The New Scientist has a short article with the title, “Philosophers of Knowledge, Your Time Has Come.” Right on! Oh, but there’s a catch.
First, the setup.
A COMMON refrain heard around New Scientist‘s offices in recent weeks has been “episte… what?!” Even among educated and well-informed people, epistemology – the study of knowledge – is neither a familiar word nor a well-known field of enquiry. But it has never been more important.
Again, this seems right. And many of the folks working in epistemology, and social epistemology in particular, have been working hard on getting the word out about the study of knowledge, the analysis of evidence, how argument works, and so on. And it’s not just since the Trump Presidency — it’s been urgent for longer than that. At least since classical Athens. OK, so the New Scientist wants philosophers to enter the public sphere and discuss accounts of knowledge.
And herein lies a problem. In the current crisis over truth, epistemology is nowhere to be seen. . . . Philosophers may be reluctant to enter the public square, afraid of being derided by the post-truthers as yet more “fake news” or tarred with that pejorative term “expert”. But epistemology has become one the most relevant and urgent philosophical problems facing humanity. Philosophers really need to come out – or be coaxed out – of the shadows.
Give me a break. Seriously. (In fact, when I read the above paragraph, I said something much stronger.)
The argument seems to be: philosophers are in the shadows, because we don’t see them in the public sphere. And it must be because the ‘post-truthers’ have been keeping them there, or because they are just shy beasts.
The first problem is that this first line is an argument from ignorance. Just because you haven’t seen X, it doesn’t mean there aren’t X’s. In this case, the problem is that you’re often looking in places where you’re not seeing them. Perhaps if one were to, say, go look. Ask google. Maybe ask a philosopher, “Hey, are there folks who do this epistemology stuff, but aren’t all academic-y who can sell this to a public audience?”
And just for the record, here are five, just right off the top of my head, who are public epistemology folks, who’ve been doing it, even before the great wave of orange anti-intellectualism. Michael Lynch. Jennifer Lackey. Lee McIntyre. Alvin Goldman. Philip Kitcher. And one more that came to me while googling the pages for the others. Elizabeth Anderson. And then there are lots of other folks doing that work, too. I mean, geez, just look around for a second. (And for the record, I count the work I do and what I’ve done with Rob Talisse as in this domain.)
The second bit of reasoning is truly insulting and erroneous as an explanation. That philosophers shy from public controversy is not just nonsense, really, it is silly. And it’s here that I think I have an explanation for why the folks at the New Scientist don’t know of any philosophers. It’s that THEY ignore philosophers of knowledge. I can recall almost every time, say, back in the NEW ATHEISM debates, the scientists would scoff at the philosophers when we talked about knowledge. Why? Because they thought THEY knew about knowledge, and we were bullshitters. And that yielded the garbage arguments in Dawkins’ God Delusion and all the other ways scientists think they can handle questions external to their domains of inquiry. And so when the editors of the New Scientist says, “Hey, where are all the philosophers?” the answer is: “We’ve been here all along… it’s just that you’ve been ignoring us.”