On Epistemology and Democratic Politics

            If you were to ask most Americans what epistemology is and how it is important to United States politics and to our common capacity to secure freedom and full civil rights for all of this nation’s citizens, I suspect you would receive many blank looks and not a few headshakes. Nevertheless, I have slowly concluded that few subjects are more important to our country’s democratic vitality than how we collectively come to “know” what we believe. Epistemology comes from a Greek compound word meaning the study of knowledge and it has constituted a branch of philosophy for more than 2,000 years. Those examining these concerns have debated whether there is a reality independent of what individuals construct, how human beings acquire knowledge and what constitutes a fact or belief, among many other significant topics.

            I was reminded of the signal character of this subject recently when a speaker for a presentation I attended alluded to the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant. While there is some controversy concerning its origins, the story, familiar to most, finds a group of blind men exploring the head, tail, trunk, ears and tusk of an elephant. Each individual concludes that the animal is something other than what it is, based on the feature he had explored. But this is not the moral of the account, which follows instead from how the men treated their various conclusions. The individuals refused to listen to the views of others and, as the Buddhist version goes, "they began to quarrel, shouting, 'Yes it is!' 'No, it is not!' 'An elephant is not that!' 'Yes, it's like that!' and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.”[1] The ultimate lesson of this narrative is presented as follows in the Indian version:

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim For preacher and monk the honored name! 
 For, quarreling, each to his view they cling. 
 Such folk see only one side of a thing.[2]

            For present purposes, I want to highlight that these individuals fell into a fight in a dispute concerning the nature of reality and of knowledge regarding, in this case, what the animal before them was. None was willing to compromise and the result was not just disagreement, but violence. The parallel to our nation’s politics today is apparent: our current elected leaders on Capitol Hill are deeply polarized and increasingly unwilling to do anything but attack those who advance different views. While these officials do not typically come to blows as the blind men in the parable did, most are more than expert at delivering verbal thrusts designed to undermine the standing and legitimacy of those they target.

            While this is surely so, I want here to examine briefly in addition two of our society’s assumptions about knowledge and three major cultural trends that allow this phenomenon to occur in the first instance. The beliefs about knowledge to which I refer inhere in modern philosophic thinking. The first cultural trend concerns how adroitly our leaders and others have come to address our collective foibles and passions as human beings. A second social development relates to how our profound individualism, together with our collective devotion to the market, has yielded a media that allows Americans to receive information tailored to their conceptions of reality that serve to reinforce their biases and prejudices. A third cultural shift finds large numbers of voters knowing little about their own governments and politics, with few traditional cues to inform them (resulting from the decline of political party identification). Together these factors have created a citizenry that believes itself entitled to interpret reality and to discern knowledge, but finds itself increasingly ill equipped and perhaps unwilling to do so in ways that ensure the rights and interests of all of its members.

            The first assumption concerning knowledge helping to shape our politics arose with the modern turn in philosophic inquiry. Since that watershed human beings have not looked to bring their behavior or understanding into accord or conformity with a cosmology or reality they understand to be beyond themselves, but instead have sought to construct their own view or knowledge of the world. Indeed, modernism situated capacity for such efforts in individuals who were expected to make such choices for themselves. Instead of deferring to a divinely chosen monarch or to a church, for example, to ordain what is understood as an ordered life in accord with the universe, individuals were now free to make such decisions and to take responsibility themselves for such ordering as might occur. The Oxford medievalist scholar C.S. Lewis remarked on this shift memorably in the Abolition of Man, “for the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For … applied science … the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.”[3]

            In addition to this sea change, modern philosophy brought with it another assumption: that human knowledge of something, to be a fact, had to rest on certainty and to be the product of propositions, statements and proofs. Knowingly or not, and however theoretically freeing psychologically, since very little about life is probatively certain, this assumption allows individuals to dismiss alternate views and alternative knowledge with relative impunity and to argue for their own (or none) instead—setting up a neat scenario not only for conflict, but also for delegitimating perspectives and those people who hold them with which one disagrees with little thought and few or no repercussions.

            To these prevailing assumptions about knowledge American society has added a cultural trend toward “perception management,” the efforts by many organized interests, political leaders and would-be leaders to manage information so as to persuade citizens to view reality and understand knowledge as these actors wish them to perceive it. These initiatives include appeals particularly to emotions and prejudices, especially fears, but their purveyors are hardly strangers to manipulating information, when it suits their interests and aims to do so. As it happens, our disposition as voters to decide what is real ourselves, joined with our desire to demand certainty and our relative lack of understanding and information about our governments and regime, set Americans up as too often uninformed and readily manipulable, although ironically nominally independent, arbiters when these claimants come courting.

            Unfortunately, to these phenomena one must add still one more development: a by and large profit-driven media that is increasingly splintered to provide audiences what they wish to see or hear concerning virtually every dimension of their lives. If people wish to be told that their government is led by a closeted Muslim who is not an American citizen, they can find interests and media outlets that will tell them that just such is so. If they wish to believe that climate change is a “liberal” hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy among hundreds of scientists from all over the world, they can daily tune to television and radio shows or read Internet blogs and “news” that will happily inform them that just such an outrage is befalling them. Meanwhile, individuals and corporations desiring to limit government regulation of their activities, whether those are related to mining or pipelines or chemical manufacture, annually spend millions in media-centered electoral and advocacy campaigns to persuade citizens that any regulation of these firms’ ability to despoil the earth and air is the product of overreaching “job killing” public officials, with an interest not in health, safety and the preservation of the environment, but in taking their employment from them. These corporations’ aim in these efforts is to increase their profits and avoid responsibility for the broader costs their activities may impose.

            These issues and trends suggest the potent cocktail our collective and individuated epistemic understanding has created, united with our devotion to the market and with the reality of a splintered media seeking our fiscal support by telling us what we wish to hear. In addition to these factors, we now have political leaders and interests actively seeking to construct our collective understanding of reality to accord with one that provides them power or serves their interests. Americans have assumed responsibility to serve as arbiters of the health of their Republic’s institutions and ultimately, their rights and freedom as democratic citizens. Nevertheless, they have elected increasingly to address this challenge in ways that allow them, based on their understanding of the locus and character of knowledge, to repudiate views different than their own, and in a landscape that does nothing to discourage uninformed and imprudent actions on their part. Indeed, their individualism, fed by a media assiduously courting their monetary support and by interests and officials seeking to manipulate their perceptions of reality, leaves people ever more open to the discouraging and paradoxical prospect of their own choices undermining the very rights and freedom on which their standing as citizens rests.


[1] “The Blind Men and The Elephant,” http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~rywang/berkeley/258/parable.html

[2] “The Blind Men and The Elephant,” http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~rywang/berkeley/258/parable.html

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. Originally published by Oxford University Press, 1943 and now in the public domain. A full electronic version is available here: https://archive.org/stream/TheAbolitionOfMan/LewisC.S.TheAbolitionOfMan#page/n25/mode/2up/search/for+the+wise+men+of+old+the+cardinal+problem