Thursday, 11 March 2010

Ethics and Knowledge

Ethics and Knowledge
Neil Turnbull

As is now well known, in modern positivism the methods of experimental science are widely understood to provide general criteria allowing for demarcation between authentic knowledge and what is ‘merely opined’. As a consequence, in positivist thinking ethical reflection and judgement are relegated to the subjective realm, and any talk of ‘ethical thinking’ or ‘ethical knowing’ is seen as a category mistake. In the positivist’s epistemological universe, where these empirical facts reign and ‘the ethical cannot know’, modern science asserts its own counter-ethics: that we should refrain from using ethical terms, as they cannot be assimilated into a ‘unified science’ defined as the totality of current scientific theory..
In much of the hermeneutic tradition however, where knowledge is viewed as a sub-species of ‘interpretation’ and ‘understanding’, ethics and knowledge are more intimately related. For the orthodox hermeneut, all knowledge is viewed as both infused with and guided by wider sets of values; and for most hermeneutic thinkers scientific knowledge is perceived to be ‘only one type of knowledge’ that ‘cannot be taken as the canonical standard for all forms of knowledge’ (Bernstein 1985, 9). Hermeneutics thus allows for epistemological diversity, and opens up the possibility for both a critique of positivism and a reframing of theoretical knowledge within a more authentic form of thinking circumscribed by ‘the world’, ‘life’ or what Gadamer termed ‘the horizon of the good’. Seen thus, and as Heidegger famously claimed, ‘science does not think’; and if it did it would be forced to ask itself the Nietzschean question, ‘can scientists be said “to know” when their ways of knowing “harm” us?
However, contemporary hermeneutics has generally shied away from this question, and has instead emphasised what Gadamer termed ‘the lingusiticality of all human experience of the world’ that ‘points to a truth that goes questioningly behind all knowledge and questioningly before it’ (Gadamer 1977, 19). Thus for most contemporary hermeneuts, all forms of knowledge are simply forms of narration and, as such, of equal ethical value. However, this relativist hermeneutics seems both intellectually and politically timid. Nowhere is this more evident than in the debate between ‘creationist scientists’ and evolutionary Darwinists. From the point of view of the relativist hermeneut, there is simply neither an epistemological nor an ethical issue here. Neither of these two ‘stories’ can justifiably count as knowledge, as both are simply the result different ways of narrating events that can themselves be variously, perhaps infinitely, narrated. But is such an aloof and ironic epistemic impartiality really appropriate in this case, especially when we reflect on the personal and political stakes involved?

Typically, those who want to defend evolutionary theory against creationism adopt a positivist stance, and appeal to the stubborn facts of the ‘fossil record’ and other phenomena that seem beyond the scope of ‘creationist thinking’. But might we be better served by a more assertive, non-relativist, non-positivist hermeneutics, that claims that ‘theory-choice’ works best when circumscribed by the ‘horizon of the good’? But what ethics, what a priori framework of values, could adjudicate in this case?
Perhaps this is the wrong question to ask. Ethical knowing needn’t be grounded in a transcendent system of values, but only in a more ‘synoptic way of knowing’ that begins from what Wittgenstein termed an ├╝bersicht - or global overview - of the many and various ways of knowing the world. A synoptic perspective can be usefully seen as the epistemological equivalent of ‘horizon of the good’ in that it is a perspective that allows for a more sensitive mapping of the relationships between different ways and traditions of knowing. Synoptic knowing does not reduce knowledge to interpretation but allows us to see how different ways of knowing, in the broadest sense of term - to paraphrase Wilfred Sellars - ‘hang together’, in the broadest sense of the term. Thus rather than being dismissed as an impossible and pernicious ‘God’s eye view’, in epistemological terms the synoptic vision is a ‘cognitive good’ and a source of epistemic value that stands as an ethico-epistemic norm in its own right (to the extent that different ways and traditions of knowing can be judged and categorised according to the degree to which they approximate to it). Moreover, this hermeneutically sensitive epistemology can be discerned as the end result of a particular kind of global anthropological enquiry - what might be termed a transcendental anthropology of global knowledge (see Lear 1986) - that looks for complex relationships within a global assemblage of different and sometimes competing ways of knowing (epistemology, as the ancestor of synoptic hermeneutics, becoming the ‘mirror of the global’).

Thus conceived synoptically, ethical knowing becomes a matter of seeing historical, cultural, and geopolitical connections between different ‘knowledges’, and assessing the extent to which seemingly contradictory ways of knowing approximate to its synoptic standard. And when viewed in this way, we can see that Darwinism’s status is ambiguous: when synoptically mapped, it can be seen as a materialist variation on a creationist theme – the ‘blind watchmaker’ of evolution simply replacing the ‘intelligent designer’ of evolutionary theory - but a variation that that should be endorsed because it gave rise to an intellectual movement that approached the world with a more synoptic vision (that allowed biologists, and ultimately, the world at large, to see more). Thus modern evolutionary theory, and ultimately modern biology itself, has the epistemological and the ethical advantage over creationism, not because its theories are truer to the facts as such, but because of the scope of its thinking, the breadth and depth of its perceptions and, more generally, the synoptic extent of its hermeneutics.

Bernstein, Richard J. (1985) ‘Introduction’ in Bernstein, R. (ed.) Habermas and Modernity Cambridge: Polity.

Gadamer, H.G. (1977) Philosophical Hermeneutics Berkeley: University of California Press

Lear, Jonathan (1986) ‘Transcendental Anthropology’ in Philip Pettit and John McDowell (eds). Subject Thought and Context Oxford: Clarendon Press.

1 comment:

  1. Is this a version of Kant's notion of a regulative ideal? We can never attain the good, we can only consciously approximate ourselves to its perfection, or in other terms the postulation of an impossible ideal that is worthy of respect and a call for dutiful action.