Epistemic humility

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 7, 2013

A colleague who lost his teenage son due to a traffic accident 3 years ago, told us about the ‘black halo’ which remains above his head, and which only others who have lost a child are able to see. I do not doubt for a second that this is the case – that people who have not lost a child are, perhaps a very few exceptions aside, not able to truly understand what it means to lose a child, and how it changes the person you are. It reminds me of a friend who lost her father about a year after I lost mine. She had been very supportive when my father was terminally ill and died, but told me after her father died that she had no idea how hard it was until she experienced it herself. Good intentions are simply not enough to understand certain experiences.

I think it’s not just with experiences, but also with varieties of ‘differences’ and with social practices, being ill, and other features of human life. It is not just the death of someone near and dear that we have a hard time to understand if we haven’t experienced it ourselves; or what it means to have autism, or to live with and/or care for someone who has autism (in my experience, most people don’t understand, despite what they believe themselves about their understanding); or what it is to be constantly subjected to racism. I am confident that I have no clue what it means to grow up in abject poverty, or to live through a civil war, or to be the victim of domestic abuse.

My worry is that this category of experiences, differences, practices, and other features of human life that we cannot understand without first-person experience, is much larger than we generally tend to assume. And that as a consequence, we believe that we know much more than we actually do know. And, as a further consequence, that we too often are wrong in our judgements of aspects of the lives of people significantly different than ourselves.

Somehow it strikes me as wise, and possibly even as a precondition for social justice, if we would rehabilitate epistemic humility at the core of our educational and social practices.

Two by Scott

by Henry on November 7, 2013

Since CTer Scott McLemee is not exactly what you would describe as an incessant self-promotor, two recent pieces by him that deserve attention.

First, on Colin McGinn, the Mind “review”:http://m.mind.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/10/31/mind.fzt073.full?ijkey=JaKp6eczj44oA1I&keytype=ref that’s been doing the rounds, and the tradition of savage book reviews by philosophers:

The new issue of Harper’s magazine reprints, under the title “Out on a Limb,” a blog post by McGinn from June 2013 in which he explains: “I have in fact written a whole book about the hand, Prehension, in which its ubiquity is noted and celebrated… I have given a semester-long seminar discussing the hand and locutions related to it. I now tend to use ‘hand job’ in the capacious sense just outlined, sometimes with humorous intent…. Academics like riddles and word games.”

Some more than others, clearly. McGinn then considers the complexity of the speech-act of one professional glassblower asking another, “Will you do a blow job for me while I eat my sandwich?” The argument here is that nothing he did should be regarded as sexual harassment of a graduate student, and the real victim here is McGinn himself: “One has a duty to take all aspects of the speech situation into account and not indulge in rash paraphrases. And one should also not underestimate the sophistication of the speaker.”

Nor overestimate the usefulness of sophistication as a shovel, once one has dug oneself into a hole and needs to get back out. McGinn subsequently thought the better of this little essay and deleted it from his blog, but the Harper’s “Readings” section preserves it for posterity. Life would be much simpler if good judgment weren’t so tardy at times.

Second, from last week, on “Lou Reed and Delmore Schwartz”:http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/10/30/essay-lou-reed

Fifty years ago, Lou Reed himself was a senior at Syracuse University, where he studied with the poet Delmore Schwartz. Reed was 21 – roughly the same age Schwartz had been when he wrote the short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” In it, the narrator revisits the scene of his parents’ courtship in 1909 as if seeing it in a film of the era.

Simply told and strangely beautiful, it is both haunting and haunted. By its close, any hint of sentimentality dissolves in a moment of painful self-awareness. Its appearance in 1937 in the revived Partisan Review was the stuff of legends. The poetry and criticism Schwartz published after that were more than promising, and he won the Bollingen Prize in 1959 (five years after Auden had received it) for a volume of his selected poems.

Beginning in 1962, Schwartz held an appointment in the English department at Syracuse, despite having become, at some point over the previous decade or so, manifestly insane. The distinction between bohemianism and madness is sometimes a matter of context. With Schwartz the case for nuance was long since past. He had fallen into the habit of threatening friends and ex-wives with litigation for their parts in a conspiracy against him, led by the Rockefellers. While living in Greenwich Village he had smashed all the windows in his rented room and been taken to Bellevue in restraints. He died alone in New York City in 1966.

The following year, Reed dedicated a song on the first Velvet Underground album to Schwartz, and in another song from the early 1980s he imagined being able to communicate with the poet via Ouija board. Last year Reed published a tribute to him that has also appeared as the preface to In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, an edition of Schwartz’s selected short fiction.