3/5/2009 19:15

How Many Empiricists Can Dance On the Nub of an Argument?

Seldom do I take a monograph on theories of epistemology as my bedtime reading. So far, indeed, only about once in 50 years. Then again Susan Haack only wrote Evidence and Inquiry: Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology one time, in 1993.

In actual reality a monograph of over 200 pages in not written in a year, not even 1993. Haack herself admits to "about a decade" and explains, "The book draws upon, develops, substantially revises, and in some case repudiates, earlier published work." [Preface.] That's a nice bit of honesty and characteristic enough of the author's general tone.

The book reads like a series of informal lectures to a group of avid graduate students in philosophy. They are avid not only because of their interest in the topic but also because of their confidence in the lecturer. She's someone they expect to be able to learn from, someone who has studied the issues of epistemology and has the intelligence to say something worth hearing. And she, at the podium, is confident and careful; she knows that what she says is worth listening to.

Besides that, she likes those avid grad students and enjoys being with them, and apparently she is willing to enjoy being with the rest of us, if only through the indirection of authorship.

Haack writes with a balance of erudition and good humor. She tells us, for example, that "while pondering the futility of trying to commensurate incommensuable discourses may have convinced some to abandon epistemology, it leads me to suspect that the tautological is being transmuted into the tendentious: e.g., that we judge by the standards by which we judge, into, it makes no sense to ask what the basis of our standards might be; or: that we can't describe anything except in language, into, there is nothing outside language for our descriptions to represent accurately or inaccurately." [Page 185.]

No one ever said that the well-informed must write only in succinct sentences. The key is not in brevity but in value, and a sentence that blends serious philosophical criticism with literate alliteration and spices the whole with a dash of sarcasm is richer than any other sentence that you are likely to have read today.

That is to suggest that in the actual reality game reading such books adds value, enriches you, while avoiding them impoverishes. Not everyone needs epistemological monographs at bedtime, but what did you do at bedtime that helped you in this game? I read Susan Haack. Once in 50 years.