Evidence and Inquiry,
Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology
by Susan Haack,

Basil Blackwell, 1993

Evidence and Inquiry, Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology, by Susan Haack, is the kind of book that is sorely needed in an age when principles of scepticism and the rejection of the possibility of knowledge have become all but truisms to many people, both inside philosophy and outside. Indeed, one might even say that the "standard analysis" of knowledge is no longer something like "justified true belief" but instead "the construction of power relations." This would mean that the quest for knowledge is over. All has become a quest for power, which is then, when acquired, to be used to express one's race/class/gender consciousness. This dismal recipe for solipsism and tyranny seems to be the heritage of a generation that was educated on radical politics, with great care and expense, in an era before the fall of communism and the general failure of Marxism as either science, history, politics, or economics posed any kind of cognitive problem for academic anti-anti-communists. Utopian indoctrination took hold upon those who didn't have to face the consequences of Utopianism in practice and who are now insensible or unconcerned to learn the truth. Neither philosophy or English departments are the kinds of places where evidence contrary to a self-contained ideology is likely to be encountered just along the way.

Fortunately, the quest for knowledge has not ended everywhere; and Susan Haack has set the ship of epistemology back upon a constructive course. Her critique of the major existing epistemological alternatives, from various foundationalist and coherence theories to the "vulgar pragmatism" and tragicomically self-referential views of Richard Rorty, is thorough and devastating. The discussion of Rorty even becomes somewhat morally heated:

...the 'edifying' philosophy into which Rorty wants the exepistemologist to put his energies masks a cynicism which would undermine not only epistemology, not only 'systematic' philosophy, but inquiry generally... As my title says: not an edifying prospect. [p. 182]

Haack's critique even includes a clear appraisal of the real problems in Karl Popper, who did not manage to find a cognitive connection between "basic statements," i.e. reports of experiential facts, and experience. As Haack puts it, "basic statements cannot be justified or supported by experience" [p. 98]. This is a serious failing within Popper's overall system.

And what Popper has to offer by way of an alternative to the idea that basic statements are supported by experience serves less to mitigate one's incredulity than to aggravate it. The acceptance and rejection of basic statements, he asserts, is a matter for 'decision' or 'convention' on the part of the scientific community; he even notes that his view has affinities with the conventionalism espoused by Poincaré, but for its being focused not at the theoretical but at the observational level -- where, I may add, it is obviously much less plausible. [p. 99]

Popper's problem was that he could not see how the relation between subject and object could be anything other than a causal or psychological one, neither of which has cognitive force. Both would embody the dreaded "psychologism." His views, however, could be taken as almost a reductio ad absurdum argument that there is a cognitive relation between subject and object in experience. Haack certainly thinks there is.

The problems with the traditional foundationalist and coherentist theories are already pretty well known. Coherence theories have the biggest problem, since if mere consistency is the criterion, then there is no reason why a limitless number of consistent systems of knowledge should not be possible. There may be people who would actually agree with such a view, but mostly the sophisticated coherence theories, e.g. that of Laurence BonJour, try to give some weight to perception by attributing some special status to propositions about perception. The problem then becomes how to explain that status without lapsing into some kind of foundationalism. That proves all but impossible. On the other hand, the foundationalist theories run into various difficulties, the most important these days probably being the all but undeniable circumstance that meaning is theory laden, which gives us the effect that propositions about perception do not simply report the facts of experience. Whatever it is that could primitively be in perception, any statement about it involves an interpretation that includes certain assumptions about things that are not, as it were, in evidence in the perception.

Although Haack's critique of foundationalism is cogent and effective, she does commit one serious logical error. In addressing the "infinite regress argument," that a proposition cannot be logically justified by an infinite chain of reasons, which therefore must end with some original truth, in this case about experience, Haack says, "But the chain analogy is wrong even by the foundationalist's own lights. The appropriate picture for the structure the foundationalist envisages would be, not a chain, but a pyramid or inverted tree" [p. 23]. A "tree" is reasonable enough, but Haack is confused by the metaphors and misses the logical point. If proposition z justifies s, and then s justifies p, but then p justifies z, this produces a petitio principii, not a logically substantive argument. A "loop of justification," which Haack endorses on page 24, may be benign to some kind of Hegelian coherence theory, but to a logician it is a circular argument, which is indeed an argument, but an empty, tautologous one. The "tree" of justification would be the set of all premises from which proposition p is derived. If even one of those premises is p itself, as Haack proposes, then the whole set of premises becomes superfluous, since p can easily be derived from p even without all the other premises. A large number of other premises does not justify p "to however high a degree you like" [p 24], since they are irrelevant to the truth of p once p has been introduced as a premise of itself. If we had a large number of premises from which p evidently would follow lacking, perhaps, one other premise, then we might feel some confidence that p has some weight and could eventually be proven. But that premise must indeed be lacking, not merely p itself.

This oversight, however, is not important to Haack's overall investigation or theory. Since criticisms of foundationalism tend towards coherentism, and criticisms of coherentism tend towards foundationalism, Haack concludes that elements of both must be true and so the proper theory is "foundherentism." This, indeed, must be the case. Coherentism does require some non-inferential cognitive connection to experience, and foundationalism does require the compromise of that connection to other beliefs that influence the Gestalt of the experience itself. Haack's "Foundherentism Articulated" seems to be the substantial foundation of a theory, and her analogy of the crossword puzzle is suggestive and illustrative. However, I am left thinking that there should be some simpler and more transparent principles upon which to hang such a theory. Nor does everything seem in place that would even provide for such principles. For one thing, Haack seems to retain an affection for Quine and Pragmatism and so for a mildly naturalistic theory of meaning. This could be corrected, to the benefit of the overall theory, by consulting Katz's Metaphysics of Meaning. Similarly, Haack suspends judgment on whether there is any a priori knowledge: "That would require a theory of the a priori, and -- here I borrow a delightfully wry phrase from Fodor -- I seem to have mislaid mine" [p. 212]. This is a grave shortcoming, since nothing less than a theory of a priori knowledge, which is going to mean metaphysical knowledge, can provide anything like a lucid explanation of how empirical objects are cognitively available for our inspection in experience. The Friesian approach, of course, draws on the principle in Kant and Schopenhauer that the actual objects of empirical knowledge, phenomenal objects, are themselves contents of consciousness and so, as such, are available for inspection in a non-causal relationship between subject and object. Schopenhauer is especially clear that the relationship between subject and object is not a causal relationship.

Without presupposing any such metaphysics, there are revealing aspects to the foundationalism/coherentism interplay that should be explored further: Coherentism represents a certain hermeneutic sophistication in which the parts of a system of meaning and interpretation are understood to be mutually supporting. Coherentism thus draws its strength from insights about meaning and the nature of understanding. Foundationalism, on the other hand, represents a certain basic insight that a system of meaning and interpretation cannot be solipsistically self-contained but must at some point have a cognitively significant form of contact with external reality. Foundationalism thus draws its strength from insights about truth and the significance of knowledge, as opposed to opinion or fiction. If foundationalism uses the infinite regress of reasons argument to imagine the vertical chain, or inverted tree, of logical justification, then coherentism, we might say, requires the lateral development of the tree in a process of unpacking the history and presuppositions of the semantic terms that occur in the tree of justification.

The need for such lateral unpacking is evident, for example, in the frequently occurring logical fallacy of the "complex question": a question or issue that presupposes claims that are not stated and may never have been explicitly stated. Thus, a commonly made political statement like "government must help the poor" presupposes a veritable galaxy of assumptions about the proper role of government, the nature of poverty and wealth, and how it is that poverty can be alleviated or historically has diminished in certain countries or in certain communities. A common sort of assumption of that sort is that wealth exists in some fixed sum, in the form of "natural resources" or some quantity of industrial products that get manufactured more or less automatically, and that everyone then naturally has a more or less equal claim to their "share" of all those goods, often expressed through the imagery of a "pie" that is to be divided. The increase of wealth of one person must then correspond to the loss of that of another. It is then thought to be the business of government, through "distributive justice," to see that the "pie" is equitably distributed. It is thought that a proper system of distributing wealth would then simply end poverty, since the only real difference between the rich and poor is just that the rich have more than their fair share of the wealth.

Although elections are frequently won on the basis of such a worldview, and in some places always won (e.g. Berkeley or Santa Monica), the depth of misconception and falsehood inherent in it is staggering. The overt theory, however, need never be stated in public, and consequently it is rarely addressed in public. Nor can it be addressed in public in a way that can convey the truth in as brief and concise a form as the original complex questions of political slogans and demagogic claims can be. Instead, attempts to address the underlying ideology can be quickly cut off with abusive and self-righteous accusations that anyone who questions anything about a claim like "government must help the poor" must therefore not want to help the poor--just as with the classic complex question: "Have you stopped beating your wife?"

An ideological worldview thus can be packed into statements neatly and effectively just by using terms like "help" and "poor" in certain ways. This can be all the more effective when certain explicit statements are actually avoided, as with "helping the poor means giving them money," since such a sentence can be very directly questioned, i.e. "Does simply giving the poor money really help them get out of poverty?" It is better for the case that such a question not even be asked, for it clearly turns on the various possible meanings of the word "help," and any ambiguity in the world "help" suddenly renders "government must help the poor" itself ambiguous with dangerous uncertainties.

The hermeneutic dimension of knowledge thus can lead off in all sorts of considerations, but Haack appears to be coming out of a tradition of analytic philosophy to which hermeneutic concerns are only peripheral. The strength of Haack's book, indeed, is that she has broken out of the typical dead ends of analytic philosophy. Even her "allegiance" to the "Neologistic Typographical School of Philosophy" [p. 7], which conjures up the worst expectations of logicistic alphabet soup and jargon breaking up and obscuring discursive explanation, leads to a very minimal and lucid use of special typographical designations. Thus, one hopes for a halfway point between Haack and, say, Richard Bernstein, of Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, who is coming from the opposite direction out of a hermeneutic tradition strongly tempted by relativism and deconstruction. Bernstein's title might as easily be rendered Beyond Foundationalism and Coherentism, since his project is to find a similarly "foundherentist" kind of theory with an objective/foundational aspect and also a hermeneutic/relative/coherentist aspect. Haack's work, however, is far more strongly grounded in the tradition of epistemological theory and involves far more illuminating criticism of various theories than does Bernstein's. Haack is far more hard hitting against certain kinds of views. After her, if hermeneutic claims are to given their due, it is not going to be because someone like Rorty has done a good job a building a credible theory. It will be with the magnanimity of conquest, not the compromise of stalemate.



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