First Lines: On Not Knowing the Answers to Questions Raised by Knowing

Who wrote this?

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.

ImageImmanuel Kant, of course. Except Kant wrote in German . . . and was no more perspicuous for doing so. He meant, of course, that some of the knowledge we actually have generates additional questions which are both insistent and unanswerable.

Here, for example, is a question for Kant’s claim, a question that is itself insistent: How did Kant know such a thing? As far as I can tell, the question is unanswerable.

Note: The above quotation is the first line in the Preface to the First Edition of Kant’s frequently impenetrable book Critique of Pure Reason, in the translation by Norman Kemp Smith.


“What Books Are a Good Investment for Scholars?”

A former student of mine, now a colleague in the field of philosophy, has asked the following question:

I have some (limited) funds available for buying academic books. This is a new experience for me; I have relied on the library for almost all my books so far in my academic career. But since the funds are limited, I need to carefully prioritize how I use them, and I don’t want to buy books I’ll look at once and never again. Since my dissertation is in epistemology . . . I want to prioritize epistemology texts. So here’s the question: given the above about my priorities, what philosophy texts, especially epistemology texts, do you recommend? (I will probably be able to buy no more than 10 books.)

This is an excellent question. Over the past thirty years, I’ve built a library of nearly 8,000 books. You might think this disqualifies me from commenting on proper stewardship of assets and shelf space. But I have learned a few things along the way. Here’s my response to this specific question:

Given your practice of using the library so effectively, I’m not sure I’d recommend that you buy books on your dissertation topic. I’ll come back to that in a moment. But I would consider the following general guidelines:

  1. ‎Invest in the best reference works, whether in epistemology or more generally.
  2. Consider those anthologies that contain classic works and seminal essays on new developments, perhaps in epistemology. There are some excellent anthologies today that focus exclusively on epistemology.
  3. For monographs and other works on your dissertation topic, stick with those that you’re likely to mark up the most during your research and writing, by authors who have the most to contribute (whether or not you agree with them).
  4. Don’t forget to consider the quality of the writing itself when selecting books for permanent residence in your library. The company you keep will rub off on you (see Psalm 1). Search out the authors who are also good stylists from whom you can learn as you improve your own writing craft. In other words, read as a writer!

On some of the topics I’ve written about, some few have been addressed in a uniquely influential way by a particular thinker. For example, I first began writing serious philosophy for publication on the problem of evil and selected John Hick’s work as a foil for what I had to say at the time. His book Evil and the God of Love was already being excerpted in anthologies and has proven to be a classic. This is, among other reasons, because John was such a clear writer, he surveyed the whole history of Christian treatments of the problem, and he contributed significantly to updating and developing the minority position (which he called the “Soul-Making” or “Irenaean” tradition).

Also, you may find that your current research links up with older works that are more difficult to come by now. These might be worth owning. Much depends on how much you expect to remain focused on your topic for the next decade or two. Since you’re pursuing an academic career, you will probably have an extensive university library at your disposal pretty much at all times. And you may have a research assistant some of that time, in which case you can send out to collect things for you!

Thought for the Day—December 17, 2009

If you yank the heart out of truth, you have nothing left but a bloodless form of belief. —RDG

Teach Yourself Epistemology

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy devoted especially to study of the concepts of knowledge and justified belief. The name for this discipline, epistemology, comes from the Greek word episteme, signifying “knowledge.” This is why epistemology is sometimes called “the theory of knowledge.” Unfortunately, this designation leads to a truncated view of a complex subject matter ranging over a wide variety of issues having to do with the status of belief.

The study of epistemology is notoriously difficult. It is also difficult to teach. Most university professors in the Anglo-American analytic tradition present the subject as a series of problem-solving ventures. The most persistent theories addressing these problems are presented and compared. Sometimes the teacher favors a general approach in epistemology and gives special attention to explaining and defending that approach and spelling out its implications.

One of the great problems of epistemology is how to think about the subject matter. This is the most fundamental problem for the enterprise of epistemology (which I distinguish from the enterprise of knowing and responsible believing). And yet this problem is often passed over, not only in the classroom, but by epistemologists in their own systematic work.

In my view, this places the student at risk. The student new to epistemology is liable to learn epistemology second-hand, taking as given the various problems and their proposed solutions, arranged in whatever order suits the professor or textbook writer. One very common approach is to begin with the threat of skepticism, which hangs as an ominous spectre over the whole enterprise—and is perhaps never completely exorcised.

A proper approach to “doing epistemology” would have to be delineated with great care and in more space than I have here. But there is a sense in which the self-educated have an advantage when coming to this subject matter. They are more likely to embark upon the enterprise of epistemology with that sense of wonder that is characteristically Aristotelian. In this case, the wonder is that we are capable of knowing so many things in such diverse areas of investigation, and that we move confidently through the world believing much that we do not know or would claim to know.

Still, the student needs a guide to such a complex subject. And while no text can serve in place of careful reflection on aspects of knowing and believing as they present themselves, there are a few very good books to guide the student and prompt examination of long-standing issues in epistemology.

In my own teaching, I have favored three books on the subject:

These books complement each other nicely. The book by Robert Audi will require a tutor for most who are new to the subject. It is rich and comprehensive, and, most important, very sensible about the topics it addresses. Better than any other book I know of, this book presents the subject in a natural order that is conducive to proper progress through to thorny issues it addresses.

To anchor a course in epistemology, I’ve found that the books by Feldman and Bon Jour complement each other neatly. They are concise and readable surveys of major topics. Laurence Bon Jour adopts a method of presentation that he explains clearly at the outset. While I think the method he adopts is unfortunate, it does give readers a sense of the rootedness of trends in contemporary epistemology in the influential work of the great 17th-century philosopher René Descartes. Of special value is Bon Jour’s treatment of the contest between foundationalists and coherentists in epistemology. A convert from coherentism to foundationalism, Bon Jour excels in his exposition of this debate; yet he is also realistic about the persistent philosophical challenges raised by foundationalism.

Richard Feldman demonstrates the exacting technique of analytic philosophy in a way that is accessible and interesting to newcomers. His book is a pleasure to recommend for that reason alone. But it is strong in many other respects. Feldman selects only the most fundamental issues in epistemology, and his book is a natural choice for someone with my anti-skeptical predilections for foundationalism and internalism in epistemology. His juxtaposition of evidentialism on the one hand and internalism and externalism on the other hand is initially puzzling. The presentation of evidentialism is a model of exposition at the introductory level.

Neither Feldman nor Bon Jour does justice to the problems associated with sensory perception. This large area of study in epistemology is set aside by Feldman, perhaps in the interests of conserving space. I think the decision to postpone consideration of the theory of perception can be defended. Feldman simply ignores the topic. Bon Jour, on the other hand, takes pains to explore the theory of perception. He defends a position called indirect or representative realism. As a direct realist, I believe this is a mistake. The presentation is well-organized and focused. And, in my judgment, Bon Jour’s development and defense of indirect realism creates opportunities to indicate significant problems for his position, which is part of any thorough defense of direct realism.

Several other books make useful companions to the ones I’ve recommended above:

The student also needs a collection, or anthology, of readings in epistemology. The best anthologies include selections from influential thinkers going back to Plato, as well as seminal essays by more recent philosophers. Among the best are:

Epistemology, like all professional philosophy, is “trendy.” The serious student of the discipline must understand these trends, even at the risk of being misled about their importance or being distracted from the real business of epistemology. The books I’ve described and recommended here contribute greatly to that task.


While I strongly recommend the books by Rober Audi, Richard Feldman, and Laurence Bon Jour as places to begin the systematic study of contemporary analytic epistemology, several other introductory texts make excellent ancillary reading:

A Plan for the Study of Epistemology

  1. Read the three introductory texts recommended at the beginning, by Robert Audi, Richard Feldman, and Bon Jour. Sketch a plan to read them simultaneously, following the topical sequence in Audi.
  2. Read a sample of classic and contemporary essays from one of the anthologies listed above. Read according to interest and accessibility and note those authors who are mentioned in Audi, Feldman, and Bon Jour. Follow the order of coverage by topic in your reading of Audi and the others.
  3. Use Jonathan Dancy’s Companion to Epistemology as a quick reference on sundry topics in epistemology.
  4. Consult the other companion volumes for more detail and discussion.
  5. Survey several other introductions listed in the Postscript above. Especially deserving of careful study are Chisholm, Lehrer, and Pollock.
  6. Begin reading on topics of special interest to you, in books and essays that focus especially on those topics.
  7. Think about issues in meta-epistemology, or the study of the proper study of epistemology. On this topic I especially recommend Chisholm, Theory of Knowledge (already listed) and his essay on “The Problem of the Criterion,” George Chatalian, Epistemology and Skepticism: An Enquiry into the Nature of Epistemology, and P. Coffey, Epistemology, or the Theory of Knowledge (1917).
  8. For a realist approach to epistemology, I suggest reading seminal essays by the so-called “New Realists” in 20-century American philosophy.

Get Thee to the Novel!

This is Cynthia Ozick’s advice. It’s a vital antidote to the crowding of the mind by the . . . well, by the crowd. Ozick values “The Din in the Head,” the title of her essay in defense of the novel.

Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick

Problem? That special form of consciousness that is the unconstrained play of the mind is overwhelmed with noise from the outside world. The crowd, the human community, is her metaphor for this noise, because it is such a typical source of the noise. The problem has worsened with “the ratcheting up of technology.” So many things contrive to sublimate the maelstrom of the heart, “that relentless inner hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread.”

Solution? Reading that returns one to interiority. Two forms of literature have this power, and both are sadly neglected and increasingly hard to come by: the personal essay and the literary novel. “Literary grandeur is out of style.”

Why does Ozick value the din in the head over the din of the crowd? Din—defined by Merriam-Webster as “a welter of discordant sounds.” Who wants that going on in his head?

It may be that our self-saturation with inputs from a manufactured world is welcome precisely for its power to silence the din in the head. Ozick believes we need rest stops along the information highway. Our obsession with the delivery system of one kind of knowledge deafens us to another source of knowledge. Yes, knowledge. The literary novel imparts knowledge, but not systematically. Thus, it is not a delivery system. But there is truth in fiction, truth that surfaces through varied “cobwebby knowings.”

There are truths that have that cobwebby texture in our minds. It can’t be helped. And there’s no knowing them, at least initially, without this sort of acquaintance. But do we prize this sort of knowledge? Arguably, we do not. It is more likely that we are confounded by the claim that this is a kind of knowledge.

I believe that there is such knowledge and that it is foundational to the knowledge enterprise. Our reasons for believing so much of what we believe are often beyond articulation. And yet they are sound. They ground much of what we know through a peculiar form of consciousness, experience that is possible only under conditions of quietude. But what’s the novel got to do with that? The novel is the distillation of imagined experience. By reading I am able to experience what is otherwise beyond my frame of reference. And this puts me in cognitive contact with truths whose nature determines how they can be known. I concur with Ozick; reading carefully crafted fiction is one way they can be known.

Cynthia Ozick’s essay can be found in One Hundred Great Essays, edited by Robert Diyanni.

Cynthia Ozick Links:

The Truman Show: A Discussion Guide

The Truman Show (USA, 1998); directed by Peter Weir

Chapter 4 of my book, Faith, Film and Philosophy, is titled “Escaping Into Reality: What We Can Learn from The Truman Show about the Knowledge Enterprise.” Here are discussion questions for the film The Truman Show that I’ve used in conjunction with this chapter.

  1. What is Christof’s purpose in “designing” a life for Truman? What kind of life does he want for Truman? And what is Christof’s purpose in televising Truman’s life?
  2. There’s The Truman Show that is the TV show the movie is about, and there’s the movie called The Truman Show that we see in the theatre or on DVD. We’ll call the TV show TS-1 and the movie TS-2. In TS-2, viewers of TS-1 are depicted in various ways. Presumably, they enjoy watching TS-1. What is it about TS-1 that keeps them watching? Why do they like watching? What does this say about them?
  3. Those watching TS-1 seem to have opinions about the quality of life Truman has on “Seahaven.” What are they supposed to think about Truman and his quality of life? How does this compare with Christof’s attitude about Truman’s quality of life? Now think about how we are supposed to regard Truman’s life as we view the film, TS-2. Is there a difference between what we’re supposed to think or feel as we watch the movie and what the TV viewers are supposed to think and feel as they watch the TV show? Describe whatever differences you think of.
  4. Truman falls in love with Sylvia, who is kicked off the show (TS-1). Later she calls in to speak with Christof during a rare interview on television. What is her thesis about what Christof is doing? Do you agree with her? Are we supposed to agree with her? Does she make a good argument? Can you think of ways to strengthen her argument?
  5. What is this movie about? Do you think the filmmakers are making an argument? If so, what is that argument? What is the thesis and what evidence is presented in support of that thesis?
  6. What kinds of freedom does Truman exercise while living in Seahaven? What kinds of freedom is he lacking? How is he presented from exercising these freedoms?
  7. Are you more free than Truman? In what ways? Are you sure about this? Can you be sure? [This question was suggested to me by David Hunt, a contributor to Faith, Film and Philosophy.]
  8. Some critics see Christof as a god-figure in this film and suggest that the film is actually a critique of the Christian worldview. If that’s true, what do the filmmakers assume about the Christian worldview, and especially about the Christian or biblical conception of divine sovereignty and human freedom? Based on your understanding of what the Bible teaches about such things, how is Truman’s life in Seahaven like, and how is it unlike, human existence in the actual world? Support your answer from the Bible and from evidence in the film.
  9. In his chapter in Faith, Film and Philosophy, Geivett claims that this film illustrates how a person may be able to acquire knowledge that is important, even when much of his community is determined to deceive him or her. Is this a plausible claim about the film? How could this claim be challenged?
  10. What does this film “say” about the responsibilities people have toward each other when it comes to seeking the truth and tracking the evidence? Can you describe some contemporary attitudes about truth, the objectivity of truth, and the possibility of knowing truth? How are these attitudes reinforced socially?
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