Two Epistemic Paradigms

27 December 2011


René Descartes lived in this house in Westermarkt 6, Amsterdam. If you wanted to rebuild it from the ground up, you would need to live in another house in the meantime.

Yesterday in The Philosophy of Fear I quoted Descartes from his Discourse on Method, from the section in which he introduces an implicit distinction between the theoretical principles he will use to guide his philosophical activities and the practical moral principles that he will employ in his life while he is going about his theoretical activity. Here is his exposition of his four theoretical principles:

The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.

The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.

The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.

And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.

Anyone who knows Descartes’ works will recognize that he has here stated, much more simply and compactly, the principles that he was working on in his unfinished manuscript Rules of the Direction of Mind. Here, by way of contrast, is a highly condensed version of Descartes’ practical and provisional moral principles:

The first was to obey the laws and customs of my country, adhering firmly to the faith in which, by the grace of God, I had been educated from my childhood and regulating my conduct in every other matter according to the most moderate opinions, and the farthest removed from extremes, which should happen to be adopted in practice with general consent of the most judicious of those among whom I might be living.

My second maxim was to be as firm and resolute in my actions as I was able, and not to adhere less steadfastly to the most doubtful opinions, when once adopted, than if they had been highly certain; imitating in this the example of travelers who, when they have lost their way in a forest, ought not to wander from side to side, far less remain in one place, but proceed constantly towards the same side in as straight a line as possible, without changing their direction for slight reasons, although perhaps it might be chance alone which at first determined the selection; for in this way, if they do not exactly reach the point they desire, they will come at least in the end to some place that will probably be preferable to the middle of a forest.

My third maxim was to endeavor always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented…

Descartes wrote a lot a extremely long run-on sentences, so that one must cut radically in order to quote him (except for his theoretical principles, above, which I have quoted entire), but I have tried to include enough above to give a genuine flavor of how he expressed himself. Although Descartes did not himself make this distinction between theoretical and practical principles explicit, although the distinction is explicitly embodied in his two sets of explicitly stated principles, he does provide a justification for the distinction:

“…as it is not enough, before commencing to rebuild the house in which we live, that it be pulled down, and materials and builders provided, or that we engage in the work ourselves, according to a plan which we have beforehand carefully drawn out, but as it is likewise necessary that we be furnished with some other house in which we may live commodiously during the operations, so that I might not remain irresolute in my actions, while my reason compelled me to suspend my judgement, and that I might not be prevented from living thenceforward in the greatest possible felicity, I formed a provisory code of morals, composed of three or four maxims, with which I am desirous to make you acquainted.”

After I quoted this in The Philosophy of Fear I realized that it constitutes a perfect antithesis to the conception of the rational reconstruction of knowledge embodied in the image of Neurath’s ship, which I have quoted several times.

Rational reconstruction was an idea that fascinated early twentieth century philosophers, especially the logical positivists, whose philosophical tradition would eventually mature and transform itself into mainstream analytical philosophy. It was logical positivism that gave us an enduring image of rational reconstruction, as related by Otto Neurath:

“There is no way of taking conclusively established pure protocol sentences as the starting point of the sciences. No tabula rasa exists. We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials. Only the metaphysical elements can be allowed to vanish without trace.”

Quine then used this image in his Word and Object:

“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

These two epistemic paradigms — what I will call Descartes’ house and Neurath’s ship — represent antithetical conceptions of the epistemological enterprise. Neurath’s ship is usually presented as an anti-foundationalist parable, which would suggest that Descartes’ house is a foundationalist parable. There are certain problems with this initial characterization. The logical positivists who invoked Neurath’s ship with approval were often foundationalists in the philosophy of mathematics while being anti-foundational in other areas.

There is a sense in which it is fair to call Descartes’ house a foundationalist parable: Descartes is suggesting a radical approach to the foundations of knowledge — utterly tearing down our knowledge in order to construct entirely anew on the same ground — and he attempted to put this into practice in his own philosophical work. He doubted everything that he could until he arrived at the fact that he could not doubt his own existence, and then on the basis of the certainty of his own existence he attempted to reconstruct the entire edifice of knowledge. The result was not radical, but actually rather conventional, but the method certainly was radical. It was also total.

Whether or not Neurath’s ship is anti-foundational, it is certainly incrementalist. If we were to attempt to rebuild a ship while at sea, we would need to proceed bit by bit, and very carefully. Nothing radical would be attempted, for to attempt anything radical would be to sink the ship. There is a sense in which we could identify this effort as essentially constructivist in spirit, though not exclusively constructivist: constructivism is certainly not the only motivation for Neurath’s ship, and many who invoked it employed non-constructive modes of reasoning.

Are Descartes’ house and Neurath’s ship mutually exclusive? Not necessarily. We do remodel houses while living in them, although when we do we need to keep some basic functions available during our residency. And we can demolish certain parts of a ship at sea; as long as the hull remains intact, we can engage in a radical reconstruction (as opposed to a rational reconstruction) of the masts and the rigging.

One ought not to push an image too far, for fear of verging on the ludicrous, but it can be observed that, while living in a house, we can tear down half of it to the ground and rebuild that half from scratch while living in the other half, and then repeat this process in the half we have been living in. In fact, I know people who have done this. There will, of course, be certain compromises that will have to be made in wedding the two halves together, so that the seam between the two has the incrementalist character of Neurath’s ship, while each half has the radical and total character of Descartes’ house.

It is difficult to imagine a parallel for the above scenario when it comes to Neurath’s ship. The hull of the ship can only be rebuilt incrementally, although almost everything else can be radically reconstructed. And it may well be that some parts of epistemology must be approached incrementally while other parts of epistemology may be radically reconstructed almost with impunity. This seems like an eminently reasonable conclusion. But it is no conclusion — at least not yet — because there is more to say.

What underlies the image of Descartes’ house and Neurath’s ship is in each case a distinct metaphor, and that metaphor is for Descartes the earth, the solid ground upon which we stand, while for Neurath it is the sea, to which we must go down in ships, and where we cannot stand but must swim or be carried. So, we have two epistemic metaphors — of what are they metaphors? Existence? Being? Human experience? Knowledge? If the house or the ship is knowledge, then the ground or the sea must be that upon which knowledge rests (or floats). This once again suggests a foundationalist approach, but points to very different foundations: a house stands on dirt and stones; a ship floats on water.

Does knowledge ultimately rest upon the things themselves — the world, existence, or being, as you prefer — or upon human experience of the world? Or is not knowledge a consequence of the tension between human experience and the world, so that both the world and human experience are necessary to knowledge?

Intuitively, and without initially putting much thought into this (although I will continue to think about this because it is an interesting idea), I would suggest that the metaphor of the earth implies that knowledge ultimately is founded on the things themselves, while the metaphor of the sea implies that knowledge ultimately is founded on the ever-changing tides of human experience.

Therefore, if knowledge requires both the world and human experience, either the metaphor of Descartes’ house or Neurath’s ship alone, in isolation from the other, is inadequate. We need something more, or something different, to illustrate our relation to knowledge and how it changes.

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If you want to rebuild a ship at sea, you'd better be careful about how you go about it.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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