Epistemological Presuppositions

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I don’t get philosophical too often on my blog because I know it bothers or bores most people…to make up for it, I’ll soon return to short & funny clips. Anyway, I’ve done only a little reading lately (job hunt), but it has none-the-less been excellent. When I came across the following by Christian Smith, I said to myself, “Oh snap! This must be posted”. Modern snobbery seems to be unaware of the fact that rationalism/empiricism (and the things that have been constructed from these) are imperfect and insufficient; absolute and universal knowledge is elusive. In the end we really are dealing with being (un)confident of the things we know in part and hope for.

“For centuries, many Western thinkers have tried to identify a universal and certain foundation for human knowledge. Various movements within the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “Enlightenment” in particular sought to specify an authoritative foundation of knowledge not based on the revelation, faith, and tradition of Christianity. Instead this project sought to identify a strong foundation for knowledge that would be secular (non theistic), universal (applicable to all people despite their differences), and indubitable (irrefutable and certain). One way to understand philosophical epistemology since Rene Descartes is a story of of repeated unsuccessful attempts to identify this kind of foundation of human knowledge. Like the would-be champions who sought to become the first to be able to draw the fabled sword from the stone and so become king, many philosophers have ventured to identify this prized strong foundation of knowledge on which the rational. universal, modern social order could be build. In each case, however, other philosophers always stepped forward to demonstrate why their attempts at this secular, universal, indubitable epistemology did not work.

As a consequence, what we have come rather decisively to see in recent decades is that this epistemological project itself is fatally flawed and that all such attempts to discover a universal, indubitable foundation of knowledge have failed and necessarily will fail. Strong foundationalism is dead. Its quest has come up empty-handed. There is no secular, universal, indubitable foundation of knowledge available to us humans.

What we have come to see is that, at bottom, we are all really believers. The lives that we live and knowledge we possess are based crucially on sets of basic assumptions and beliefs, about which three characteristics deserve note. First, our elemental assumptions and beliefs themselves cannot be empirically verified or established with certainty. They are starting points, trusted premises, postulated axioms, presuppositions, — “below” which there is no deeper or more final justification, proof, or verification establishing them. In philosophical terms, these beliefs and commitments may be “justified,” but they are not “justifiable”. Rather, they themselves provide the suppositional grounds on which any sense of justification, proof, or verification for a given knowledge system are built.”

4 thoughts on “Epistemological Presuppositions

  1. i think recognizing presuppositions is a great first move, but what do you think comes next? how do we reject modern foundationalist theories of knowledge without necessarily finding ourselves in total interpretivism, perspectivism and relativism? is it now meaningless to pursue the “most true” knowledge or explanation?

  2. I should also add that the (extreme) postmodern lacks the ability to make assertions, come to conclusions, and have any assurance…and I don’t fully reject foundationalism, I just want to indicate that faith is valid…(1 Cor 2. is true)
    The next thing, well maybe the real first thing should be to start not with our ability or inability to know, but with God.
    Michael Wittmer:
    “…why begin with ourselves? If starting with ourselves leads either to naive arrogance or humble ignorance, perhaps we are beginning at the wrong place. What would happen if, rather than start with ourselves and attempt to reason up to God, we made God the foundation of knowledge?”
    CS Lewis and Solomon both talked of (a belief in) God as the foundation of knowledge…Ro. 1 says that we all share a belief in God, could it be that truth is really self-authenticating and can be true even if it isn’t established by proof. I would argue that revelation and faith (gifts) lead to the highest truths. God also made us with certain abilities, (for the most part) not to know fully, but to know truly.
    Put the assumption of God first and then things actually have a chance of being meaningful and intelligible…That it might not rest of man’s wisdom, but on God’s power, or something like that.

  3. i asked because i thought you would say something like that. i believe it boils down to placing ontological presuppositions before epistemological ones. this is one of the basic premises of Critical Realism…a philosophical movement birthed in the late 1970’s in the UK and has just become popular in small pockets of academia in the last eight years or so. It is the faithful third way between positivist empiricism and strong postmodernism and, i think, the way to go.

  4. (I know this defies all the nuance I trouble with, but )I think that is totally and absolutely correct…

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