The problem with epistemology: science, deconstruction, wisdom and ritual

What might be called sense-data epistemology always niggled at me. It seemed to be that our apprehension of reality was more interactive and immersive than the sense-data framing implied. It was not, however, until I came across the online lectures of psychologist John Vervaeke that I became aware of a framework that gave my niggle substance. The answer turned out to be, as should not have been surprising, not more philosophy, but more cognitive science.

A problem with how epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge, has been predominantly practised in Western philosophy is that episteme — which referred originally to a specific type of knowing: knowing that or propositional knowledge — is only one form of knowledge, yet it is the form of knowledge that mainstream philosophy, especially in the analytic tradition, has overwhelmingly concentrated on. There is also techne, procedural knowledge, knowing how; noesis, perspectival knowledge, knowing of; and gnosis, participatory knowledge, knowing in. Our knowledge of reality is, like our cognition, not only propositional, it is embodied and extended.

So, no analysis of episteme, of propositional knowledge, can remotely provide an adequate theory of knowledge. Experience is not a proposition, yet we definitely have knowledge of our experience. I think therefore I am is a proposition. The experience of thinking is not, but is part of our knowledge.

Moreover, as psychologist John Vervaeke puts eloquently, each form of knowing has a different mark of connection with reality. With episteme it is truth, with techne it is power, with noesis it is presence and gnosis it is something like attunement.

A theory of knowledge that is some variety of justified true belief is not going to be a satisfactorily complete theory of knowledge, given that truth is a feature of propositions, so is neither a comprehensive measure of connection to reality for knowledge nor a feature of all knowledge. Unless we are going to claim that things which are not propositions can be true. Which is a usage that does occur, but is better understood as meaning reality-connected. Conceiving of belief as entirely propositional is not a good basis for a comprehensive theory of knowledge.

(Thinking of knowledge as much more than just propositional knowledge may cast some light on why it has been so hard to teach robots to walk. Walking is not only a propositional matter, so is not a straightforward computational problem.)


The failure of epistemology made postmodernism possible, and the failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary.
Stephen Hicks

What happens if we isolate propositions from truth? If we deny that propositions can have any reliable connection to reality and so cannot have their specific measure of reality connection (truth)?

We continue to act in the world. We still have techne, noesis and gnosis. What will happen is the other forms of information, of knowing, will become both more salient and less tested.

If discourse is entirely self-referential, if it is not reality-connecting, then we are left with power. If discourse cannot be about truth, then it must be about acting in the world. Words become acts of power. Society becomes interactions of power, structures of power relations. Human social action, if it is not about expressing experience and feeling, becomes about power without purpose except power: having it, acquiring it, rearranging it.

We still have our perspectives, but without episteme we cannot interrogate or connect our perspectives except in terms of power. Every perspective becomes validated within itself. Their social validation is a matter of acts of power, not of truth seeking or truth judgement.

We still have our experience of being us, but we have the same problem. Without episteme, we cannot interrogate or connect our experiences, except in terms of power. Every person’s experience becomes validated within itself. To the extent there is any social validation, it will be via acts of power, not of truth seeking or truth judgement.

In other words, if we isolate propositions from truth, we are left with standpoint epistemology. With epistemology without episteme.

Conceiving knowledge as just episteme cripples our understanding of knowledge. It renders knowledge thin and bodiless, without experiential depth.

Conceiving of knowledge without episteme also cripples our understanding of knowledge. Indeed, it cripples our understanding generally.

Both separations are crippling because both approaches cut us off from the full range of knowledge. The first makes knowledge bodiless computation, the second decapitates it from interrogated understanding.

The foundation documents of the Enlightenment were Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) and Rene Descartes’ Meditations (1641). These were about propositional knowledge, about episteme. The pervasive critique, indeed rejection, of Enlightenment ideas that was such a feature of French theorists such as Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard, was very much about deconstructing, not only any meta-narrative, but the reign of episteme. The adaptations from their thought that have fed into the constellation of thinking around critical social theory have continued to dethrone episteme. Hence, its adherents enthrone experience, feelings and power and embrace identity romanticism.

It also leads to the generating of amazing amounts of bullshit: in the technical sense of statements made for persuasive effect without regard to their truth. The persuasive effect typically coming from manipulation of salience. Decapitating knowledge from episteme dethrones truth, but salience remains. Hence creating amazing amounts of bullshit. (Often highly profitable bullshit, however, having persuasive salience.)

Science and mathematics are very much episteme, so they are also in the firing line. Discussing whether 2+2=4 is open to debate is the epitome of dethroning episteme, of decapitating our apprehension of reality. A metaphorical guillotining of our cognitive order.

It also creates a great capacity for self-deception. As John Vervaeke points out, you cannot lie to yourself — you cannot make yourself believe what you don’t believe — but you can bullshit yourself. You can accept things for their congenial or otherwise reinforced salience, rather than their truth. This can involve systematically ignoring awkward facts, possibly to the extent of putting any attempt to raise such facts outside the realm of the morally acceptable. Thus, raising inconvenient facts can cast one as a member of some unacceptable out-group.

Relying on episteme alone will not permit the self-awareness required for wisdom. But, without the capacity to interrogate our beliefs and actions via episteme, the self-awareness necessary for wisdom is also unattainable.


To return to the observance of the rites through overcoming the self constitutes benevolence. …
When employing the services of the common people behave as though you were officiating at an important sacrifice. …
When those above love the rites, none of the common people will dare be irreverent …
The gentleman has morality as his basic stuff and by observing the rites puts it into practise …
Kong Qiu, Analects, XII:1, XII:2, XIII:4, XV:18.

Thinking of knowledge as having a much wider range than propositions, than knowledge that, also casts light on the ubiquity of ritual in human affairs. If we look at life as a computational problem, as a set of propositions to solve, then ritual looks very odd. What propositional purpose or function does ritual serve? Little or none.

Now, think of ritual as acts utilising all the modes of knowledge. You experience ritual, ritual generates a perspective, ritual requires technique, ritual affirms propositions. Ritual engages all our ways of knowing and does it as a common experience. That makes ritual an act of social alignment. It is the seeking or signalling social alignment that generates the ubiquity of ritual.

The more controlled the social alignment that is sought, the grander, the more encompassing, the more ubiquitous, ritual is likely to be. Hence, highly hierarchical institutions, which are, by their nature, very much about control, such as armies and prisons, tend to have many ritualised interactions. Such as saluting. Totalitarian regimes, which are thoroughly about control, about creating an unavoidable, an inescapable, social alignment, engage in mass rituals for the same reasons. Up to, and including, reducing elections to rituals.

That Kong Qiu (Kong Fuzi or Confucius, 551–479BC) put so much emphasis on ritual as a basis of civilised existence is highly congruent with him being very much the philosopher of social alignment. One, moreover, doing so in a highly hierarchical society.

A philosopher concerned with ritual implies a wide understanding of our apprehension of reality. Not something that will make much sense to those who see our apprehension of reality as a computational problem.

An accidental small businessman who reads a lot and thinks about what he reads, sometimes productively. Currently writing a book on marriage.