Thursday, 28 February 2013

Evidentialism vs. empiricism; Philosophy as an anthropological phenomenon

The other day I wrote that the world needs a concept of 'evidentialism' to supplant the perennial argument between rationalism and empiricism; it needs it because of the confusion between critical mindedness and plain, nasty and (dare I say it?) irrational cynicism.

Of course, when a lot of people say 'empiricism' they mean something a lot like 'evidentialism.'  Scientific empiricism is generally understood to involve the priority of experiment and the collection of evidence over abstract, a priori reasoning.  To this extent, 'evidentialism' is a superfluous coinage.  However, in stricter, more philosophical terms, the word 'empiricism' pertains to experience (and hence to a subject), rather than to evidence as such.  Evidence is the thing experienced but it is a secondary term -- something that enters into the equation once the grounds of experience have been established -- and it is these grounds that are the problem, not the evidence itself.

It is in this that empiricism and its other are all too similar; both empiricism and rationalism locate the problematique of knowledge in the subject -- in the mind that knows (or does not know).  And, as Latour, William James and others have argued, once the gap between mind and world is set out as something to be bridged it never goes away; the question of access, of the salto mortale, forever dominates the whole conversation.

The grounds of knowledge, as sociologists have demonstrated time and again, are in epistemic practices not abstract subjectivities.  These processes necessarily involve subjectivities, rationalities, modes of experience and so on but they are reducible to none of these and no one kind of subjectivity, rationality, etc. is germane to all epistemic situations.  Moreover, none of these things can be privileged more than the *evidence* itself. 

If we embrace evidentialism rather than 'empiricism' the experiencing subject is no longer primary and subject/object relations become but one consideration among many.  The processes highlighted by the notion of evidence involve both experiences and rationalities but also artifacts.  Evidentialism is, therefore, a social, practical, processual but also materialist concept.

Instead of subjectivities the artifacts and the processes by which they become artifacts -- i.e. items of evidence -- become primary and we begin from a real, worldly process rather than abstract subjectivity.  Understood in this way, experiences and rationalities are elements of epistemic processes; they are not the grounds of the epistemic in general.

But isn't this sociology of knowledge rather than epistemology?  Isn't this just turning a philosophical problem into a sociological one?  Yes and no; I think we need to think about philosophy itself slightly differently.

If knowledge is a worldly and practically, incrementally produced kind of entity then philosophy that is unrooted from the actual processes by which it is produced is a waste of time; it simply won't get us any closer to understanding what knowledge is or how it can be improved.  The philosopher as 'the critic of abstractions' (as Whitehead puts it) is not above or beyond the grubby complexities of evidence and sociology but, instead, embodies a set of critical capacities necessary for the proper execution of intellectual tasks.  This philosopher is a kind of critical subjectivity that any individual researcher should be able to embody and articulate in the course of research, to some degree.  In this sense 'we are all philosophers' -- although we're not all equally good at it.

Conceived in this way, philosophy is an anthropological phenomenon.  Philosophers as professional individuals simply embody these capacities full-time and (sometimes) get paid for it -- but they don't own any of it.  Individual philosophers most fully experience the mode of rationality particular to philosophy -- consequently they are its principle vehicles in the world.  Experience and reason are thus fully part of the process.

The pertinence of philosophy, thus conceived, to knowledge is that it is a form of rationality intrinsic to the academic or intellectual epistemic process, taken abstractly; it does not comment on the epistemic process from afar but, if it's doing its job, provides some of the tools by which it can occur at all.

That's a slightly jumbled and very schematic sketch of an idea, but I think it makes some sense (or at least it does to me).


  1. This was a very interesting read, and very helpful, as I was previously unsure of the difference between empiricism and evidentialism! Thanks for the clarification.

  2. Thanks! I'm glad that you found it helpful. I should add that the differentiation I've made here is entirely my own and I am no authority on these matters, so take it with a pinch of salt, as they say!