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Epistemology, anyone?

Philosophy and Theory

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Mar 22, 2008, 4:41pm Top

That branch of philosophy which, some aver, undergirds all others, is as fascinating today as it was during the great flowering of thought in ancient Greece.

In its simplest terms, 'How do we know we know?'

Who's reading what? Who's thinking what? And who, to quote Fitzgerald, now says;

"You know, my Friends, with what a brave Carouse
I made a Second Marriage in my house;
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse."

(Torus34 takes a sip of plonk, contemplates, clicks the 'Submit' button . . .)

Mar 23, 2008, 8:13pm Top

I'll bite.

Call me a skeptic, but I wonder if we can 'know that we know.' Don't we just stick to 'what' has 'worked' thus far?

How about this: as far as epistemology goes, rationalism or empiricism? Are they mutually exclusive, as many (with, I believe, an axe to grind) would have us believe?

As to what I'm reading -- a lot of Swift and his critics (master's thesis); but since he reacted against the Enlightenment, a lot of it overlaps (he had the collected works of Spinoza my favorite philosopher in his library!).

And for what it's worth, I hope to exclude neither the Apollonian, nor to the Dionysian, at the expense of the other. Gestalt, baby.

Edited: Mar 24, 2008, 7:40am Top

I rather think I'm inclined toward the rational as opposed to the empirical, at least in this context. There's a disconnect here, though. When considering what and how we know from a 'first principles' approach, I find myself hunkered down in the 'Knowledge requires that there be two individuals . . .' starting blocks. Meanwhile, when I want to stop a table from rocking back and forth, I just stuff a sufficient number of pieces of card stock under the short leg.

Both activities seem logical to me.

And thank you for taking the time to post.

Edited: Mar 28, 2008, 4:39pm Top

If "knowledge requires that there be two individuals" as starting blocks, are some 'forms' of knowledge merely consensus?

Could we say that rationalism is a consequence of, or derived from, empiricism?

Forgive my questions. Everyone who posts in this group is light years ahead of me. I'm just curious.

Edited: Mar 28, 2008, 6:07pm Top

In response;

Any 'system' of knowledge starts with assumptions, usually empirically derived. Even an attempt at a bare-bones austere approach to knowing must be founded in the assumption that the world is knowable, at least in part. Otherwise, why bother?

On a somewhat more humorous note, apropos to your post, I still love Lily Tomlin's (Yup, that Lily T -- 'One ringy-dingy, . . .') observation; 'Reality is a collective hunch.' It has always seemed a more human statement than 'Cogito, . . .'

Mar 28, 2008, 6:49pm Top

5> I don't know that Lily Tomlin originated it. She said it or something very similar in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe which was written by Jane Wagner.

William James said something very similar, but I don't know the work.


Mar 30, 2008, 7:19pm Top

Thank you for noting that Ms. Tomlin may not have been the author. I must admit that I didn't do my homework before posting.

I still like the saying, though.

Edited: Mar 31, 2008, 1:48am Top

torus34 notes that "Any 'system' of knowledge starts with assumptions, usually empirically derived," and of course he or she is correct.

There is also, however, an assumption which underlies our empirically derived assumptions: that the impression we derive of the world through our senses is accurate, or at the very least, that it is accurate enough for us to base a system of knowledge on it.

Mar 31, 2008, 2:11pm Top

Hence my skepticism.

Too easy, tho'. Even Hume conceded that the nihililsm it engenders was impractical.

There's at least enough to be known that we can land men on the moon, right?

Now. If we can stick to Lily Tomlin, I may be able to keep up. I think Ms. Tomlin is credited with several quotes that she borrowed from other sources. One that comes to mind is (paraphrase), 'When you talk to God you're pious, when He talks to you, you're schizophrenic.' After reading that one, I learned a few years later someone (can't remember the person) had said it previously.

But perhaps I'm straining the soup a bit too thin? (that's a Flannery O'Connor line)


Apr 3, 2008, 11:38pm Top

I'm glad to be reading this. I don't have credentials in philosophy, but I love to read it, and find too few people interested in discussing it (accept those with credentials that cannot seem to bring it down to my level).

As to the rational/empirical debate: didn't Kant argue that rationalism and empiricism both have to be active in order for knowledge to occur? I'm not able to struggle successfully with his Critique of Pure Reason, and I may have pulled this out of context: "Our nature is so constituted, that intuition with us never can be other than sensuous, that is, it contains only the mode in which we are affected by objects. On the other hand, the faculty of thinking the object of sensuous intuition, is the understanding. Neither of these faculties has a preference over the other. Without the sensuous faculty no object would be given to us, and without the understanding no object would be thought."

I'm fascinated with the epistemological discussion that went through Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant. But I've only skimmed the surface, and have relied most heavily on secondary readings, and wonder if anyone out there wants to discuss any of the above.

Thank you.

Apr 5, 2008, 6:31am Top

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Apr 5, 2008, 8:50pm Top

Does the tree exist if only one person sees it? It exists only for the person who sees it? If an object is 'recognized' and tagged with a name, a word as a symbol of the object, then that object was either created or extracted from its habitat of 'blurr,' as it were, separated from the 'whole,' singled out. All concepts shared, obviously, take concensus, and concensus is as close as humans get in understanding one another and sharing concepts. Am I off?
Whether this is knowledge or dissection of the whole, illusions that we live with, when, in fact, the whole remains the whole, no matter how we rearrange it or separate its parts to name them or use them.

Apr 6, 2008, 8:47am Top

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Apr 6, 2008, 11:58pm Top

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Edited: Apr 14, 2008, 6:41pm Top

The only thing I know for certain is that I am here. I can prove it.

I ask you only to accept that either I am here, or I am somewhere else - say, 'there'.

1st premise: I am either here or I am there (I is not divisible.)

2nd premise: Ask anyone (who knows me) about me and they will tell you, 'He's not all there, you know.'

Conclusion: As I am not there, I must be here.


Apr 15, 2008, 1:21pm Top

Zeno's paradox + solipsism = Solipsistic paradox.

Or, for a layman like me, epistemology.

Apr 20, 2008, 6:18am Top

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May 5, 2008, 7:06am Top

re 15; torus34

neat syllogism Jim (may I call you this, without being invited to?)

I'm very much a 'nowhere' man, neither here nor there, if you know what I mean.

Credit where it's due, however. The Jesuit masters predicted I'd never get anywhere fast. Weren't they uncannily accurate now.

Bernie Baruch was always the fella for me, as well, back then (pre-Kant, or Cantor at any rate)


May 20, 2008, 12:04pm Top

Torus, sorry to just ...jump in...but I am not so sure that the question of epistemology is "how do we know we know." In fact, that is a question eschewed in much of the literature. To ask the question "how do we know that we know" it to do one of two things: 1) align ourselves from the start with truth-less knowledge claims and some form of a heavily internalist justification, or 2) limit ourselves to base propositions and only study them after the fact. I don't really know that either is that appealing.

If you want to "know how we know" then you might want to give epistemology the boot. Either that, or you will be spending a lot of time wading through piles of work trying to find one that gives a damn about practical concerns.

May 20, 2008, 12:09pm Top


You are right in that every system of knowledge starts with some assumptions (especially that the world is knowable in part), but it is good to keep in mind that most start with this assumption only in the actual theory that they are espousing.

In other words, (and this is Dewey's problem, in large part at least), they start from the philosophical problem of knowledge (if not, why the theory of how it comes to be?) which puts forth questions about how entities constructed such as ourselves come in contact with a world so different. After starting, in some way, from this skeptical position, they then seek to find some magic way of allowing for our knowing anything in general.

Their assumptions are quite loaded, then, at least in that respect.

Edited: May 20, 2008, 11:52pm Top

I agree with posters alluding to this notion that some assumption is necessary in order to construct a functional version of "that which is true" lest this very truth be blown to bits by nihilism. We have to start with the assumption that there is some truth to describe.

Reading Popper, looking then to Wittgenstein and Mach.

Mostly posting to add one quote to the mix: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." PK Dick, doing a redux on Descartes.

Jun 2, 2008, 10:43am Top

I ascribe to a theory of as-if reality based upon the ideas of Hans Vaihinger, a late 19th century philosopher. He began with Kant's proposition that we are limited to phenomena which is an imperfect basis for reality. I have never read Kant but I accept this proposition based upon what I see as the limits of our senses. We cannot arrive at reality through reason which is abstract and would have to be tested by our senses.
Therefore we function as-if what we think is reality is correct and based upon the consequences of functioning as-if correct when needed. This is similar to the ideas of pragmatism. We don't and can't know what reality is. We just guess and see what happens. For that reason all of the great philosophical systems are flawed at the core.
While this is not much of an answer to the question, "what is reality ?" I don't see how any other answer can be defended. I am then left with the choice to believe in religion for answers to questions that there is no as-if ability to form a working answer to as argued by William James in The Will to Believe.(touchstone error). I have to give credit to my mother for the exposure to Mr. Vaihinger.
I have no credentials in philosophy and would be glad if I was wrong. This is a blind leading the blind answer that says we really don't know anything.

Edited: Jan 16, 2009, 5:13pm Top

I'm a systems guy myself, not a deep thinker, so...

To >3 torus34: >12 zentimental: >21 Froggmaiden: -- If a man is standing in the middle of the forest speaking and there is no woman around to hear him...is he still wrong? - George Carlin.

At one level, a joke, obviously. But convincing one other person, male or female, may be the beginning of knowledge.

If I convince myself alone, even with the most obvious axioms and the soundest reasoning, I haven't convinced anyone since I may be delusional. If I convince one other person, then that shared belief is validated knowledge for these two people. The formalism for validation is somewhat irrelevant as long as the two are mutually convinced.

Consensus is meta-level conviction. Two groups may each be convinced of beliefs which are mutually exclusive if one considers the two groups as one. Does the larger group win? Or, rather, is it a mistake to combine the two groups in the first place? An example: Does water tend to drain with a clockwise or a counter-clockwise rotation? Arctics will have one belief, Antarctics another, and Equatorians (being in the Doldrums) will respond, Huh?

A single reality, manifested in three beliefs. The Truth? "You can't handle the truth!" Really. The "truth," or some version of it, extends to other forces, major and minor, and probabilistic laws that are generally invisible to us.

So, what to do? Develop a belief system, using parables and koans as needed, gather together like-minded people, and feel comfortable with your world as you experience it. And be nice to those Equatorians who don't believe as you do. They may have an equally valid window onto Truth.

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