Wednesday 17 April 2013

The limitations of being 'post'-epistemological; The inevitability of judgement

There's a lot of talk lately about being 'post-epistemological' or about displacing epistemology with ontology -- or even with ethics.  While I agree that the flaws and limitations of epistemology (and epistemologists) are many and sundry that doesn't mean that we can do without it (or them) -- quite the contrary.

Without epistemology, research is impossible.  Imagine two (admittedly cartoonish) characters that you might meet in the course of fieldwork:

Person 1: *hands clenched and trembling, voice quaking* 'I was there, I saw it with my own two eyes, the image is burned into my mind; it was like this: ...'

Person 2: *hands casually flopping about, voice carefree* 'Oh, I met some bloke down the pub who said that his sister's husband's, cousin was there; he said that she said he said that he was too drunk to stand up at the time but apparently it was like this: ...'

If you don't accord the first of these greater evidential significance then your fieldwork is plainly little more than a bad joke.  And to accord differential significance is to make an epistemological decision about preferred modes of evidence collection and inference from that evidence.  Such a decision not only judges the veritability of a given account, it also draws a line around the research project, delimiting it; without such a line there is no way of ending a project since it must include everything.  The line makes the research possible.

One might object thus: 'Of course I prioritise 1 over 2 but not because of any judgement of any veridical judgement but for ethical reasons; person 1 is clearly deeply affected by the experience and, thus, deserves to be taken seriously for moral reasons; person 2 is clearly unaffected and so has no real claim to the situation.'  This is a perfectly acceptable and even admirable criterion for deciding who to believe but, frankly, I think that to say that this is the only criterion one is employing in such a situation is a lie.  Ethics may reinforce and justify or even primarily motivate the decision to take 1 seriously and 2 not but to pretend that there has been no judgement vis-a-vis the cogency and reliability of the evidence in these two accounts is absurd.  I simply don't believe anyone who could say that they prefer 1 over 2 entirely on ethical and not at all on epistemological grounds.

For all the sins it is associated with, epistemology is not a dirty word.  Not talking about criteria of validity doesn't mean you've transcended epistemology, only that you've failed to declare it; that you're hiding it, denying it, repressing it.  Cognition itself is inconceivable without constant judgements with regard to the conditions of valid knowledge.  Epistemology, as a knowledge practice, merely raises such judgements to an abstract, formal level -- as does ontology with questions of existence.