In some recent studies of mine I have realized that the epistemological limitations I have been arguing for, linking them to a modified version of Kant’s project, are in fact extraordinarily similar to the claims of another German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. Now, as with Kant, Nietzsche and I are going to have some other areas of disagreement, but in terms of discussing what we are able to know I am happy to adopt the label “Nietzschean.”
I want to provide an analogy for how I think the epistemological limitations I have outlined work in relation to metaphysical questions about what actually exists in the world.
Imagine that you are standing in the middle of a field of boulders. It is a clear day, and you can see that the field stretches about a mile in any direction. You are tasked with providing a map of the boulder field from your present location.
Now, we can make a few observations that helps us get our bearings in terms of the project of this post.
First, we can note that there is indeed a way in which the boulder field exists. There actually is a field, there actually are boulders on it, and they exist in an actual arrangement that can, in theory be mapped out.
However, the second thing we should note is that boulders are not transparent and in a field we don’t have a bird’s eye perspective. The very things we are trying to map, therefore, become obstructions to our view and limit our ability to accurately map them. Certainly we can provide a very detailed and accurate map of the boulders closest to us, we can be more or less accurate in mapping the next few rings out which remain mostly in our line of sight, but the farther we get away from our present location the more difficult it is to see and we develop large blind spots where we are simply unable to make even educated guesses about the lay of the land.
This is something like how I believe our perspectival limitations in epistemology work in terms of mapping out the “lay of the land” to attempt to answer metaphysical questions.
I don’t think we have any reason for the extreme skepticism which would have us believe none of our impressions of the world reflect reality at all. However, I think our limited perspective requires us to admit that we can only see part of the way things are, and that is usually the part that is closest to us. The farther away from our immediate experience, from our own heritage, way of life, traditions, etc.- all things that make up our own subjective perspective, or what can be called our hermeneutical situation– the more difficult it is for us to have an accurate understanding.
This seems at first remarkably trivial: of course I don’t know what life is like in China, I have never lived there! So what?
Well, it is from these kinds of lived experiences, heritages, traditions, and so on that we develop our beliefs about what might be behind them. We reason about the essence of being or about what constitutes morality, what God might be like, whether there is a life after death. If we can extend the analogy, we reason about the path we might take to get through the boulder field- whether we will have to navigate around the maze of boulders, whether we might be able to climb some of them or go through them, etc. We reason about the course of life we might take and why we should take it over some other course. But we do all this from our place in the field, with limited lines of sight and large blind spots.
One of the most significant blind spots is actually fairly close to us.
We cannot see the other side of the boulders that are nearest us, how they would appear from another perspective.
But now lets imagine a change in the scenario.
No longer are we standing alone in the boulder field, there are now four people here in four different locations. We cannot move from where we stand, but we can communicate with one another. We can describe to each other what we are seeing and from that hopefully put together the pieces into a more full picture of what the field is actually like. Some people will do that better than others, but what we are all doing is trying to put those pieces together, to get the best understanding we can. And the more voices we have, the more descriptions of the field we have to work with, the more accurate a map we can create and the better we will be at finding our way through the field.
This, then, goes to show us the importance of what we have called before on this blog the hermeneutical project.
Before we can truly begin making a map of the world, we have to first understand the limitations of our own perspective and of those on whom we will be relying for the other pieces of the puzzle. We have to understand the nature of our own blind spots, especially those closest to us, and have a relatively accurate understanding of our position on the field. We have to engage in communication with others, but we need to understand something of their perspective, which is difficult because it is not our own, to be able to accurately understand what they are telling us.
This is what makes hermeneutics the starting point for all our other endeavors in philosophy.
- On reflection (3ammagazine.com)
- Nietzschean perspectivism again, with a skeptical twist (3quarksdaily.com)