Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Prospectus for: “Knowledge and the Horizon of Objectivity”

Intellectual Contribution

Our book offers a basic introduction and novel solution to one of the continuing problems of the philosophical branch of epistemology: to show how humans can have knowledge. This problem largely arises out of the skeptical arguments that philosophers employ to undercut claims that humans know anything for certain and thus whether humans know anything at all. In plain language, we lay out the general skeptical method employed by philosophers and provide a historical background for how skepticism arises and why it is so important for philosophers.

We propose that the skeptical approach is itself a consequence of the search for objective truth. Traditional epistemology suggests that we must overcome skeptical arguments to show how humans can know things. It does this because it holds knowledge to be a representation of what is objectively true. We show how the current understanding of epistemology, structured around this theory of truth, encourages skepticism even as it struggles to overcome it. Furthermore, we demonstrate that the goal of accessing an objective truth is inherently unachievable, and, more importantly, it does not contribute to understanding the ordinary epistemological process. That is, these assumptions lead us to theorize about knowledge in a way that is divorced from how we use the concept and encourages us to be radically skeptical. This suggests that a flawed understanding of knowledge has been allowed to dominate the discipline of epistemology both historically and in current practice. Since it cannot be shown from this traditional treatment of knowledge how humans can come to have it, we argue that the philosophical concept of knowledge ought to be redefined in order to eliminate this insoluble problem. The result will be a sort of paradigm change in the way we understand knowledge.

Our redefinition for knowledge largely follows the lines of redefining what we mean by something being true. Rather than basing our concept of knowledge on fulfilling an objective truth, a “single set” of things or events which stand independent of all human perception for all time, we might consider that what needs to be fulfilled and what can be fulfilled are conditions based on what theories work and what explanations we can agree to. We redefine the truth conditions for knowledge to be something much simpler and more commonly recognized: methods of pragmatism and intersubjective agreement. We argue that these methods are not only a more familiar set of requirements for making knowledge claims, but we can also recognize when they've been achieved and to what extent they apply.

These methods also inherently seem to discourage radical skepticism in human investigation. Traditionally, philosophers have not only conceived of their importance as being skeptics, but also as being able to provide the justifications which answer skepticism. Thus, philosophers have seen it as their role to provide the foundation for all knowledge. Because we recognize the inability of anyone, including the philosopher, to satisfy the questions of the radical skeptic, our proposed redefinition of knowledge contests this foundation. Instead, the redefinition suggests that we don't need to satisfy skepticism's most radical questions in order to have knowledge. We hold that philosophy's goal is better characterized as an attempt to discover the extent of our knowledge: to find the points where things are missing and the areas we have yet to explore. This re-imagining of the concept of knowledge also re-appropriates objectivity as a horizon: not as a point to be reached, but as an impetus for further investigation which is free of radical skepticism.

This book fits into the growing trends of trying to make the historically obscure practice of philosophy accessible to the general public. Furthermore, it hopes to enable a reconciliation by vividly illustrating philosophy's attitude toward the concept of knowledge and redefining it to incorporate the methods used by ordinary people. This work stands on its own, however, for while other books attempt to bridge the academic/public divide in philosophy rhetorically, our thesis itself illustrates why such a divide exists and how it is possible to remove it. This answer will, at best, stimulate the public interest in epistemology or philosophy in general and, at least, offer epistemological legitimacy to ordinary knowledge claims. Knowledge and the Horizon of Objectivity will be a landmark for providing philosophical ideas that connect with a general audience and for integrating philosophy into our collective exploration of the human understanding.

Book Outline

Introduction - We introduce the intent and scope of the entire work, including the main body (5 chapters), the Afterword, and the Appendices.

Chapter 1 - This chapter introduces the importance of objective truth for philosophers and considers how they have applied it to all knowledge claims. We introduce skepticism as one of the major epistemological methods and its relation to the search for objective truth. We discuss the Justified True Belief definition of knowledge, the Gettier problem, and how these lead to a serious problem for contemporary epistemology.

Chapter 2 - We leave this general conversation for a look at epistemological approaches in history. We give profiles of some of the most important contributors to epistemology from ancient to modern times (Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Kant) and highlight how their approaches resulted in a historically traceable epistemological theme. We finish this section with a further discussion of Gettier (The Gettier Problem) and how the “historical theme” of the philosophers considered come into play. The theme is characterized as two opposing approaches: Top-down and Bottom-up. In dealing with skeptical questions, the former begins by positing objectivity (Top) as the ultimate condition and attempts to determine knowledge from it (down). The latter attempts to reach from empirical methods (Bottom) toward objectivity (up), skirting the skeptical questions in their approach. It will be clear by this point that we sympathize with the latter, though neither approach escapes the issue of skepticism entirely.

Chapter 3 - We bring the reader from the survey of epistemological approaches to a more rigorous discussion by making a further inquiry into the possible merits of the “Top-down” approach. This approach has a particular vision of what knowledge is – most often called Representation. We discuss the implications of this vision and determine whether it is achievable. We examine its role in Gettier's problem and how it has been pervasive in traditional epistemology. Representation's basic move is to posit knowledge as a representation of objective truth. Ultimately, we reject the representational model of truth as inaccessible. We propose that it must be replaced and that the components necessary for its replacement are already present and functional in ordinary and philosophical investigations.

Chapter 4 - We flesh out these “replacements.” They are pragmatism and intersubjective agreement. We provide an in-depth look at each of these as conditions of non-objective truth. We illustrate an alternate vision of knowledge, which is supported by the 'Bottom-up' approach, and demonstrate that these conditions are already built in to our concept and usage of knowledge. Finally we ask if and how these two replacements are strong enough to substantiate knowledge without objectivity.

Chapter 5 - In the final chapter we discuss what is to become of knowledge and epistemology if we accept these answers to its problems. What does knowledge look like? What becomes of objectivity as a dead pursuit? Our answer to the first question is that we can already see what it looks like because we already use it properly in our everyday lives. Except for very special cases (Representationalist concerns being the most common) people generally use the concept of knowledge without trouble. As for the second question, we provide a metaphor by which we can cope with the remnants of objective pursuits in our world: the horizon of objectivity. Distinct from other uses in the epistemological and phenomenological tradition, this metaphor encapsulates what objectivity has been reduced to: like a horizon, it's “out there,” we refer to it on occasion, it seems real and it leads us to new discoveries. However, we can never “reach” it, it moves along with us, and it is not a part of the discoveries to which it leads. We resolve to put objectivity in its rather limited place and continue our investigations with the vigor that the methods of pragmatism and intersubjective agreement bring.

Afterword and Appendices - We intend for two more sections to be included with this work, neither of which are likely to be ready by July 1st. Therefore, we will do our best to revise them according to your comments on chapters 1-5.

The Afterword discusses 'paradigm shift' as the means of coming to a conception of knowledge without objective truth. We discuss the Copernican Revolution, the concept of paradigm shift itself, and finally its application to epistemology. We suggest that, given the crisis of the Gettier problem and other skeptical projects, it is necessary to “shift” to a new definition of knowledge. This shift, as Thomas Kuhn noted, cannot be proven from tradition; rather, it solves (or dissolves) the crisis at once.

The set of Appendices will attempt to anticipate common reactions to the theory. We have gathered many reactions through conversation and research of this book and we intend to deal with the most common and most threatening of them on a topical basis. Some of these topics include Relativism, Scientific Realism, Applications in Metaphysics, and Solipsism.

The Audience

This book is designed to be enjoyed by readers of a wide range of scholarly capacities, from the philosophically interested public to the advanced academic. It will be useful for people who are familiar with the history of epistemology in general, but wonder how its themes are part of the contemporary field. As objectivity is one of the main concerns, it will be of significant interest to even non-philosophers like scientists, legal scholars, and historians. It will also interest the advanced academic as it addresses a number of contemporary issues in epistemology, including the Gettier problem, representational approaches, and pragmatism. Lastly, this book will be interesting and relevant to the general public as it will provide support for the ordinary practice of making knowledge claims as well as an explanation for the place of philosophical investigations.

Level : Written for the general public. Advanced philosophical training is not expected, though high school-level reading comprehension skills are.

The Competition

Our approach is largely what distinguishes our book. Most recent books on epistemology attempt to either quantify recent epistemological contributions or edify traditional explanations. Our book attempts to make a significant break from traditional analyses with an improved definition of knowledge. Our hope is that it will also make this branch of philosophy more relevant to the public.

The other sections of our prospectus include qualifications of the authors, technical specifications, outline, and writing samples. Of these, we thought only the information above would be relevant to you for the moment.

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