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Epistemology: You keep using that word – 1

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In the movie the Princess Bride, in response to his Sicilian employer repeatedly blurting out the word ‘unbelievable!‘, the character Inigo Montoya utters what has become an iconic and meme-tastic line:

“You keep using that word, I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

, which makes it the perfect lead-in for discussing Epistemology. Why? Because too often its origins and official meaning, are at odds with its history & modern practices, which, given that the term is concerned with verifying the truth of what we know and how we know it, is deliciously ironic.

But, to avoid the Inigo Montoya treatment, before going into that use and abuse, we should clarify what the word means, which the search-engine branch of the Oxford English Dictionary defines as:

1. the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.
“he grappled with metaphysics and epistemology in his writings and sermons”

Fair enough. However the 3rd and 4th lines of the Encyclopedia Britanica online, reveals something that’s worth giving your attention to:

epistemology, the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge. The term is derived from the Greek epistēmē (“knowledge”) and logos (“reason”), and accordingly the field is sometimes referred to as the theory of knowledge. Epistemology has a long history within Western philosophy, beginning with the ancient Greeks and continuing to the present. Along with metaphysics, logic, and ethics, it is one of the four main branches of philosophy, and nearly every great philosopher has contributed to it.

, which is more than a little bit, shall we say, ‘misleading’. The site etymology online provides an important clue as to why I say that, with:

epistemology (n.) “theory of knowledge,” 1856, coined by Scottish philosopher James F. Ferrier (1808-1864) from Greek episteme “knowledge, acquaintance with (something), skill, experience,” from Ionic Greek epistasthai “know how to do, understand,” literally “overstand,” from epi “over, near” (see epi-) + histasthai “to stand,” from PIE root *sta- “to stand, make or be firm.”

Do you notice a wee bit of discrepancy between the claim that ‘Epistemology’ traces its history as the ’4th branch of philosophy’ back to the classical era of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the fact that the word was first coined by a Scotsman in 1856?!

How did a term coined by an obscure Scotsman, James F. Ferrier, become accepted in modernity as the name for their ‘ancient’ and oh-so important ‘4th branch of philosophy‘? Possibly because the name for that part of the German idealism behind their new ’4th branch’s system for ‘justified belief’, ‘Wissenschaftslehre‘, wasn’t exactly a catchy term, and even though it was doing an impressive job of dividing knowledge from reality, it was far too cumbersome and thoroughly modern sounding of a term to be credibly associated with the ‘great philosophers’ of ancient Greece, who plainly could have had no knowledge of either it or their new ’4th branch of philosophy’.

The word ‘Epistemology’, OTOH, coined from the Greek term ‘Episteme’, which Aristotle had used in his metaphysics for one of the forms of knowledge, looked and sounded the part, and it could easily be used to work modernism and the ‘great philosophers’ of ancient Greece, into the same breath. Taking a glance at an Engram viewer (which references the number of mentions of a term in the libraries of books that’ve been scanned), together with a helpfully misleading reference from, of all places, Wikipedia, illustrates that the new term had come into ‘popular’ usage in less than a century, which helped serve an additional purpose:

“Luciano Floridi considers that there was a “renaissance” of epistemology between the two world wars. He describes it as “a bridge between early modern and contemporary philosophy of knowledge.”[13] …”

, and true to its misleading origins, we can cue Inigo Montoya once again here, over associating with the word ‘bridge’, as it’s use has less to do with being a ‘bridge’ between competing modern philosophies, than as an offramp created to detour unwary thinkers away from any remaining paths to premodern philosophy; it’s used to give the impression that the only worthwhile philosophical destinations were (are) one or more of modernity’s many fractious varieties, while at the same time portraying any classical alternatives as little more than pesky footnotes (IYKYK) that aren’t worth exploring.

And that’s why I say that Inigo Montoya’s “You keep using that word, I don’t think it means what you think it means.“, is the perfect meme for modern ‘Epistemology’.

Epistemology: A method in need of its meaning

To be ‘fair’, my identifying ‘Epistemology’ as the ’4th branch of Philosophy’, is a matter of convenience, as a quick search will show you that modernity now refers to anywhere from three to ten or more ‘branches’, most of which differ even on which branch is first, let alone fourth, as well as multiple variations such as having Ethics paired with Esthetics as minor branches under Axiology as the ‘major’ branch for studing ‘value’, and so on.

Following after Socrates’ time, when philosophy essentially consisted of one branch, the ‘love of wisdom’, somewhere between Aristotle (who saw Logic as a tool, not a branch) and the Stoics (who did view Logic as a branch), and began to be classify it along the lines of three major questions of ‘First Philosophy’:

1‘What is there to know?’ (Metaphysics, physics, sciences, etc.),
2‘How do I know that?’Logic, mathematics, etc.,
3‘What should I do about that?’ Ethics, politics, economics, aesthetics (art), rhetoric, etc.,

, which in time became referred to as the major and minor branches of philosophy.

The problem with the Modern’s use of ‘branches’, is that by treating them as separate and distinct compartments, rather than integrated features of one philosophy, they are used to limit & control philosophical thought, creating and exploiting divisions within it.
For those with an interest in how Philosophy developed, this link gives a fascinating tour of that, some of which I agree with, much of which I do not (especially with the site’s approval of Wittgenstein – gack!), but all of which is interestingly, and for the most part, fairly, presented.

The truth is, of course, that despite never having had use of the term ‘Epistemology’, a deep concern for the nature, meaning, and validation of knowledge, was something that philosophers from Socrates (who lost his life in that pursuit) to Aquinas were very much driven by. While Thales of Miletus is usually credited as having been the first philosopher, what he began wondering about was the physical world around us, it was Socrates who first began methodically wondering about what it is we do when thinking, and why, which his student Plato elaborated upon in his dialogs, and which Plato’s student, Aristotle, reformulated into the first means for establishing an intelligible framework and systematic means for seeking, justifying, and conveying, our knowledge of what is real and true, and what to do about that.

How the ancients managed to do that without the use of modernism’s shiny new ‘4th branch of Philosophy‘, was by not approaching philosophy as a conglomeration of compartmentalized ‘branches’, but by employing philosophy as a system whose features enabled us to examine and give guidance for your thinking, from “First Principles” (Metaphysics) that root your reasoning in experience, and identifying what is, and what truth is, through the three forms of knowledge we grasp all of that through, together with the analytics which uses logic to validate your knowledge (as a carpenter would use a tool), with ethics clarifying how to properly respond in light of what you know to be real and true, and how best to express that through the rhetoric and poetics. In short, in their view the purpose of philosophy – the love of wisdom – not only required your being able to meaningfully know what is real and true, and how to justify it, that was central to philosophy as a whole, rather than one of a number of compartmentalized branches that tend to produce incomprehensible answers bereft of meaning, as it tends to operate in our world today.

From classical times on up into the Renaissance, not only had philosophy provided the means for bringing method and clarity to how people thought, it also stressed the importance of exposing those shadowy notions which sophists are so adept at using to acquire the power to operate within and upon society. But of course, as what the modernists desire most is the power to reinvent reality in their own image, they needed those shadowy uncertainties to operate within, and so to one degree or another, they all – from Descartes through Hegel, and on down the line to today – gravitated towards ever more clever means to ‘muddy the waters to make them appear deep‘.

As it turned out, the Scotsman’s new ‘ancient term’ of ‘Epistemology’ gave a useful appearance of legitimacy to the modernist’s new ’4th branch of philosophy’, and ever since then, it (in actual practice, rather than its supposed meaning) has been the primary tool for moving the philosophical goal posts away from what can be known to be real and true, and over onto the turf of whichever ideology seems most suited to the moment for steering popular thought away from the clarity and wisdom of premodern philosophy, which had for over two thousand years made modernity’s new tool and branch unnecessary.

And yet with all that having been said, I’ve often spoken of the importance of Epistemology… why? Because despite my hostility to how the term has been foisted upon us and to how it is routinely misused & abused, the fact is that Epistemology – its purported meaning, rather than its modern practice – entails the unified application of metaphysics, logic, and ethics, and anyone who takes the time to employ the term in accordance with its proper meaning, will regain the ability to safely navigate around the many booby-traps that modernity has positioned in our path, and every instance of doing so helps with putting the West back upon solid ground again.

We’ll look at how to align what Epistemology does, with what the word means, over the next few posts.

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