I often take for granted that there is something to be said about how we know things. For example:
- In high school I took a class titled Theory of Knowledge that was a combination intro to philosophy course and applied epistemology workshop.
- My friends are concerned with questions about how to ensure artificial intelligence learns human values and so want to understand how we learn values ourselves.
- I am perhaps now among the ranks of existentialist philosophers of phenomenology.
So it’s probably unsurprising that I have spent a lot of time thinking about and trying to improve my ability to know.
One methodology I’ve found especially helpful has been what I, for a long time, thought of as literary criticism but for interpreting what people said as evidence about what they knew about reality. I first started doing this when reading self-help books. Many books in that genre contain plainly incorrect reasoning based on outdated psychology that has either been disproved or replaced by better models (cf. Jeffers, Branden, Carnegie, and even Covey). Despite this, self-help still helps people. To pick on Jeffers, she goes in hard for daily self-affirmation, but even ignoring concerns with this line of research raised by the replication crisis, evidence suggests it’s unlikely to help much toward her instrumental goal of habit formation. Yet she makes this error in the service of giving half of the best advice I know: feel the fear and do it anyway. The thesis that she is wrong because her methods are flawed contradicts the antithesis that she is right because her advice helps people, so the synthesis must lie in some perspective that permits her both to be wrong about the how and right about the what simultaneously.
My approach was to read her and other self-help more from the perspective of the author and the expected world-view of their readers than from my own. This lead me to realize that, lacking better information about how the human mind works but wanting to give reasons for the useful patterns they had found, self-help authors often engage in rationalization to fit current science to their conclusions. This doesn’t make their conclusions wrong, but it does hide their true reasoning which is often based more on capta than data and thus phenomenological rather than strictly scientific reasoning. But given that they and we live in an age of scientism, we demand scientific reasons of our thinkers, even if they are poorly founded and later turn out to be wrong, or else reject their conclusions for lack of evidence. Thus the contradiction is sublimated by understanding the fuller context of the writing.
Once I had a way to make sense of modern self-help that is both wrong and right, I turned those same skills to more ancient texts to see if I might find some valuable results despite questionable reasoning. The situation turned out to be better than I expected, for although their metaphysics was tainted with the supernatural, ancient writers more often respected experience enough to rely on it in their reasoning rather than reject it as unscientific. Thus I found compelling wisdom in the Daodejing when I needed direction out of the nihilism I found myself in after seeing fully through the inadequacy of the modern worldview. And as I worked through the nebulous and terse Laozi, I was unknowingly honing against the original purpose of my as-yet unnamed skill, because what it turns out I was doing was hermeneutics.
I first heard about hermeneutics in a Ted Chiang story that Mike Plotz pointed me towards and then ran into it again when doing research for “Phenomenological Complexity Classes”. I probably didn’t learn about hermeneutics earlier because it’s mainly associated with interpretation of sacred texts and until the 20th century was practically synonymous with Biblical literary analysis. But Heidegger, hoeing the same rows as I am now nearly a century earlier, devised a notion of philosophical hermeneutics as phenomenologically informed epistemology that adapted hermeneutics for the secular world.
Let me explain.
Epistemology precedes metaphysics. Every major philosophical tradition in the world has come to realize that you can’t talk about metaphysics directly. Everything we know about the world comes from our perceptions of it, and so instead we can study epistemology, through epistemology construct ontology, and through ontology may try to infer metaphysics, viz. the true nature of reality. That epistemology comes before metaphysics is a descriptive stance — it is trying to explain how we actually know anything about the world rather than tell us how we should know the world. This descriptiveness holds even if realism is true in its strongest form because it would still be the case that we know about the real world only via observation of it. Thus we can never truly divorce the discussion of what we know from how we know it.
It then follows that if we are going to know anything we must take account of how we know it. Classical epistemology and the epistemology of analytical philosophy are primarily concerned with reasoning, i.e. based on some known truths or facts, what can be logically concluded. This is valuable as far as it goes, but ignores the question of how we get any facts to start with. Indian philosophy has explored ways of knowing in-depth for over two millennia, and Indian ideas entered the Western tradition via 19th century German philosophers. This gave rise to phenomenology, which seeks to study how we know anything, and it finds that the starting point is observation. But if everything we know comes from observation, it must be that all knowledge is subjective in that it is mediated by a subject observing an object. And if all knowledge is subjective, maybe we should give up the project of epistemology all together in favor of solipsism.
But our experiences themselves point towards the existence of an external reality unaffected by our beliefs. Thus, strange as it is to say, solipsism seems to go against our subjective experiences. And so far as we are willing to believe that things exist prior to experiencing them, the existentialist viewpoint, then we can say that knowledge is intersubjective — it exists between multiple subjects experiencing the same object. And to go one step further, to know about subjects observing objects, a subject must experience that observation — an experience of experience — even to observe their own observations. Thus it seems that all knowledge, direct and meta, is obtained via experience; epistemology must have a phenomenological basis; and therefore epistemology is ultimately founded on phenomenological methods even if we are most familiar with science and other epistemological methods that aim to be robust to differences in experience.
Thus all knowing is fundamentally rooted in interpretation of experience or sense-making. This creates a interpretive circle where where full understanding makes holonic demands on the thinker to understand reality as a whole and as many parts in an integrated manner. And since interpretation of experience is what hermeneutics is all about, it seems an appropriate approach for dealing with not just texts but all experiences, both our own and those of others.
This is old hat, though. By the 1960s most Western thinkers, scientists included, were aware of these arguments in favor of hermeneutics. So why did I have to reinvent the concept on my own before I was able to look in the right places to learn about it? My best guess is that starting with Russell, Popper, and Gardner and continuing with Sagan, Dawkins, and Tyson, intellectual discourse has moved heavily towards favoring material realism as the only acceptable philosophical approach for right-minded, modern folks. This seemed especially necessary in the face of the anti-scientific counter-counterculture, and my own education certainly reinforces this idea: I was indoctrinated into the belief that only science and logic are able to determine what is true and to believe anything else would have been to betray my subculture of rational skepticism. That we live in a world where climate science is politics and human biodiversity is racism only reinforces the notion that anti-scientific thinking must be purged, collateral damage be damned.
Given this context, it might be that philosophical hermeneutics has been ignored because it does not neatly support the pro-science narrative. Interpretation of observation is the sort of opening that can be widened to let in any belief you like, so if you favor science it seems better to disallow any interpretation than give the enemy space. But even if we set this cultural context aside, it remains difficult to favor more hermeneutics due to the lack of rigor found in most social sciences and the replication crises sweeping as far afield as physics. That we as a society have difficulty doing trustworthy science, even when strengthened by the existence of opposition, leaves little hope that we can reliably apply philosophical hermeneutics and other phenomenological methods and maintain our epistemic virtue. Yet these structural problems do nothing to diminish the timeless philosophical value to be found in interpreting experience.
I see no easy resolution to this conflict of interest between the completeness of epistemological methods granted by using philosophical hermeneutics and the consistency of excluding broader notions of interpretation to protect us from gullibility. We live in a time when we trust our ability to know so little that we would rather give up useful techniques than be mislead, and while this is perhaps “healthier” than the pre-Enlightenment stance of preferring beliefs that were more convenient than true, it leaves room for the rationalist project and other efforts to curate a garden where stronger epistemology can grow. Perhaps from that garden can be spread the seeds of a more complete approach to knowledge.