"All epistemology begins in fear..."

Preface | Pt. 1 | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3 | (Sidebar 1) | Pt. 4 | Pt. 5 | Pt. 6

Pt. 7 | (Sidebar 2a) | (Sidebar 2b) | Pt. 8 | Pt. 9 | Conclusion

The title above is a quote from the book, Objectivity, subject of the prior two posts. Below the fold is an extended quote following that line. It circles back to a common topic at the blogs and at this one in particular, at the bottom.

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(How do I know what/where/why my head is?)
All epistemology begins in fear - fear that the world is too labyrinthine to be threaded by reason; fear that the senses are too feeble and the intellect too frail; fear that memory fades, even between adjacent steps of a mathematical demonstration; fear that authority and convention blind; fear that God may keep secrets or demons deceive. Objectivity is a chapter in this history of intellectual fear, of errors anxiously anticipated and precautions taken. But the fear objectivity addresses is different from and deeper than the others. The threat is not external- a complex world, a mysterious God, a devious demon. Nor is it the corrigible fear of senses that can be strengthened by a telescope or microscope or memory that can be buttressed by written aids. Individual steadfastness against prevailing opinion is no help against it, because it is the individual who is suspect.

Objectivity fears subjectivity, the core self. Descartes could discount the testimony of the senses because sensation did not belong to the core self as he conceived it, res cogitans. Bacon believed the idols of the cave, those intellectual failings that stemmed from individual upbringing and predilection, could be corrected by the proper countermeasures, as a tree bent the wrong way could he straightened. But there is no getting rid of, no counterbalancing post-Kantian subjectivity. Subjectivity is the precondition for knowledge: the self who knows.

This is the reason for the ferociously reflexive character of objectivity, the will pitted against the will, the self against the self. This explains the power of objectivity, an epistemological therapy more radical than any other because the malady it treats is literally radical, the root of both knowledge and error. The paradoxical aspirations of objectivity explain both its strangeness and its stranglehold on the epistemological imagination. It is epistemology taken to the limit. Objectivity is to epistemology what extreme asceticism is to morality. Other epistemological therapies were rigorous: Plato's rejection of the senses, for example, or Descartes's radical doubt. But objectivity goes beyond rigor. The demands it makes on the knower outstrip even the most strenuous forms of self-cultivation, to the brink of self-destruction (pp. 374-375).

And finally, a kind of spirited mini-manifesto on the value of historical inquiry:

It is a misconception, albeit an entrenched one, that historicism and relativism stride hand in hand, that to reveal that an idea or value has a history is ipso facto to debunk it. But to show objectivity is neither an inevitable nor an eternal part of science passes no verdict on its validity, desirability, or utility--any more than to document that the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment first emerged at a particular time and place would per se subvert that judicial principle. Conversely, to point out that certain beliefs and practices have enjoyed widespread acceptance in various cultures and epochs is not necessarily an endorsement: no one thinks better of slavery or geocentrism on learning that many people in many places have subscribed to them.

All history can do is to demonstrate the possibility of alternatives, thereby turning an apparent axiom--things could never have been otherwise than as we know them--into a matter for reasoned argument. Between dogmatism and relativism stretches a wide plain of debate (p. 376).

This last comment, their note of emphasis, is now necessary in studies of science, in particular as part of the post-Science Wars era. Consider that the series on "How to Think about Science" the CBC has recently produced (as noted by Matthew Nisbet at Framing Science by reference to the Science Wars), includes an interview with Lorraine Daston in the second episode, the co-author of the above words.

For my interest, and as a way to hold together the many varied types of posts at this blog--from science and agriculture and farming, to nuclear energy, to environmental ethics, to the puzzle games, to the rest--the key question remains, how do we know?

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"the key question remains, how do we know?"

The old joke actually was
A man searches through life for the "answer"
on hitting the Pearly Gates says , "Lord what is the answer?"
The reply, "What's the question?"

Somehow there seems a bit of humor in this one.

"Objectivity fears subjectivity, the core self."

Pithy little nugget, that. Potentially threatening to some folks, and thus provocative, if one follows that assertion toward some of its consequences.

I get a lot of mileage from an observation derived from George Box: Most models are wrong, but some are useful.

I suspect some folks might take offense at the unequivocal assertion, "Objectivity fears subjectivity". Usually I wouldn't phrase it in implicitly absolute terms, unless I wanted to pick a fight. But as a concise model to describe the phenomena of certain observable behaviors? It seems accurate to me, and useful.