Archive for the ‘Epistemology’ Category

Quine and the attack on analyticity

quineWillard Van Orman Quine (1908 – 2000) was an American philosopher best known for his work on the logic of language and his criticism of the analytic/synthetic distinction. He is commonly considered one of the most important thinkers in the school of analytic philosophy.

Hume’s fork first brought the problem of analytic and synthetic statements to the attention of modern philosophers. What would follow from Hume was the edifice of Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealistic method and his redefining of the analytical and synthetic to also include the a priori and a posteriori.

Quine, in his work on language, would however come to doubt the validity of analytic statements (i.e. such as “All bachelors are unmarried men”). Quine argued that all attempts to ground analytic truths rely on circular logic. Quine further argues that philosophers like Kant do not sufficiently take into account analytic statements dependence on the contingency of language. In essence, Quine collapses the analytic into the synthetic, along with the in/famous distinction between the two.

It should be noted that Quine’s attack on analyticity is broadly an attack on rationalism and metaphysics itself. Given that most metaphysical systems involve the use of deductive arguments from analytical statements, it follows that if Quine is correct the consequences for metaphysical argument would be disastrous.

So what is Quine’s answer to this problem? Quine says that the best we can do is Humean matter of facts and synthetic claims. And the best pursuit of these claims is the modern scientific method, a method that Quine called a “naturalised epistemology”.


Karl Popper on science and falsification

Karl_PopperKarl Popper (1902 – 1994) was an Austrian born philosopher that spent most of his academic life working in New Zealand and Britain. In his youth, he worked in road construction and cabinet making, but struggled with the toil of heavy labour. Popper obtained his doctorate in psychology in 1928, and by 1937 he had obtained an academic position in New Zealand that enabled him to flee the rise of Nazism in Europe.

Popper completed many political works, but he is most well known for his work on the philosophy of science. Particularly, his proposal that all scientific theory should be falsifiable; that it is a strict condition that a scientific theory should be overturn-able given empirical evidence to its contrary.

In the modern era, Francis Bacon is the father of scientific philosophy with his inductivist method. Bacon’s idea was that one would observe the world, propose a law, and then confirm that law by further observation of many particulars. This law may later be modified or discarded pending further empirical study.

However, David Hume’s criticism of this method was that human beings do not directly perceive the causal connections between events (a.k.a problem of induction). This is a problem for Baconian science in that while one may see certain things and certain activities at certain times, this is by no means proof of any law of operation in nature.

Popper provides a solution for this problem: scientific theory must be falsifiable. The popular example is of the sun rising every morning. Popper states that while there is no way to prove that the sun will rise every morning empirically, one may formulate a scientific theory that the sun will rise every morning. There is no need to reject this theory until there is a morning where the sun does not rise – in which case a new theory will need to be formulated.

Popper works under the assumption that no scientific theory can be proved true, it can only be falsified. In this way it is like ancient Pyrrhonism, where the thought that one way is better than another lays in the deluded belief that one could prove their prejudice true.


Ludwig Wittgenstein on logic and language

ludwig_wittgensteinLudwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was an Austrian born British philosopher. Wittgenstein produced only one published book on philosophy (Tractatus Logico-Philosophus in 1921) while he was alive, but is nonetheless considered one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. He was born into a wealthy family in Austria, but would later gave away his inheritance to his family, stating that philosophy was the only work that gave him satisfaction.

Wittgenstein was a student of Russell. Russell described him as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” I have written previously regarding Russell’s unique style of Platonism, which emphasised the importance of terms. Wittgenstein, inspired by both Russell and Frege, takes this one step further in contending that all major philosophical problems have their being in the misunderstanding of the logic of language.

At the heart of the Wittgensteinian philosophy is the saying/showing distinction. Wittgenstein contended that what can be shown cannot be said. But if all philosophy is bound by language, then there are simply things that cannot be known. In this sense Wittgenstein channels Kant, where the necessary apparatus for making sense of experience are things that themselves cannot be experienced and known. In this way Wittgenstein shows the Kantian limitation of Frege-Russell logic, like a paradox it may explain all things but remains itself unexplained.

Friedrich Nietzsche and perspectivism

nietzscheFriedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) was a German philosopher known for his body of work criticising religion, morality and contemporary culture as well as his ideas regarding the primacy of the will in human affairs. Like Kierkegaard, he was an aphorist whose work was rich in irony and metaphor. Nietzsche enjoyed only a brief career as a professional academic due to health problems that frustrated him for most of his life. At age fourty-four, he underwent a complete mental breakdown and lived his remaining years in the care of his sister.

Like most great thinkers, the interconnectedness of Nietzsche’s ideas can be crystallised through an analysis of his epistemology. Nietzsche begins by dismissing the ideas of rationalist thinkers such as Plato and Kant regarding an objective reality and our minds ability to known it. Nietzsche’s primary reason for rejecting the rationalist thesis is that there is no idea that is independent of interpretation and no interpretation that is independent from an interpreter. Furthermore, each interpreter is influenced by cultural norms, language and etc. Nietzsche’s epistemology of interpretation has come to be known as perspectivism.

There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about a matter, the more eyes, different eyes, we know how to bring to bear on one and the same matter, that much more complete will our “concept” of this matter, our “objectivity” be. – Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic.

Perspectivism at first glance may appear to collapse into relativism – but for Nietzsche this was not the case. While perspectivism is relative in its refusal of  objectivism, according to Nietzsche there are some views that are simply false (such as the view that there is an objective reality). The consequences of Nietzsche’s skepticism caused him to reject a host of philosophical concepts such as substance, being, object-subject and etc. that were generally taken for granted by both modern empiricists and rationalists alike.

Charles Peirce and pragmatism

indexCharles Peirce (1839 – 1914) was an American polymath known primarily in his time for his work as a scientist. However, his popular legacy is the development of the distinctly American school of thought that would come to be known as pragmatism.

Peirce was educated as a chemist and worked as a scientist for over thirty years. Peirce’s philosophical work can best be understood in the light of his scientific predilections; that philosophy was no different to modern science, an experimental discipline that ought to yield real insight into the operations of the natural world.

Peirce authored what he called the “pragmatic axiom”:

It appears, then, that the rule for attaining the third grade of clearness of apprehension is as follows: Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

– Popular Science Monthly, v. 12, pp. 286–302

The above signaled the birth of the pragmatic thesis that it is the function of an idea that represents its truthfulness rather than any supposed correspondence to reality. With its rejection of classical and medieval rigour, pragmatism conforms neatly to the spirit of modern theoretical inquiry.

At first glance, the association of pragmatism and the verificationism of positivsts like Comte seems extensive. Yet, Peirce did not neglect metaphysics but rather subjected his philosophical exploration to a thoroughly pragmatic and scientific rigour – the purpose of which was to eliminate doubt and move toward certainty.

Auguste Comte and positivism

Auguste_Comte2Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857) was a French modern philosopher. Comte was born towards the end of the French Revolution, and the upheaval of that time would become a large influence on his work. His solution to the lethargy of post-revolutionary France was the development of his social theory of the “Religion of Humanity”, which would eventually be succeeded by the post-Enlightenment movement of secular humanism.

Like Hegel and Rousseau, Comte took a tripartite view of the evolution of society. Comte called the first stage of this development the theological stage. This era was marked by three sub-stages of fetishism, polytheism and monotheism. The hallmark of the theological stage is the sluggish progress of a man that is largely shaped by his unquestioning acceptance of the crude beliefs of his ancestors.

The second stage Comte named the metaphysical stage. By metaphysics, Comte is not referring to the philosophical systems of say Plato or Aquinas, but rather to  France prior the revolution when thinkers like Rousseau and Voltaire began to question the dogmas of religion and the monarchy.

Comte’s third epoch was the scientific society. In this final stage, there was no need for appeals to either religion or unprovable metaphysical assertions. In their place, man was to apply the scientific method to his problems in order to reach an informed solution.

To support his utopian scientific society, Comte invented the empirical epistemology usually called positivism, evidentialism or verificationism. According to Comte, the only kind of fact is scientific fact – those that are fully investigable by the modern scientific method and borne out by empirical evidence. In this way, Comte can be considered to have finished the work that Voltaire had started in his criticism of metaphysics.

Comte’s thought was popular in the 19th century and was largely influtential on thinkers such as Marx, Nietzsche and Mill, but began to lose favour when the obvious criticism of positivism as self-vitiating arose. Positivism enjoyed a brief rebirth in the early 21st century in the work of science popularisers such as Richard Dawkins.


Hegel and idealism

Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831Georg Hegel (1770 – 1831) is amongst the most influential of German philosophers of the modern period. He is arguably the most important member of a group of continental idealist thinkers called the “German Idealists”. Hegel, like greats such as Aristotle and Aquinas before him, was a systematic thinker. In his works, he constructs a framework that accounts for diverse topics such as politics, anthropology, the object/subject dichotomy, mind and etc. using the metaphysics of absolute idealism.

A way to understand the absolute idealism of Hegel is to first study the more moderate transcendental idealism of Kant. Kant is an idealist insofar as he contends that the necessary conditions for cognition are found in the human mind. However, Kant also says that we know an object to the extent that it is an object to us – and thus while we know the object as an appearance we do not know the “object in itself”.

Here is where Hegel is more radical than Kant. According to Kant, just because we cannot know the thing in itself, does not mean it is impossible for the human mind to possess real knowledge of external objects. And this real knowledge presupposes the real existence of these objects. But for the German Idealists, the idea of a thing in itself (i.e. a mind independent external object) is a manifest contradiction.

The argument is straightforward: things in themselves do not exist because an object can only be when it is an object to a mind. The argument is taken further by postulating that even the idea of the thing in itself is a product of mental activity only. In the end, German Idealism may find more in common with Berkeley than with Kant.