Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Meaning and Epistemology: Responding to a Response

(Taking a cue from Colin’s post about Manali’s post, a comment has developed into a post.)

I think the difficulties presented in Colin’s post are indicative of inherent objections to Kant's conception of the ideal knower. While modern empiricism and Kant's transcendental idealism fundamentally conflict on metaphysical and epistemological issues, contemporary epistemologists, according to Harding and Code, hope to isolate the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge in the verification of sensory observation. Kant sought to elucidate the "necessary conditions of the possibility of experience," those a priori concepts in the mind which facilitate understanding, outside of social or empirical reality. This view of "pure understanding" as "a unity self-subsistent, self-sufficient, and not to be increased by any additions from without" seeks to divorce social reality and epistemology, to ignore their dialectical relationship, (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, p. 102). Many epistemologists of disparate backgrounds actually dilute the objectivity of their accounts of knowledge production through an obsession with what Harding calls "weak objectivity." These approaches to epistemology bear a stifling effect upon socially denigrated voices, an instance of epistemology influencing social reality and social reality generating epistemologies. Epistemologists then serve the function of and are influenced by Heidegger's "They," facilitating a leveling down of social and individual possibilities.

Men are believed to know "what's best for women" through a certain social reality which both delegitimizes a female’s perspective and is legitimized by specific epistemologies; privileged white males promulgate theories of legitimate knowers, as fully rational and sufficiently able to achieve the favored version of objectivity, which in turn influence social reality. The concern is that by privileging one single mode of knowing, the essentialist, “universal” form, epistemologists are lending toward the oppression of the thereby marginalized groups, showing them to lack "real knowledge." Positivist epistemologists, according to Code, claim that value judgments are unverifiable and thus meaningless, while scientists endorsing "weak objectivity" claim to seek the eradication of social values from their work, (Code, 720). Both of these stances intertwine in many cases to suggest complacency in moral concerns within one's social reality.

One could offer another interpretation of the proposed "chicken-and-egg" problem between social reality and epistemology through the phenomenological lens of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Whereas scientism would have us believe that all meaning can be derived from scientific investigation, through objectively empirical research, Merleau-Ponty directs his description of social reality with a study of personal meaning-making. Deemphasizing the importance of meaning in relation to scientific fact, the positivist epistemologist ignores an equally significant facet of knowing. Merleau-Ponty defines meaning-making as both centripetal and centrifugal, as both directed toward the subject through a social situatedness and outward from the subject onto her social reality. The perceived importance of social reality is defined by the bombardment of received meanings upon the “subject,” while the subject creates her own meaning in turn, influencing her environment. This account allows more fully for the political influence upon epistemologies as well as the selection and interpretation of scientific projects.

At first, in answering Colin’s question, I thought, “As long as social relations have existed, epistemology has existed. Once humans could articulate their thoughts coherently, surely someone was around to ask, ‘How do you know that? Are you sure?’” Ultimately, however, a viable answer to the “chicken-and-egg” issue would probably focus on an evolutionarily prior social reality, as exhibited in our nearest relatives, the great apes who presumably do not ask themselves epistemological questions.

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