An Epistemological Irritation

The phrase “epistemology” is thrown about as a trump card far too often in far too many subject areas by far too many people who have done far too little serious thinking about actual epistemology and in particular by those who garble epistemology with either phenomenology or semiotics. There’s something rhetorically fashionable about claiming that one’s argumentative partner suffers from poor epistemology. It’s a fad that should end in the near future, relegated to the same dustbin in which parachute pants and phrenology may now be found.

All too often, the word is deployed as a six-syllable courtier’s reply: “I’ve carefully considered my epistemology and you haven’t. That means you lack standing to question my proposition P, because you don’t even know what you know or how you know it. Since you may not challenge P as a result of your epistemological default, I necessarily win the argument. Q.E.D., bitch!”

If you’re going to question how your argumentative opponent knows proposition P to be true, consider explicitly framing that as a challenge to evidentiary support rather than as a challenge to knowledge itself. At least nine times out of ten, a phrase like “You have no way of knowing that P is true” is aimed at evidence and not at the capacity for knowledge. Better yet, if P seems wrong to you somehow, counter-propose that P is unproven or unreliable by offering evidence indicating ~P. If you’re going to say that P is not rationally related to the subject under discussion, that’s a perfectly fine maneuver, too. If you’re going to accuse your opponent of irrationally subscribing to P or call P a mere belief or preference, be my guest. These are all fine things to do in an argument, but none of them are (at least, not without further intellectual development) actual epistemology.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that’s what’s happening in, for instance, this formerly interesting exchange between two interlocutors who I usually enjoy and respect. I’m also not claiming to have done the necessary deep thinking and study to be an epistemological warrior myself. And in some situations, some people invoke epistemology appropriately and usefully. But please repeat after me: “Intuitive naïve realism is perfectly acceptable for almost every policy discussion and even most theory discussions.” It almost never matters whether you concluded that people prefer paying lower taxes to high taxes by way of using an a priori or an a posteriori methodology.

Attempting to assign the discussion to a higher level of abstraction should generally be understood as a dodge rather than as a riposte. When I see the word “epistemology” thrown around, my eyes glaze over and my irrational prejudice slides my assessment of the discussion strongly towards “arguing about nothing, time to channel-surf” territory. And really, isn’t that your immediate reaction, too? I say, trust that gut instinct, it’s your hyper-conscious mind shortuctting through the nonsense and telling you to use your brain more productively than this.

Let us agree that henceforth, an invocation of “epistemology” shall raise a rebuttable presumption, in the manner of Godwin’s Law, that the one who played the purported three-dollar philosophical trump card has done so because there are no other arrows left in that person’s argumentative quiver. This shall apply regardless of whether I am supportive or opposed to the proposition against which the canard of “epistemology” has been invoked. I suspect that we shall find that should rebuttal be offered to this presumption, it will more often than not invoke substantive evidence rather than philosophical wankery, and thus the argument will be salvaged and become productive once more.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. “epistemology” is the new “fallacious”; it’s a fancy-sounding word that people use because they think that, since smart people use fancy-sounding words, using fancy-sounding words is therefore a sign that you’re smart.

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