All Knowledge Is Meta-Knowledge, Research Time, 24/04/2014

I’m not really going to explore in detail the reflexive nature of consciousness — that sort of post would have to encompass the entire history and conceptual development of contemporary phenomenology at least. Really, I’m just writing a short post to plug my latest reply essay available open source at Social Epistemology. I’m joining an exchange by two writers who are discussing the nature of relativism. My own take on relativism itself is clear enough in the article, and if you want to read that, you can do that here. I strongly recommend it, as I’m quite a sharp philosophical writer.

My discussion at Social Epistemology concentrates on the fear moral relativism that arises when we consider that variation in moral beliefs is natural because the common store of human goods (freedom from harm, the ability to flourish) underdetermine which moral system we develop to safeguard them. Instead of being frightened by spectres of moral relativism if we admit that many moral truths can satisfy the same practical goals, we should instead craft a philosophical science of morality, analyzing and categorizing moral systems and theorizing about how they can change over time.

However, I want to make a few remarks about relativism in knowledge here, the type of relativism that I skipped over in my reply. Such a small topic, I know. But my thoughts about knowledge are quite akin to my thoughts about morality, at least in terms of how I think philosophy should handle the subject. Over the years, I’ve only soured on the conception of moral philosophy as an inquiry to find the definitively true good and right. I don’t think there’s an answer to that inquiry. But the project of moral science, the systematization and creation of moral concepts, principles, and problem areas, I think has always been the most effective philosophical approach to the subject.

This chicken does not want me to have it for dinner.
The same goes for knowledge. There are different ways to understand facts and systematize them. This isn’t the same as anything-goes relativism that would scare the crap out of people. Here’s an example. Take a fact about the price of a chicken in the grocery store. This fact can be understood as having an immediate practical impact on whether I buy that chicken for dinner tonight. It can also be understood as an expression of the price fluctuations of a national agricultural market. It can also be understood as the product of a factory farm (a morally relevant fact, in fact). I’ve just carried out some philosophy as epistemological science. I’ve taken a simple fact and classified it according to its meaning in several different contexts. None of these contexts take precedence or priority over any other as the true nature of the chicken’s price.* They’re different modes of understanding. Philosophy conceived as an epistemological science would develop different modes of understanding and map their relations to each other.

* You might wonder how the chicken feels about spending a life cooped up on a farm until it’s killed for me to buy it at a market in Ontario and eat it for dinner at my home. That would be another set of knowledge modes. 

Other philosophers (not all, but some) have occasionally told me that philosophy is about inquiring for the answers to eternal questions, searching for the eternal truth of existence. Apart from finding this definition of the discipline too pretentious for me to handle myself, I just find this notion terribly old-fashioned. The human world (let alone the world wider than human scopes alone) is too complex for any profound question to eventually have a univocal answer. Philosophy has to maintain its relevance in today’s world by conceiving of itself as the discipline of pure understanding, conceptually mapping a fluctuating world in all of its complex categories. 

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