, think and propose it reveals our love of knowledge, even if we do not know exactly what knowledge is. As Socrates said in Symposium, those are lovers who do not possess the object of their love. And lack of knowledge (about knowledge) is a sign of our imperfection, but we are constantly in the dynamic state of seeking, as history tells us, for already 25 centuries (and, I suspect, longer); and it is very unlikely that prophecies of people like Nietzsche, E. Mach, Quine or Rorty about the end of epistemology or philosophy will ever come true. Those people, like many others, excited by some new ideas, often of scientific origin, were just carried away at certain times, like somebody who fell in love with somebody new, and forgot his first love for the time. For true philosopher his true love actually never ends, and we would do better taking more care in valuing and respecting it. Nowadays the world is too excited about everything external, material: clothes, make-ups, professional escorts, entertainments, scientific magazines, prices, prizes, diplomas and awards; it looses itself in pleasures and pains and worships of new idols that would quench its cravings and fears. Many celebrities appear and disappear with all that noisy clamor, and very often they have all their awards, degrees and positions. But Socrates did not have P.H.D, neither did Shakespeare; and still they are popular, at least among men of sense, while not many of the new writers will survive their physical death. Quine liked to justify sensual knowledge of the world in contrast to any other paradoxical or a priori knowledge saying that the former helped us to survive. Why the same argument cannot be used for evaluation of those theories and authors who survived many centuries?

Of course, those great thinkers like Plato and Euclid were criticized, but everybody will be, if he is any good. In the process of such criticism we learn more about philosophy and our knowledge, as well as the ways of its acquirement and sometimes see the validity of the old ideas in the new light. I intend to criticize Quine and Rorty, as well as the authors of the Modern Epistemology, Everitt and Fisher.

I will argue in favor of TE (Traditional Epistemology) and Foundationalism against NE (New Epistemology) and Coherentism, as opposed to the former.

Everitt and Fisher write:

Since there are no such foundations , it is right to put epistemological tradition on one side. However if we accept that coherence among our beliefs is the best we can hope for . . . there is still much theoretical work to be done...

Quine argued that philosophy should give way to science...

What has to be abandoned is the search for certainty. What is left is the need to make sense of our experience . . . this will take more than science alone . . . beliefs are justified by their coherence with other beliefs and that justification is essentially public and social . . . traditional philosophers have to take a back seat! (207-208)

It seems that human mind cannot understand the world without foundations. Even the image of the web or wigwam Quine proposed play the role of a foundation for understanding the concept of coherentism. This very concept itself plays the role of foundation for the whole theory of knowledge in this "new" fashion. E&F say "no foundations" and "it is right to put..." it is an example of foundational and dogmatic thinking.”If we accept... coherentism" it will inevitably turn into another foundation. It is a logical problem. If "philosophy should give way to science" what will deal with the meaning of its data? This will lead to a psychological problem.

The fascination of science in the XIX and XX century already affected the minds making them mechanical and incapable to deal with the problems of human life. The great writers, like Hawthorn (Rappachini's Daughter), Dickens (Hard Times), Gette (in his critique of Newtonian theory of light), exposed a real problem. Existentialism itself was a reaction on the mental inclination of the time to artificial mechanical mode of thinking. To be able to act like a machine, even as intricate as computer, does not presuppose to understand (keep in mind the Chinese Room argument). And humans need both action and understanding. No matter what Modernists and Post-modernists say, those two differ from each other, because there are different levels of understanding connected with the same action at different times and in cases of different people. Some actions could be done without understanding at all, like in the case of hypnotic suggestion, or mechanically under the influence of external causes. So when we face real of imaginary difficulties with faundationalist approach to epistemology why should we take another foundation in disguise of coherentism?

Among other objections to A Priori Foundationalism E&F criticize the Euclidean geometry on the pretext of theories of Riemann and Lobachevsky. But the authors, as well as those who are convinced by this line of thought, obviously do not have mathematical background. Mathematicians know very well the concept of the area of applicability of the algorithm. Euclidean theory is applicable only to plane surfaces, and he never tried to apply it to spherical or curved ones. Riemann and Lobachevsky in their turn never suggested applying their theories to the planes. So there is no problem at all except learning of mathematics and using its foundations properly. But the latter problem is not a problem of epistemology.

The argument against the logical law of the excluded middle by Quine and Putnam consists of speculations about quantum mechanics. But physicists use terms wave and particle to signify certain properties of a thing not the thing itself. When I say, "I am strong and flexible", I talk about two different properties of one thing, my body, and not about two mutually exclusive characteristics. Who said that wave and particle are mutually exclusive? A portion of a wave could be considered as a particle! A limited quantity of energy is, in a sense, a particle. So here also there is no real problem or threat to the concept of the excluded middle. I strongly suspect that other objections to faundationalism could be resolved as well with proper scrutiny.

So called philosophers of science often refer to Einstein's theory of Relativity trying, and surprisingly successfully, use it like a charm or religious dogma when they think it would help them to impress non-physicists. But, like any physical theory, it has its problems of different calibers, and those still have not reached the consensus of professionals. Particularly the incompatibility of Einstein's and Plank's views on probability, the unresolved problem of unified theory of field of force and more. Einstein's efforts to explain gravitation through geometry of space turned into tautology, which shows that he was not a great logician. But it is easy to hypnotize naive people without real education in physics, who seek new foundational re-assurances after being rapidly liberated from the old ones, which they did not understand too much also, but liked to believe in them anyway. This spirit of fast acquirement of new beliefs relates to the spirit of our time: fast food (often cheap and not healthy), fast sex (often confused and meaningless), fast shopping (often of items we do not actually need). This is one of the reasons to argue for the philosophy, which traditionally deals with all kinds of beliefs, regardless of time and effort, in its dedication to the truth and clarity.

I argue that foundational beliefs are necessary for the normal (healthy) functioning of our mind, and the only choice available to us is the choice between different kinds of those, and not between foundations and their annihilation. I think, Kant would agree to include the foundational tendency into his Categories of Pure Understanding. Still the category of Causality lies probably close to that - when we look for the cause, we look for some foundational idea, which explains an event or another idea, in a sense. And, yes, epistemologically we can see the threat of infinite regress here, but in reality we stop somewhere saying: "this link of the infinite chain is quite obvious or self-evident, at least for the time. Later we doubt the link (the foundation) and immediately look out for another link which at this time we are happy to accept as a new foundation, cause or something with another name but bearing the same function in our explanation and understanding of the event or theory. Of course, we can distinguish between terms foundation and cause looking at them from a certain perspective, but similarly we can do with any pare of words we call synonyms. Good and wonderful, for example, mean the same when we express our admiration of something of a superior quality, but very different when we evaluate different qualities of the same object. He is a good man, or he is a wonderful man (meaning his supreme kindness). She is wonderful (meaning physical appearance) and at the same time she is not good (meaning her mathematical gifts, or moral standing). So in conversation we just have to be "on the same page" with our interlocutors. And when we think in solitude we should use symbols for the phenomena of the same psychological formation - we have to exercise our observational and nominational skills, and also very good memory.

I would argue against Wittgenstein's concept of the language as exclusively social phenomena. Language has dual qualities. We may speak to ourselves as well as we can speak to the others. Speaking to the others we intend to make them understand our beliefs and experiences, while speaking to ourselves we intend our own minds to understand something better. If we are extraverts our language becomes very social indeed, and in this case Wittgenstein is almost right, but if we are introverts there can be great deviations, and our language becomes very strange for others (on those occasions we address them). People do not understand us; think we are extravagant, crazy, or too smart. Still there are always social and individual elements in our language and without individual specific qualities of the latter conversations would be completely boring and meaningless! There are peoples and there are persons!

I have to conclude this paper saying that:

1. there are valid concepts in TE.

2. some new concepts of NE are not flawless

3. the new perspectives enrich our contemplative abilities and knowledge

4. the fully (for all times) satisfactory definitions or foundations are not likely to be proposed - it would mean the end of our intellectual development,

5. We have to respect great efforts of our ancestors and contemporaries to make sense of the world, internal and external, and it means that epistemology as well as philosophy at large is immortal!

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