Monday, May 29, 2006

Epistemological Crises and Dramatic Narrative

I have Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue on my shelf and have read parts of it. As much as I like authors like MacIntyre, I have something like philosophical ADD. I start reading books, but usually I get distracted and start reading other books, all in an unending series of movements from MacIntyre to Toulmin to Putnam to Stout to Geertz, back to MacIntyre, on and on. I do wish to get through them, but I've decided that, for now, it's probably best that I try not to punish myself too harshly for not finishing them and instead focus on essays. Essays are short and usually last as long as my attention holds.

The volume of essays that has Annette Baier's "Doing Without Moral Theory?" also contains a number of other essays by luminaries like Bernard Williams, John McDowell, Charles Taylor, and MacIntyre. I've contented myself with trying to read those essays, a number of different perspectives all around a common, anti-theoretical perspective. MacIntyre's contribution, "Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science," is an excellent little thing and contains the basic anti-theoretical insights he carries in books like After Virtue and Whose Justice? Whose Rationality?. (MacIntyre has said that this essay was a turning point for him from his earlier work to the writing of After Virtue.) The basic idea is that the idea of tradition has been woefully lacking in our accounts of rationality.

MacIntyre begins his essay by thinking about what it means to be in an "epistemological crisis". He does so in a very down to earth, real life manner, like when "someone who has believed that he was highly valued by his employers and colleagues is suddenly fired" or when "someone falls out of love and needs to know how he or she can possibly be so mistaken in the other." (241) These are real problems that most of us have faced, or can at least imagine being in similar circumstances. What we think about people is based on how they behave, but sometimes our entire outlook on them changes and all their behavioral cues become transmogrified--and worse, sometimes we cease to be certain about how to take their behavior at all. What we "took to be evidence pointing unambiguously in some one direction now turns out to have been equally susceptible of rival interpretations."

This produces a frightful situation in which we lose our hold on reality. For "my ability to understand what you are doing and my ability to act intelligibly (both to myself and to others) are one and the same ability." (242) If we begin to lose our hold on others, we begin to lose our hold on ourselves. Recurring to the example of Hamlet as an exemplar of epistemological crisis, MacIntyre says perceptively that "to be unable to render oneself intelligible is to risk being taken to be mad--is, if carried far enough, to be mad. And madness or death may always be the outcomes that prevent the resolution of an epistemological crisis, for an epistemological crisis is always a crisis in human relationships." (243)

The wisdom that MacIntyre is pulling out of the example of such an individual in distress has the same implications for disciplines or paradigms of thought in distress. "When an epistemological crisis is resolved, it is by the construction of a new narrative, which enables the agent to understand both how he or she could intelligibly have held his or her original beliefs and how he or she could have been so drastically misled by them." I won't reflect very long on Pirsig, but this is the same wisdom that is embodied in ZMM. Pirsig combines both personal distress and paradigm distress in a single narrative that charts both his own course through time and the paradigm's course, all in an effort to make it intelligible--how he could have been an 18 year old college drop out, former Benares student and University of Chicago PhD candidate, and state committed psychiatric patient all the way to technical manual editor and suburban dad. Pirsig weaves in a decisively dramatic way the course of his own descent with that of intellectual history to both make himself more intelligible, the tradition of philosophical thinking more intelligible, and to show how the two are interwoven.

The most important reason for such narratives is that without them we would be taken over by the kind of radical, paralyzing skepticism that Descartes (and every epistemological skeptic after) pretends to have. MacIntyre points out that even Descartes, having formally eschewed narrative for formal deduction from self-evident premises, constructs narratives to couch his process in the Meditations. The epistemological consequences are large. MacIntyre says that an epistemological crisis, even after being abated, can induce two conclusions: 1) that our understanding of a situation, the schemata or paradigms we use to interpret, even the ones we just adopted to end the crisis, "may themselves, in turn, come to be put in question at any time" (244) and 2) "because in such crises the criteria of truth, intelligibility and rationality may always themselves be put in question ... we are never in a position to claim that now we possess the truth or now are fully rational. The most that we can claim is that this is the best account anyone has been able to give so far, and that our beliefs about what the marks of 'a best account so far' are will themselves change in what are, at present, unpredictable ways."

MacIntyre, here, doesn't pull out the point most explicitly, but the point is an important one that Rorty has also developed (particularly in relation to the individual in CIS's chapter on Winston). A skeptical crisis is terrifying because we are no longer sure of those around us. It further makes us unsure of who we are. Global skepticism (of the kind Descartes pretended to have) has gotten its punch from imagining that if we change one theory or precept of interpretation, what's to stop us from changing the whole lot of them, and if we change all of them, what's our criteria for getting closer to what's really going on--how do we know any of our canons of interpretation are at all like reality, how do we know we are getting any better, that we aren't just swinging unhooked from reality in a limitless abyss with no touchstone?

What is terrifying is that we, "we" being made up of our paradigms of thinking, could be terribly and radically wrong about reality, and therefore terribly and radically wrong about who we really are. Death has always been terrifying, and death is exactly what's on the table. On the cultural scale, if we keep pulling up floorboards on the deck of the U. S. S. Neurath, how can we identify the totally new ship we will someday be aboard as embodying the culture we now identify with? And if that's the case, wouldn't that count as the death of an entire culture? That is scary, to think that democracy and freedom could someday end, but what is even more pressing is the personal death we risk at the hands of global belief replacement. For if all the beliefs we now own are replaced by others, wouldn't we no longer count as being us? If I had totally and utterly different beliefs than those that I hold now, how would I identify as that person? Would I recognize me as me? Wouldn't, then, I be dead?

MacIntyre and Rorty recognize, as post-Cartesian epistemology does not, the importance of narrative for the ordering and stablizing of beliefs. Without narrative, something like global skepticism would indeed be frightening. However, part of who we are, both as a culture and as individuals, is because of the story we tell ourselves of how we got from our old, bad beliefs to our new, better beliefs (I've talked about this in Phaedrus, the Woolf and, with more attention to Pirsig, in Prospectus, Part III). This gives us continuity, the continuity in being able to claim that I did all those dumb, stupid things when I was younger. It gives you a coherent self. Without the story, we wouldn't be able to claim any of that.

MacIntyre suggests that the difference between Descartes' Meditations and Shakespeare's Hamlet is that "Shakespeare invites us to reflect on the crisis of the self as a crisis in the tradition that has formed the self." (248) Cultures are made up of traditions that create people and an epistemological crisis is a crisis of a particular tradition. A new, successful theory or paradigm or schema of science, art, religion, or philosophy does so because it "enables us to understand precisely why its predecessors have to be rejected or modified and also why, without and before its illumination, past theory could have remained credible. It introduces new standards of evaluating the past. It recasts the narrative that constitutes the continuous reconstruction" of the tradition of discourse. (249) MacIntyre is important for enabling us to to see that when a tradition is in a crisis, the successful resolution of that crisis extends the tradition. And it does so by its own tools. A tradition "is a conflict of interpretations of that tradition, a conflict which itself has a history susceptible of rival interpretations." "A tradition then not only embodies the narrative of an argument, but is only to be recovered by an argumentative retelling of that narrative which will itself be in conflict with other argumentative retellings." (250)

This is where MacIntyre's metaphilosophical outlook comes closest to Rorty's. Rorty argued in the traditional model of analytic philosophy throughout much of the 60s, in the cold, airy night of theses and propositions. Rorty saw quite plainly that such arguments tend to suffocate, cut off from each other, each begging the question over the other. When great sea changes are called for, one can't argue from X to Y, one has to retell the history of Xs changing to Ys. This will still be disputed, but these argumentative retellings of history are some of the only weapons available. One cannot simply argue that Cartesian epistemology was a mistake, one has to offer a history explaining to us why this mistake occured and how we may reverse it (such as Rorty's PMN).

MacIntyre goes on to talk specifically about Kuhn, Lakatos, Popper and the philosophy of science, but I'd like to end by reflecting on MacIntyre's links between epistemology and madness. MacIntyre remarks that "the categories of psychiatry and of epistemology must be to some extent interdefinable." (252) MacIntyre in this essay has been using "epistemology" in a wide sense of "ways of knowing," these schemata or theories or paradigms or canons of interpretation that generate on the other side what we call "knowledge". MacIntyre, by linking back to the individual's sense of an epistemological crisis, of a crisis of what some individual knows to be true, brings us to some of the same insights that Pirsig developed in ZMM and Lila when he talked about being outside the mythos and the philosophy of insanity. This is the idea of tradition-dependent, socially contextualized definitions of epistemology that have replaced the idea of Cartesian foundation-dependent, acontextual definitions.


  1. tut tut tut

    you really must finish reading After Virtue (even if you don't read anything else)

    however, the link between epistemology and psychiatry is an interesting one. Have a look at something I wrote last year which you might find pertinent: here.

  2. I find it incredible that anyone could begin After Virtue and not finish it. But I guess in 2010 the author probably has...nice piece.

  3. Heh--guess again. This author never got around to finishing it, though he finds the essay above, finally collected in MacIntyre's The Tasks of Philosophy, to be the single most useful thing MacIntyre has written for the general intellectual.

    I have no wish to slight After Virtue as a piece of epistemology/moral philosophy, but one of the reasons I never get around to reading it is because I'm in the process of professionalizing as a literary critic. The virtue of "Epistemological Crises and Dramatic Narrative" is that it is able to say something fascinating, important, digestible, and eminently useful to every intellectual reflecting on their discipline. And for lit crits especially, this single essay is able to teach a lot in a small compass.

    It's one of those hard, impressive nuggets I'll be assigning students some day.

  4. Mark B BaldoMarch 29, 2012

    This single concept of epistemological crisis, along with conflict of traditions, cleared a lot of my conceptual cobwebs as an undergraduate of political science and an informal student of philosophy. In a university and textbooks of diverse various theories, a young student like me might not see the agonistic interplay happening among those theories and make the postmodern misinterpretation of seeing them as arbitrary explanations of an ultimately incomprehensible reality.

    For my part however, my favorite example of an epistemological crisis is the recent (supposed) discovery of a particle moving faster than light. It threatens the Einsteinian tradition in physics. But then again, I just found out about those examples MacIntyre gave in that essay. Haha.

    Great article! Hope you have finished After Virtue. I found Whose Justice? Which Rationality? more enlightening though, at least in explaining epistemological crisis and conflict of traditions.


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