Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Epistemology or Ethics?
In one of the more philosophical sections of Colossians Remixed the authors briefly touch on the question of "first philosophy", i.e. what branch of philosophy (e.g. ontology, epistemology, ethics, etc.) is prior and foundational to all the others. This is what they have to say about it:

"The issue of how we know something depends on what it is we are attempting to know. Philosophically, this is to say that ontology precedes epistemology; that is, our understanding of being precedes our understanding of knowing. For example, if the world is viewed in fundamentally materialist terms (the whole world is matter in motion governed by unbending laws), then certain kinds of techniques for knowing such a world will be given the status of orthodoxy, in the academy and in society at large. In a mechanistic world, scientific processes that are preoccupied with measurement, repeatability and law-determined behavior are privileged over such things as intuition, myth and feeling. How you understand the nature of the world shapes how you go about knowing it."
I tend to agree with Walsh & Keesmaat, contra Descartes and the other Modern rationalists, that our assumptions about ontology will always precede our epistemology. And yet I wonder whether both ontology and epistemology might both be preceded by ethics. This was the move of French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who wrote about ethics as "first philosophy". He argued that our experience of the Other (i.e. other people and beings who are not ourselves) and our responsibility to treat them as unique others and not simply to subsume them into ourselves and our own categories of understanding, precedes any objective search for knowledge about the world.

He bases this not so much on metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality (i.e. ontology) but rather on our phenomenological experiences of the Other. Phenomenology is another branch of philosophy that has come to mean many different things, but in the sense that Levinas uses it, it means something like "reflection on our immediate, first-person experiences of the world", in other words, reflecting on the world simply as it appears to us, without reference to assumptions about what we think the world is in itself - i.e. in its essence. Many phenomenologists (Husserl & Heidegger for example) believed that from these reflections we can then pursue higher order "objective" truth about the world. So in a sense phenomenology precedes ontology, which then gives rise to epistemology.

However, what Levinas suggested is that ethics precedes even ontology, because our experiences of the Other (and our own Otherness towards them as well) are so wrapped up in our basic phenomenological experiences of the world as to be inseparable. Before we even begin to reflect on the nature of the world we are aware that there is "a world" that is not ourselves (and thus the world itself is an "Other") and that this world is filled with many "Others", all of whom are beings such as ourselves to whom we have responsibilities - namely to respect them as truly Other and not simply as extensions of our own self-identity to be used or abused as we see fit. This phenomenological experience of responsibility towards the Other is what we would call "ethics". Levinas further developed this to say that an ethics of responsibility is ultimately about love - preferring to define philosophy as the "wisdom of love" rather than "the love of wisdom".

If this is the case then ethics really does precede ontology, and any later developments of ontology - any assumptions we make about what the world, at its core, is really like - should necessarily involve this ethical dimension. In other words, our ontology must take love to be at the heart of existence. Likewise, any epistemology that is built off of these ontological assumptions should take love as its guiding principle. Thus instead of the "detached", "impartial" observer that is celebrated in Modern epistemology, perhaps we need to encourage scientists, scholars and students to approach their subjects with a sense of passion and desire, and to enter into a relationship with their subjects in order to fully know them.

Walsh & Keesmaat put these kind of reflections back into theological terms in their discussion of Colossians. They declare that:

In stark contrast to the anthropocentric preoccupations of both modernity and postmodernity, biblical faith affirms that creation is an eloquent gift of extravagant love. This is not a world of objects that sit mutely waiting for the human subject to master them. Rather, this is a world of created fellow subjects, all called into being by the same Creator, all born of the Creator's love, all included in the Creator's covenant of creational restoration, and all responsive agents in the kingdom of the beloved Son...

This is a relational epistemology rooted in a relational ontology. Since we confess that this relationship is rooted in the love of God, knowing this world is always at heart a matter of love. Such an epistemology of love is described beautifully by N.T. Wright: "The lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved in terms of itself." And Parker Palmer writes that "the act of knowing is an act of love, the act of entering and embracing the reality of the other, of allowing the other to enter and embrace our own."


posted by Mike Clawson at 7:58 PM | Permalink |


At 9/14/2007 11:38:00 PM, Blogger Andy Culbertson

I sort of agree that ethics comes first, although all three are really dependent on each other. I *want* epistemology to come first, because if the point of philosophy is to figure out the world, that is clearly an epistemic task, so epistemology would be a logical starting point. Plus I just like it the best. But alas, it can't stand on its own. You could also say that knowledge is only the penultimate point of philosophy and acting on our knowledge is the ultimate point, and that suggests ethics. But I would say that philosophy itself is only concerned with the figuring out part, including figuring out what we're supposed to do with the knowledge, so even philosophy's ethical concerns have to start with epistemology--the epistemology of ethics. But we have to start from some assumptions, and ethical assumptions are as good as any other, I'd say.

As far as love vs. objectivity goes, I don't think they are opposed. As I understand it, objectivity at least means being free from biases. It could also mean having a God's-eye view of things, which is of course impossible for us. So is being free of biases, but many of us can get asymptotically closer, I believe. What you described, seeing others "as extensions of our own self-identity to be used or abused as we see fit," was the opposite of objectivity--the *imposition* of one's biases on the world. Becoming freer from biases would mean doing what you described as love, listening to the other on their own terms.

Also I don't think scientists need much encouragement to be passionate about their fields. But they do need a certain amount of detachment while they're carrying out their experiments or their passion will bias their results. Robert Putnam is a good example of a scientist who is an advocate for social causes but who also does very careful research, sometimes coming to conclusions he doesn't like.

John Frame has some good things to say on all this in his "Primer on Perspectivalism" (PDF).