Humanity Educating Philosophy
Barbara J. Thayer-Bacon
The theme of this conference is Paideia: Philosophy Educating Humanity. What I address as my topic is "What humanity can teach philosophy." In particular, I focus on the partiality and fallibility of each of us as individuals, and explore what that means for us, as epistemic agents. I argue that because we are embedded and embodied social beings who do not have transcendental, objective, "God's eye views" of the world in which we live, we need each other to help us be potential knowers able to make knowledge claims. Others help us become aware of our own situatedness and help us develop enlarged views. Rather than thinking individual philosophers, with credentials as experts in their field of study, know more and therefore have knowledge they can teach humanity, I argue that all of us, as members of humanity, have much we can teach each other. My position is that it is only with the help of others that we are able to know anything.
Ever since Plato made the argument that each one of us has all knowledge in our souls, that each of us already knows all truth (the Forms), but that when our soul inhabited a body it "forgot" and so it must spend a lifetime "remembering" what it already knows, (1) he set the tone for the Western European world to consider how it is that each one of us knows truth. When we examine the tradition of Western European thought, we note that most epistemological theories assume individuals can know the answer, and are able to critique what is passed down to others as socially constructed knowledge. Many have made the argument that while humanity can be deceived, one individual can know, and therefore teach the others about their deceptions and false beliefs.
It was Charles S. Peirce who introduced us to the idea of fallibilism, and stimulated us to explore the idea that individual selves are fallible, partial, social human beings, and therefore that we may need a community of knowers to help us more fully understand what we think we know. (2) Peirce argued that while a solitary knower may have a clear understanding of a truth and know the right answer, s/he can not be sure. All of us must continually share our ideas with each other and test them out among ourselves, for none of us can be sure that we know truth on our own; we need each other to really know. It is only when we are done testing out our ideas with each other, with the end of time, that we will be able to say with confidence and certainty that we know truth. Knowledge is something we are coming closer too, as we share our experiences and gain more understanding. "(T)rue opinion must be the one which they would ultimately come to" (133-134). Peirce's epistemological theory sets up the conditions for making an argument such as mine, that fallibility entails partiality, and therefore implies the need to embrace plurality, on epistemic grounds, to help us come closer to understanding what is true.
There seems to be general agreement among philosophers that Peirce's idea of fallibilism is correct. But there is a great deal of disagreement on what fallibilism entails. Many disagree with me that fallibilism entails the need to embrace pluralism on epistemic grounds. I will explore the reasons why with the help of Harvey Siegel's presidential address to the Philosophy of Education Society, "What Price Inclusion?" (3) I begin with Siegel's position that we must embrace pluralism on moral grounds, but that we cannot embrace pluralism on epistemic grounds, and then compare his view to the feminist standpoint epistemological perspective of Sandra Harding. I will be able to explore, with their help, the idea that individual selves can have transcendental perspectives. Without the possibility of a God's eye view of truth, we can make the case that we must embrace pluralism on epistemic grounds. My argument helps support a view of epistemology I call a relational epistemology.
Harvey Siegel's Rationality Position
Harvey Siegel embraces Peirce's idea of fallibilism, and agrees that people are contextual beings. However, Siegel does not think that admiting we are situated, embedded and embodied human beings entails that what he believes to be true must be wrong. Just because he is a partial human being does not mean he can not be right, in a transcendent, universal sense. For Siegel, it is still possible for an individual to know truth, what's right/wrong. He rejects the idea that particularity and universality are dichotomous. He agrees with Peirce's idea that we need to test out our ideas with others, but this testing is to insure we are in fact right, and to convince others of our rightness. Because our goal for sharing our ideas with others is to make sure they stand up to criteria for truth, (Siegel is willing to accept that particular standards are always open to revision), we must test out our ideas with others who are experts in our fields of study. However, epistemologically it is not necessary to include everyone as being the community of people with whom we must test out our ideas; more voices in our community of knowers are not necessarily better.
In fact, for Siegel, more voices can actually just add confusion and noise to discourses of educated individuals seeking to find answers and solutions. "(F)or conversations to be maximally functional, or maximally interesting, informative, or communicative for their participants, some potential participants may well be best left out" (13). It is only necessary to include our most educated people, those who are our experts in our fields of study in our conversations, to insure we are right. Inclusionary discourses may be more likely to yield worthy theories than are less inclusive discourses, but Siegel makes the case that "there is no necessary connection between inclusion and epistemic worthiness, or between exclusion and epistemic defectiveness" (4). Inclusion is important for rules governing the conduct of inquiry, but it is not necessary for evaluating the products of inquiry (ftnt 17, 17).
From a feminist perspective, (or multicultural, critical theorist, or postmodern perspective), Siegel's reliance on experts in fields of study to test out knowledge claims is problematic. He assumes that experts (those who are members of the dominant culture) have more epistemic agency than "nonexperts" (marginalized subjects who are not members of the educated community). Once a field of study has been defined by those working in the field, and methods for furthering knowledge agreed upon, based on standards and rules (which are supposedly corrigible) then those who fall outside the boundaries are excluded from the conversations for their work is judged to be inferior or lacking in some way (their articles are not published, their papers not delivered at conferences). The very standards and rules we use to sort right from wrong, true from false, valid from invalid, sophisticated from naive, etc. have a tendency to become policing forces that limit their openness to adjustments and critique. Let us further question the chances of an individual (expert or non-credentialed subject) knowing truth through Harding's standpoint epistemology.
Sandra Hardings' Standpoint Epistemology (4)
Sandra Harding's feminist standpoint epistemology is a project of authorizing the speech of marginalized subjects. In "Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is "Strong Objectivity"?" (5) she presents the position that subjects who are not members of the community have views to offer, as outsiders, that will help members of the community become more aware of their own biases and prejudices. People from other cultures can help us understand our own culture. (Just as reading books, etc. written in earlier times helps us understand past views in relation to our current cultural views.) So, for example, interviewing women and asking for their perspectives may help men see the world from other angles; or talking to women from oppressed, third world nations, will help women from first world nations see the assumptions they make about life as a woman.
Harding's method is to draw "from marginalized lives" and to "take everyday life as problematic" (50). She "sets the relationship between knowledge and politics at the center of (her) account" (56). Harding argues that . . . "the grounds for knowledge are fully saturated with history and social life rather than abstracted from it" (57). Her perspective, like mine, emphasizes the social influence communities have on knowledge production. As she so aptly describes this social context, subjects/agents are not universal, they are "multiple, heterogeneous and contradictory or incoherent, not unitary, homogeneous, and coherent as they are for empiricist epistemology" (65). All knowledge claims are socially situated; "all bear the fingerprints of the communities that produce them. All thoughts by humans start off from socially determinate lives"(57). (6)
While Harding presents feminist standpoint epistemology as relying on a logic that "refuses to essentialize its subjects of knowledge" (66), she goes on to make the claim that some perspectives are more revealing than others. When she does so, she is in trouble, for she has fallen into the same trap for which she has criticized other theorists. This problem for feminist standpoint theory has been pointed out by several authors. (7) Harding recommends that looking from the margins helps people see the dominant culture and its assumptions of superiority. The question that other feminists have asked, particularly third world nonwestern feminists, is, are you not assuming that marginalized perspectives have more agency than perspectives within the dominant culture?
If Harding and I are right in that all of us are influenced by the communities in which we grow up, is it not a fact that a marginalized person who grows up in a world that excludes and mistreats him or her will have a view that has been affected, tainted, by the situation in which he or she has grown up? If we are embedded, embodied people, affected by our situations and our social relationships, then that means all of us are affected by our contexts, not just people who are members of the dominant culture. This is one of Jane Flax's points: women's experiences put them at some advantages for reinterpreting reality, but also it imposes on them certain psychological difficulties. Women face the obstacle of having been raised with the typical feminine set of attitudes and modes of perception that have been imposed on women in a male-dominated society. (8) Uma Narayan also reminds feminist standpoint epistemologists that being from a marginalized group and able to have access to the dominant culture "is not a guarantee that a critical stance on the part of the individual will result." (9) The person can feel alienation, as "an outsider in both contexts", and like many bilingual people, she can feel "a sense of clumsiness or lack of fluency"(267). Narayan warns: "The thesis that oppression may bestow an epistemic advantage should not tempt us in the direction of idealizing or romanticizing oppression and blind us to its real material and psychic deprivations" (264).
What we find is that Siegel relies on a claim of epistemic privilege to assert his knowledge claims, and feminist standpoint epistemology is relying on the same claim. Both positions are like two sides of the same coin. As Bat-Ami Bar On states:
A Clamor of Voices: Selves in Relation
So far we have found that both Siegel and Harding represent positions that argue for or against inclusion as being necessary, from an epistemological perspective, relying on the idea of epistemic privilege. Siegel embraces the understanding of experts in the field under consideration as being more privileged than others "not knowledgeable" in the questions under consideration. Harding makes the argument that outsiders from the field of study offer understandings that are more privileged than insiders within the field. What would an argument for the necessity of inclusion in order for us to be knowers look like if it did not rely on an idea of epistemic privilege, of authorized speech? In order to understand such an argument we must make a paradigm shift, a transformation of how we understand knowledge.
We must stop thinking about knowledge as a product, an object that is "out there" or "in here" and take Dewey's advise to thinking of knowledge as a verb, as knowing. This knowing is an activity, like dancing, singing, or loving, that is done with others. When we begin to understand inquiry, in Deweyian terms, as a dialectical relationship between inquirers and their objects of inquiry, we begin to consider knowing as a relationship that is dynamic, flexible, and reciprocal. (11)
We must also stop thinking about knowers as autonomous, individual subjects, and start looking at us as beings-who-are-in-relation with others. We begin our lives in relation with others and develop a sense of self, a voice as a knower, through the help of nurturing relationships with others who care for us in a variety of styles and to various degrees. We are not autonomous knowers sitting in a social setting struggling with whether we have good reasons to believe that someone is an expert and we should believe what s/he tells us. We do not just trust others because to not do so quickens our growth of knowledge. We really have no other choice but to trust those others with whom we are in social relation. We are social beings who learn from others (we believe); because we are able to develop relationships based on such qualities as trust, we begin to develop a sense of self, and eventually learn to think more autonomously (we can question our beliefs).
Given that we are social, contextual beings in relation with others, what does this mean for knowing? If we are in general agreement on these assumptions then we must agree that none of us experience reality unfiltered by our contextuality. Even "hard core" scientists and philosophers must go through striping, bracketing, negotiating, and translating to try to get a better understanding or a different view. What helps us in this process? We gain insights into our contextuality through our interactions with other people. We help each other when we communicate and relate to each other and we discover we experience the world in different ways. When we begin to understand our own contextuality, we begin to develop the ability to offer fresh, unique perspectives. Our ability to improve our awareness as knowers is enhanced if we are able to experience sustaining, caring relationships with others.
Seyla Benhabib offers some insight to this process of gaining perspectives of our own contextuality through her discussion of enlarged thinking and the generalized other and concrete other. (12) In order to attempt to understand one's own subjectivity, as well as others' points of views, people need the possibility of interacting with others. Even if we have the willingness to reason from others' points of views, and the sensitivity to hear their voices: "Neither the concreteness nor the otherness of the "concrete other" can be known in the absense of the voice of the other. The viewpoint of the concrete other emerges as a distinct one only as a result of self-definition. It is the other who makes us aware both of her concreteness and her otherness" (168). As we try to believe and therefore hopefully assure ourselves of understanding what another thinks, we need to practice enlarged thinking, anticipating "communication with others with whom (we) know (we) must finally come to some agreement" with. Enlarged thinking does not imply consensus, just some agreement, and it cannot function in strict isolation, it needs the presence of others (8-10).
So, we have come full circle to where we began, with the claim that there is much humanity can teach philosophy. In fact, it is only with an inclusive model of epistemology, one that embraces the importance of plurality, epistemologically as well as morally, that we can hope to improve our insights and gain a better understanding of our situatedness. We must be inclusive because to do so is to act kindly, fairly, justly, as Harvey Siegel argues. We must also embrace plurality because we need humanity to help us better understand our world and our own limited perspectives, as Sandra Harding argues. To conclude, when we view knowing as an activity done with people who are in relation with each other, we shift our view from seeing knowers as autonomous individual subjects who act upon the world, trying to master "it" and explain "it" to others. We begin envisioning ourselves as participants in an intersubjective world, like a clamor of voices that will learn more from each other the better we are able to relate to and care for each other. We realize that an inclusive, relational epistemology is less vulnerable to ideological abuse for it values contributions from all people, even contributions which are vague and ambiguous, or discordant and disharmonious, for we need each other to further the nurturing of knowledge.
(1) Plato. 1970. "The Meno." In The Philosophical Foundations of Education, ed. Steven M. Cahn. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.
(2) Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1958. Values in a Universe of Chance: Selected Writings of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), ed. Philip P. Wiener. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday & Co, Inc.
(3) It is my intention to honor Professor Siegel by choosing his position to examine, he is someone I have come to know "practices inclusion with sensitivity and moral commitment and does philosophy with integrity" (Betty Sichel's words in introducing Siegel to the Philosophy of Education Society).
(4) This section is edited from my "The Nurturing of a Relational Epistemology," Educational Theory, 47(2), Spring 1997: 239-260.
(5) Sandra Harding, "Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is "Strong Objectivity"?" in Feminist Epistemologies, ed. by Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter (NY and London: Routledge, 1993): 49-82.
(6) Please note, that while Harding and I agree that all knowledge is perspectival, and that each of us is influenced by the community (or communities) we are born into, we do not agree about the level of effect this has on the individual or the community. While I think the newborn child is fragile and dependent, and greatly influenced by the people he or she is in relation with, I also think the newborn child influences the people in his or her life. I consider this social context to be interrelational and transactive, a dialectical relationship that is not just one-way, and purely socially deterministic.
(7) Two that have helped me understand this point are: Bat-Ami Bar On, "Marginality and Epistemic Privilege," in Feminist Epistemologies, ed. by Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter (NY and London: Routledge, 1993): 83-100; and Uma Narayan, "The Project of Feminist Epistemology: Perspectives from a Nonwestern Feminist," in Gender/Body/Knowledge, ed by Alison Jaggar and Susan Bordo (NJ: Rutgers University Press,1989): 256-269.
(8) Jane Flax, "Political Philosophy and the Patriarchal Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Epistemology and Metaphysics," in Discovering Reality, eds. Sandra Harding, Merrill B. Hintikka (Dordrecht, Boston, London: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1983): 248-249, 270.
(9) Narayan, "The Project of Feminist Epistemology: Perspectives from a Nonwestern Feminist," pages are sited in the text.
55) Ibid., 264.
(10) Bat-Ami Bar On, "Marginality and Epistemic Privilege," 97.
(11) John Dewey, Experience and Nature. 2nd edition. (New York: Dover, 1958).
(12) Seyla Benhabib, Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 1992). I believe Benhabib's enlarged thinking is very similar to Lorraine Code's notion of responsibility, in Epistemic Responsibility. (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, for Brown University Press, 1987). Benhabib cites Hannah Arendt 's "representative thinking" and traces that back to Kant's conception of reflective judgment.