Good Taste in Knowledge*

“The aim of education or culture is merely the development of good taste in knowledge and good form in conduct.” (Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, p. 393)

What’s so good about knowledge? Why is it better to know than not to know? Indeed, is knowledge always a good thing? Is it sometimes better not to know? Certainly, we cannot realistically pursue a goal of knowing everything there is to know, even about a specific subject. And whatever we do know derives its value, its virtue if you will, from its contribution to the important business of living. Life, we might say, has an “epistemic” component, which suggests an epistemological issue.**

I worry about the epistemic component of the problem of living. That makes me an epistemologist, just as an ethnographer is interested in the “ethnic side” of life, if you will.** The ethnographer is not interested in becoming a better native, a more upstanding member of the community; the ethnographer wants to understand what it means to be native to a particular land. Likewise, I’m less interested (or at least I sometimes tell myself I’m less interested) in actually knowing something, than in understanding the difference that knowing it will make to our lives.

I’m not really very curious person, perhaps. But I am obsessed with what happens when we satisfy, or fail to satisfy, our curiosity. When I consider carefully how our research and teaching environments are organised (my experience is mostly with universities) I sometimes worry that we let real curiosity go unsatisfied, and glut ourselves with trivia instead. Sometimes, I think I’m against curiosity altogether. I suppose that’s a bit like an ethnographer who has a low of opinion of nationalism. You can understand something well enough to be afraid of it.

It seems life would be easier if we were less naturally curious. Or perhaps the problem lies with how easily we let ourselves be satisfied. Maybe I just think we have poor taste in knowledge.

I’d like to try to affect our taste in knowledge. In particular, I think we need to have a much more refined taste for social science. We’re much too eager to learn how society works, how people live together. We’re much too ready to believe what social scientists tell us, what some recent “study” has “shown”. We need to hold claims about the society in which we live to a much higher standard. After all, what we think is true of our society is very much a part of how that society works. If you think you live in a democracy your political activities look very different from how they’d look if you thought you were living in an oligarchy. If you think people’s decisions (including your own) can be manipulated by “priming”, your negotiating tactics will probably show it.

I’m interested not just in how we practice what we know, but in how we go about our knowing. What sorts of practices lead to better kinds of knowledge. Our knowledge will never be perfect, but there must be a sense that we’re striving to improve. What criteria, then, can we come up with for “good” epistemic practices? This is a somewhat different question than the one philosophers classically raise: what are the criteria for knowledge? Instead of asking how we can know that we know one thing or another, I want to describe a set of practices such that, if we practice them, what is likely to result is “good” knowledge. I think it’s much less important to believe the right things than to cultivate the right attitude about our beliefs. I think epistemology should be about that attitude, not about the beliefs that emerge at the end of it.

More later.


*This post was originally published as part of a series on my old blog.

**It should be possible to distinguish between “epistemic” and “epistemological” as easily as we distinguish between “ethnic” and “ethnographic”. Knowers have have epistemic traits just as people have ethnic ones; our interest in these traits is epistemological and ethnographic respectively. When they produce “an ethnography” of a group of people (sometimes called “natives”) ethnographers delineate their “ethnicity”—the nature of their particular humanity, or what we call culture. When epistemologists produce “an epistemology” of a group of knowers (sometimes called “scientists”) they delineate their “epistemicity”—okay, that’s not a word, but epistemologists do delineate the nature of the knowledge, sometimes the nature of the knowledge that belongs to a particular group of knowers. Ethnos just means “people” in Greek. Episteme means knowledge. Foucault talked about epistemes in part to avoid talking about “sciences”. He preferred to talk about “field[s] of scientificity” over talking of “scientific theories”.

2 thoughts on “Good Taste in Knowledge*

  1. It strikes me that you are a bit more normative about knowledge than an ethnographer would be about culture. I’d suggest the epistemological interest should in the ways in which we make knowing a part of our life. So the question of ‘warrant’ doesn’t come up. Just the question of how do people make sense of it.

    I think Rorty (and James/Dewey) were on the right track here. I formulated it under the header of ‘Epistemology as Ethics’

    1. A bit, maybe. But the reason I mentioned nationalism is that there’s usually some normativity under the surface of an ethnographic description if you scratch it. Many ethnographers today are staunchly anti-racist and anti-sexist in their politics, and this let’s say “left-leaning” bias can never be completely removed from their account of culture. (They are usually quite honest about the source of the bias, but not always ready to correct errors that result from it when they are pointed out.) I would say I’m similarly normative about knowledge.

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