Monday, January 16, 2012

The Perils of Philosophical Ignorance
Too Big To Know Edition

Well, there's this.

Haven't read the book (by David Weinberger)...don't need to. This sort of nonsense happens over and over. This is a new manifestation of an old set of errors. Evgeny Morozov seems to have already hit the high points here.

Coupla points:

First, if you find yourself saying "the Postmodernists were right," or "Lyotard was right," then you've crashed and burned. Take this as a reductio, and start over. Morozov claims that there are significant similarities between Weinberger's book and Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition. I've read the latter carefully several times, and can say, unequivocally, that it is a virtually unmitigated piece of crap. Weinberger does sound like he's in the same general vicinity, though I obviously can't say more than that.

Second, and more substantively, if you're going to make sweeping claims about knowledge and facts, make sure you are talking about, y'know, knowledge and facts. The common error here is to start talking about other, very different concepts, and then illicitly draw conclusions about knowledge and facts. The most common other concepts to deploy here are justified belief and widely-accepted belief. These concepts are, of course, importantly different. For example, a justified belief (like widely-accepted belief) can be false, but knowledge can't be. For another example, a proposition is a widely-accepted belief in virtue of, well, just being widely-accepted; but nothing can become knowledge simply in virtue of being widely-accepted.

Weinberger--so say the snippets--writes things like "knowledge consists of a network of people and ideas that are not totally in sync, that are diverse, that disagree. ... We are beginning to think of knowledge itself as having value insofar as it contains difference." This is as wrong as anything one could possibly write on the subject. Perhaps he's really confusing knowledge with evidence, and trying to say that "we" are beginning to think of evidence as being valuable insofar as it contains the relevant disagreeing evidence as well. That would at least make a little sense...though it doesn't mean anything like what he writes. Furthermore, note that "we're beginning to think that p" is a sociological/anthropological claim about our opinions, not a logical/epistemological claim about what is so. Perhaps lots of people are starting to think what Wienberger claims. All that shows is that lots of people are bad at epistemology. But it doesn't tell us anything at all about knowledge per se, nor about facts.

I know I haven't read the book, and I know I'm getting all snitty about this. I also realize that analytic philosophers are largely to blame for having intentionally become hermetic, and for ceding the field to crackpots like Lyotard and amateurs like Weinberger. But it's annoying that (a) philosophy is so often an object of ridicule, when (b) we actually do have at least a pretty good understanding of the basic terrain with respect to such questions, and (c) folks like Weinberger make pronouncements that clearly display a complete ignorance of even the best and most basic findings of 2500 years worth of philosophical reflection. You need to at least read an introductory epistemology book if you're going to write about epistemology. On the other hand, you probably ought to read a book if you're going to criticize it. So maybe we're even...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Winston, if you read the book, you will get more snitty I guarantee. I'm about half way through it. He likes to play the Fish game of saying in one paragraph things like "The internet proves that postmodernism is true" and gesturing towards the endlessly radical destabilization of all our concepts by the technology used to express knowledge claims, then a page or so later is reassuring the reader not to worry, since he's not saying that truth doesn't matter. It's one of those books that is constantly veering between those claims that are true but not worth arguing for, and those that are interesting and go unargued for.

12:03 PM  
Anonymous Aardvark Cheeselog said...

You need to at least read an introductory epistemology book if you're going to write about epistemology.

Got any recommendations?

5:48 PM  

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