Professor Katherine Hawley, Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, was a featured lecturer for the SGSAH 2016 Theories of Knowledge Lecture Series, speaking on What is Epistemology? She was gracious enough to provide us with a blog of additional new insights that supplement and expand upon her lecture.


What Is Epistemology?

What is epistemology? A tricky question. Even trickier: in a single hour, how can I give a flavour of epistemology in a way which both reflects my disciplinary situation, and provides something of value to 300 graduate students scattered both across Scotland and across the arts and humanities? And the million-dollar question: will the technology work?

Yes, the technology worked. In April this year I had the privilege of kicking off the Theories of Knowledge lecture series, ably organised by Katie Muth for the SGSAH. To be frank, it was one of the odder experiences of my academic life so far, but it proved to be a lot of fun. Katie and I were in a small lecture room in St Andrews, along with a ‘studio audience’ of about a dozen locals, whilst the invisible hundreds watched via a ceiling-mounted camera.

Following my talk, discussion flowed surprisingly smoothly, with questions both from within the room, and, mediated by Katie, from contributors to the online discussion forum. As an extra bonus, I was later able to read through the thoughtful online contributions, seeing students interact with one another as well as with the material. I missed being able to look my audience in the eye, but being able to interact with so many people really made up for that.

Epistemology of X

The lecture touched on three main issues. I began with a bit of terminological ground-clearing. The epistemology of X is either the investigation of our knowledge of X, or else the investigation of how we use X to gain or lose knowledge. A little light googling brings up the epistemology of the closet, technology, practice, religion, war-gaming, ignorance, the very small, the Large Hadron Collider, torture, the origins of cancer,…., pretty much anything you might be interested in has an epistemology.

Won’t all investigation count as epistemology – isn’t all investigation a search for knowledge? There’s a deep philosophical question here, but I was just trying to give a sense of how the term ‘epistemology’ is standardly used, and I turned to an example. Researchers in medical epistemology investigate what relative evidential weighting we should give to randomised controlled trials, individual case-histories, ‘expert’ opinion, and patient reports. As philosophers and sociologists, sometimes even as economists, they seek to discover the best ways of obtaining medical knowledge. Meanwhile, researchers in medicine investigate the body, disease, interventions, and potential therapies. As scientists, they seek to discover medical knowledge. Some people do both sorts of research, and researchers in both fields will need to know at least something about the other. But nevertheless they have different focal points.

The Possibility of Knowledge

My second topic was whether knowledge is possible. There is a long tradition of philosophical scepticism about the possibility of knowledge. Some such sceptics try to get us worried about the way our so-called ‘knowledge’ is part of a self-reinforcing, perhaps ultimately circular, network: can we ever break out of our belief system and grasp the world as it really is? Other sceptics try to get us worried about whether we can tell the difference between reality and a mere dream or illusion (a staple of epistemological movies such as The Matrix, The Truman Show, Inception, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

I argued that, in the face of such worries, it is important to hang on to our idea that there is a difference between knowledge and mere belief, both for philosophical reasons but also for ethical-political reasons: it’s often important to challenge knowledge claims, and to resist the idea that if lots of people believe something, then they know it to be true.

(These reflections have been painfully present to me as the EU referendum campaign has progressed – I am writing on 25th June, following results day. The distinctions between truth and falsity, knowledge and speculation, have often been lost over the past weeks, seemingly even as an intentional strategy as when Michael Gove notoriously denounced experts.)

How should we think about this in the context of research in the arts and humanities? You can’t pursue research without a discipline of good versus bad arguments, strong versus weak evidence, and conclusions versus non-sequiturs, even though the details of these may vary, can be queried, and may conflict (a hazard of interdisciplinarity). A Ph.D. demands originality, which presupposes some difference between what is already known, and what is not yet known. So although we may contest accounts of knowledge, we can’t just abandon ‘knowledge’ and related concepts in the face of scepticism (or Euro-scepticism).

The Value of Knowledge

Third, I raised some questions about the value of knowledge. There are various issues in play:

  • Is it always better to have a true belief as opposed to a false belief?
  • Is it always better to have a true belief as opposed to no belief on the matter? Are some truths too trivial to be worth knowing?
  • Is it always better to know the truth, as opposed to merely happening to have a true belief?

To understand the last of these, it’s easier to think about other people, not oneself. Imagine someone who knows she was adopted because she has seen plenty of evidence, met her birth-mother, and so on: she knows the truth about her biological origins. Imagine someone else who was in fact adopted, but believes this only because a fortune-teller told her so, lacking any real evidence: she has a true belief about her origins, but doesn’t have knowledge. We tend to think the first person is better off, but why?

For all of these questions, we can distinguish the intrinsic value of knowledge (or true belief) from its practical value: can knowledge be worth having for its own sake, or only if it helps us achieve our other goals? Practical value varies from person to person, domain to domain, time to time. An individual can be conflicted: we care about many things, and true belief or knowledge may help with some, hinder others. And, depending on circumstances, any belief may sometimes be more useful than none.

Practical value can seem more concrete and perhaps more egalitarian than some elitist notion of knowledge for its own sake. But these values need not be in conflict. When we appreciate the intrinsic value of knowledge this should motivate us to communicate our knowledge to other people. Some good things have to be portioned out when they are shared: when more of us share a cake, each of our slices gets smaller. But knowledge isn’t like this: we can share our knowledge without diminishing our individual portions. Indeed, as we have all been reminded in recent days, we could all benefit from living in a society where our fellow citizens share the knowledge we academics are privileged to generate.

If you’re looking for a little more detail, an excellent place to start is Jennifer Nagel’s Knowledge: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press 2014).


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