Quora answer: What are some good books on the theory of knowledge (epistemology)?

Feb 16 2014

It turns out that epistemology is neglected somewhat in our tradition because of the emphasis on ontology. Part of the problem is that the characteristics of Knowledge, for instance its perdurance, have been attributed to Being. While Being is unique to Indo-European languages and is an obsession for us, it is unfortunately not universal and therefore is probably an illusion, but knowledge is universal and is not an illusion. So it is unfortunate that in our tradition epistemology is neglected compared to ontology, since ontology is probably not what it appears to us, and is perhaps just a linguistic quirk.

That said, the principle recent book on Epistemology is Foucault’s Order of Things. The translation of the Archeology of Knowledge is flawed, so I would not recommend it. There are two words for knowledge that are used by Foucault, and the whole purpose of the book was to distinguish them, but the translator did not get it, so in fact the translation misses the whole point of the book. This is not my comment but that of Herbert Dreyfus the expert on Foucault in English. I always wondered why that book made no sense, in English.

But a book that makes a lot of sense is the Order of Things. Dreyfus says that Foucault basically took Being and Time and substituted Knowledge for Being. So, according to Dreyfus, even though Foucault does not overtly talk about Heidegger, Heidegger is always in the background of what ever Foucault writes about Knowledge. And in a way Foucault is the one who gave Knowledge its due, in modern Continental Philosophy.

In the Order of Things Foucault extends the idea of the epochs of Being to knowledge and identifies Epistemes, which are eras in which the fundamental categories of knowledge change over time. These Epistemes are between the Paradigms of Kuhn and the Epochs of Being of Heidegger. And thus we are starting to see that there are levels of Emergence, where Emergent events inaugurate new eras within some realm, such as theorizing, or categorizing, or intelligibility.

We can extend these levels at which emergent change occurs into the following series:

Givens
Facticities
Theories
Paradigms
Epistemes
Ontoi — Beings
Existences
Absolutes

Emergent Events can happen at any of these levels, and the broader the scope of the Emergent Event the deeper it reaches into the substrata of the worldview. Emergent events are unpredictable discontinuous changes in the constitution of any of these levels of emergent phenomena in our tradition.

We are most interested in those discontinuous changes that occur in Science like the arising of Quantum Mechanics or the advent of Relativity Theory. These were profound paradigmatic changes.

An example of an Epistemic change is Robert Rosen’s work in Life Itself where he points out that entailment structures are more interesting and complex than normally realized so that Biology can be explained and reasoned about with these richer entailment structures.

Another example of epistemic change is the ideas of Rescher in Cognitive Systematization in which he says that we must continually revisit our axioms in a kind of epidemic hermeneutic circle in order to ground our sciences. But whether these insights actually cause fundamental change in the way we view these various emergent levels of comprehension is something that has to work itself out in the tradition.

So for instance the failure of the Hilbert Program with the advent of Godel’s Undecidablity Proof had a profound affect on our tradition shaking our confidence in ever finding foundations for knowledge and producing the anti-foundationalism we see in postmodern thought. Many have given up the search for foundations completely and critique all moves that look anything like attempts to establish foundations for knowledge.

In a sense Philosophy of Science has, despite its advances, run aground, as has Analytical Philosophy, the avowed handmaiden of Science. And this produces a paradox of some import because the level of the Episteme is where there is the highest degree of perdurance, yet all indications are that this perdurance has not actual foundation and therefore the the perdurance of knowledge is itself just as illusory at that of Being even though it seems otherwise.

In other words the persistence of knowledge may really be a cognitive illusion. And this of course has implications for all disciplines, because our entire educational system is based on the idea that knowledge can be taught and that once taught it persists and shapes our world when we act on knowledge.

When we consider language, the medium for the expression of knowledge, as McWhorter does and see that every aspect of it is fleeting and changeable over time, then we begin to wonder about the nature of knowledge as it is related to the Ratio (the representable and non-representable intelligibles) in relation to the Doxa of Plato’s Divided Line itself and its fleetingness and changeability as well.

We seem to know things through Science and we apply those things we know and they change our lives in fundamental ways as our understanding progressively matures. But on the other hand it is clear that the more we know the more there is that is mysterious and that we definitely don’t know. And so, even as we are gathering more knowledge, existence itself becomes more mysterious not less mysterious. And so this lack of foundations to knowledge is actually more serious a problem than the groundlessness of Being, because it is easy to recognize that Being was a unique Indo-European construct anyway and never was universal, and thus its perdurance was always ultimately illusory.

Foucault in his various Genealogies of disciplines shows how what was taken for knowledge in those disciplines have changed radically over time. Disciplines have obscure and strange beginnings, and when what now seems perfectly obvious as solid knowledge could in the future look just as quirky as what appeared as knowledge in the origins of disciplines. As emergent events occur in disciplines that go deeper to effect the epistemes, ontoses, existences, and absolutes then things that we take for granted as solid today could  be discovered to be radically different that we presuppose today.

In fact, Science itself is probably at risk. In other words, Science can in many ways be seen as an overreaction against religion and tyranny of Doxa which is ungrounded, i.e. superstition. Via the Enlightenment, Reason freed itself from the superstitions of religion, or so it thought, but that brought with it its own problems.

Hegel saw the enlightenment symbolized by Kant’s grounding of Newtonian Physics as culminating in the Terror of the French Revolution in which Reason ungrounded and ultimately nihilistic ran amok. He tried to solve this problem by an appeal to something beyond Reason, i.e. Absolute Spirit. Science operates in the realm opened up by Kant’s critical philosophy and has not really yet come to terms with Hegel’s attempts to solve the problems in Kantianism. This is despite the best efforts of Peirce to reconcile the two approaches, i.e. take the insights of Hegel back into Kantianism.

And some progress has been made for instance by B. Fuller and his discovery of Synergy and Integrity as principles that go beyond the First (monads, isolata) , Second (relata) and Third (continua, mediation) principles of Peirce. But generally because of the Ideological struggles of the Twentieth Century in which Hegel was placed off limits by the guilt by association with Marxism the needed work has been too long deferred.

Zizek is attempting to rehabilitate Hegel in his new book, Less than Nothing, showing that the misinterpretation of Hegel by Marx had disastrous consequences and fundamentally led us astray into unnecessary ideological battles so that we missed the essential point and did not develop past Kant in our grounding of

Science even though science itself continued to develop giving us the incredible paradox of the Antinomies of Quantum Mechanics and Relativity theory that are completely absurd when brought together at the Planck scale. If Science is to survive as an endeavor it must transform out of its role as the mere  dual of Religion, and it must also get beyond the Kantian foundations that worked well for Newtonian science but no longer help us to understand contemporary science. Science has just basically outrun all attempts to ground it and produced what Husserl calls the Krisis in the Lifeworld.

Heidegger, in Being and Time, proposed a solution to this problem but that solution was not adopted in Philosophy of Science which has pretty much realized that it is in fact a failed project, and so even if Philosophy tries to be just a handmaiden of science that really does not work very well either.

Some bold thinking is called for, but does not seem to be forthcoming as yet. We cannot use Quantum Mechanics and Relativity Theory as our models for our view of the foundations of science but must look for something deeper in the nomos that can explain why we see these paradoxical views of nature like Kant did adopting the Calculus as the basis for his Philosophy of Newtonian Science.

Badiou made the move of proposing Set Theory as the basis of Ontology. But this ignores all the other candidates for the foundation of Mathematics like Category Theory or Merotopology, etc. A particular foundation for mathematics cannot be the basis, but rather there must be something more basic from which all the foundations for mathematics arise.

My own answer for this is the Pleroma, i.e. the field out of which the worldview arises and which is the basis for all the various possible foundations for mathematics.

But what ever the answer is to this problem of the foundation of knowledge that ground science, some answer must be proposed eventually, and that answer needs to take into account and surpass the attempts of Hegel to solve the problem with Kantianism. So, in a sense, we can say that the really good book we need on Epistemology is still missing, but the best we have in the mean time is The Order of Things by Foucault which demonstrates the problem, i.e. the categories change over time emergently.

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