Premodern, Modern, Postmodern Epistemology

28 Nov

One of the best most succinct presentations of these three basic epistemologies; will help you understanding the western mind (how it has evolved and how it is currently divided against itself).  Great read from DA Carson:

“Postmodernism” is on the lips of many people. For some, it evokes all that is good and exciting about intellectual advance during the past three decades or so; for others, it signals the abandonment of truth, the adoption of nihilism, multiplied confusion, and God-defying arrogance. For many others, its meaning is unclear. They know it is something they are supposed to be excited about or concerned over, but they are not quite sure what it is.

The meaning of postmodernism is not transparent. Moreover, its range of application-it has been applied to literature, art, communication theory, architecture, epistemology, jurisprudence, the philosophy of science, and more-means that its associations for one person may be very different from its associations for someone else. Seventy-five years ago a particular architectural style was called “modern.” Then style changed; so what should the new style be called? If “modern” refers to the contemporary, then every style should be called “modern” in turn, at least for a while. But because “modern” had been attached to the previous style, the new style that displaced it had to be called something else. So the new style was called “postmodern.” Something similar has happened in several domains.

Still, one use of the label “postmodern” very largely holds the rest of its uses together. This is its use in the field of epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how people know things-or at least of how they think that they know them. Initially, this sounds terribly abstruse. For the practical (like those, for instance, who repair their own automobiles), it can sound downright silly, like medieval debates over the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Yet we have all adopted some form of epistemology. We come to our beliefs-those things that we claim to know-by a wide range of means. But when we move outside our usual circles (especially if we travel much and listen well), we become aware that many people see things very differently. They dismiss as bunk what we take as obvious. For example, while Americans mourned after 9/11, many Muslims danced in the street. We knew that the destruction of the twin towers in New York and the violence against the Pentagon in Washington were evil acts of terrorism, while they knew that they were just and courageous deeds, sanctioned and blessed by Allah. Here are two competing truth-claims. But what are truth-claims? And how does one “know” them? Christians need to think about epistemology.

We shall gain a better appreciation of the role epistemology plays if we indulge in a quick historical survey, before summarizing the strengths and weaknesses of postmodern epistemology.

Premodern Epistemology

“Premodern” here refers to the period from the late Middle Ages through the Reformation to the dawn of the Enlightenment (c. a.d. 1200-1600). For most Europeans during that time an account of human knowing would go something like this: God exists and knows everything. We human beings, made in his image, know only an infinitesimal part of what God knows. In fact, if we are to know anything, then we must come to know some part of what God already perfectly knows-and so revelation is required. Revelation can come through Scripture or the church’s teachings or by the Spirit’s illumination or through experience or by means of what we today call “science.” (For these premoderns, the means or locus of revelation was not as important as its reality.) On this general point, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin agree: human knowing is a small subset of God’s knowing and comes to us by revelation. Where they differ is on how much revelation is given through each means. Aquinas was convinced that enough was revealed through nature and experience that someone could, by paying proper attention to these sources of “natural revelation,” gain some significant knowledge about God. By contrast, Calvin was convinced that “special” revelation-revelation coming through Scripture, the Spirit, and the church-was necessary for us to know anything about God in the way that we should.

Premodern epistemology was very open to the supernatural. That meant it held countless millions (at least on the popular level) in thrall to beliefs and “knowledge” that most of us would dismiss as laughable today: silly superstitions, the magical powers of relics, high confidence in omens and astrology. The Reformation significantly weakened some of these beliefs. Yet it is worth noting that even this epistemology-which was substantially correct in recognizing that all human knowing is a subset of God’s knowing and consequently a function of revelation-could nevertheless be corrupted by sinful human beings and thus coupled with indefensible superstition.

Modern Epistemology

Modern epistemology arose by moving away from God to the autonomous individual. It begins with the “I.” Historians often point to Ren Descartes as the crucial transitional figure. Early in the seventeenth century he saw that many of his acquaintances in the intellectual world were rejecting both premodern epistemology and Christianity. Some of them were atheists. So he sought for a common intellectual base, a foundation on which both he and they could build their beliefs. He eventually settled on his famous axiom, “I think, therefore I am” (in Latin, cogito, ergo sum).

Descartes was not a skeptic. He was Roman Catholic all his life. He published his acceptance of this axiom-along with a number of other philosophical claims that have not stood the test of time-in the 1630s; and it exerted wide influence. Descartes was convinced that whatever else might be doubted, as long as “I” am a thinking being “I” cannot doubt my own existence, for there must be an “I” who is doing the thinking. Hence, “I think, therefore I am.” Here, surely, was a foundation that he and his skeptical friends could share. And Descartes was persuaded that from this foundation he could erect an argument that would move people toward theism and even Christianity.

The critical elements that sprang out of his work and developed into modern epistemology can be summarized as follows: (1) The foundation of our knowledge is no longer God in his omniscience, but “I,” the human knower. So human knowledge is no longer seen as a subset of God’s knowledge but as something grounded in nothing more than each of our existences as individual thinking beings. (2) It is assumed that absolute certainty-a certainty borne of true knowledge-is both desirable and attainable. (3) The structure of human knowledge and certainty is profoundly “foundationalist.” Descartes looked for a commonly acceptable “foundation” on which he could build all the rest of human knowledge-what we might call the “superstructure” of human knowledge, including our belief in God and in the existence of a world that exists independently of our consciousness. Foundation-alism has been assumed in most modern disciplines from history to microbiology to particle physics. In each discipline there are axioms, fundamental assumptions, and then conclusions that are built upon those axioms and assumptions. Usually, the autonomy of human knowing-that is, its independence from God’s knowledge-is either an explicit or implicit part of these disciplines. (4) To establish rigor and control in each discipline, there is a strong emphasis on method. Until very recently, a doctoral dissertation in the Western world has been checked as much for its methodological rigor as for its results. In other words, in modern epistemology we start with an adequate foundation, add methodological rigor, turn the crank, and out pops truth. (5) Truth itself is understood to enjoy what some have called “ahistorical universality”-that is, if something is true, it is true everywhere, at all times, for all peoples, in all cultures and languages. If we can show that water is made up of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, then that is as true in Peru and Pango Pango as it is in Mexico City or Medicine Hat. It was true in a.d. 1300 and it is true in a.d. 2003. Real truth is objective truth that transcends culture and history. It is true whether anyone believes it or not; and that is why it is to be pursued and cherished. (6) Although it was certainly not so in Descartes’s time or for a long time afterwards, modern epistemology has increasingly been linked in the Western world to naturalistic assumptions. Naturalism claims there is nothing more than matter, energy, space, and time. Modern epistemology was originally developed primarily by theists (many of whom were Christians) and deists. Darwin, however, made atheism intellectually respectable; and so in the twentieth century modern epistemology was increasingly linked to naturalism, not only in scientific circles, but also in the sweeping rise and fall of communism and fascism.

Postmodern Epistemology

So what about postmodern epistemology? Of course, history is messy. The transition from one historical movement to another is not abrupt. Invariably, some forces prepare the way for a shift and others retard it. And even when there is a new paradigm, not everyone adopts it. Even today many modernists argue for their corner and many other thinkers have mixed epistemological pedigrees.

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