Monthly Archives: September 2023

Two Humble Questions

The tradition they now represent has centered its chief inquiries around the two humble questions, “What do you mean?” and “How do you know?”

Herbert Feigl, “Logical Empiricism”

Christian Frankel sent me this quote the other day knowing it would remind me of Wayne Booth’s mythical Oxford tutorials. As a statement of the underlying attitude of the logical positivists, it’s quite nice, and I remember Steve Fuller once telling me that, whatever we may think of positivism as a philosophy of science, positivists were often excellent dissertation supervisors. Indeed, it’s not difficult to see how it might be helpful if your supervisor patiently and insistently asked you mainly, “What do you mean?” and “How do you know?” Imagine having someone give every single one of your paragraphs that treatment!

I’m going to spend some time this weekend reading Feigl and relating his ideas to the issues I’ve been raising this week. Have a great weekend also!

The Conditions Under Which the Objects of Human Knowledge Are Given

“To know anything in space (for instance, a line), I must draw it…”
Immanuel Kant

Why should you have a philosophy of science? It’s not just students who find it inconvenient to have to declare their epistemological and ontological assumptions, to decide whether they’re positivists or postmodernists, or gauge the depth of their realism or constructivism. Many of their professors, too, would prefer to just, as I put it yesterday, “drink coffee and know things.” Why all this thinking?

One way to answer this question is to say, simply, that philosophy is an inquiry into how things are given to us to know. What must necessarily be the case in order for the actual objects around to even be possible as things we can experience? This is important because it gives us something to do: if we want know something we’re going to have to establish those necessary conditions. We’re going to have find (or perhaps build) a solid foundations for inquiry. We have to get ourselves into a position to know things. Coffee may seem necessary. But it’s not going to suffice, I’m afraid.

Kant identified time and space as conditions of the possibility of our experience of objects. Foucault took a more historical view and tried to dig up the epistemic foundations of our discourse. Today, after the advances of Science and Technology Studies, we’re all more or less aware that knowledge is grounded in “social and material” conditions that shape our “communities of practice” and allow us “construct our reality”. Personally, I like to focus on the conditions provided by the university which I sometimes call the institution of our intuitions, the formative place where we shape our experience in such a way that things can be given to us “objectively”. In that sense, academia is the premier site of what is sometimes vulgarly known as “knowledge production”.

The point is that we can work under these conditions. We do it every day. Philosophy is just a deliberate attempt to reflect on them.

What We Talk About When We Know What We’re Talking About

with apologies to Raymond Carver

Ontology is, famously, the study of what there is. In philosophy, especially after Kant, this question has been approached by way of epistemology, so that we now ask what is there to know. As academic writers, it can be useful to distinguish the act of knowing from the facts we know, and so it can be useful to think independently about what there is and how we know it. That’s what I want to write a few words about this morning.

Willard Van Orman Quine has been cropping up a lot in my thinking and reading lately. He had a strong influence on me when I was younger (channeled largely through the work of Donald Davidson) and revisiting his writing has been a good way to gauge whether my own thinking has gotten deeper and richer with the years. I think it has. For example, Quine suggests that we think of ontology always in relation to a theory, not as some general metaphysical project of discovering what “the world” is really “made of” (though he’d be happy to let us do that too, relative to, say, our whole language.)

The other day, for example, I wrote about the ontology of the library, our archive of scholarly discourse. I said it consists of “sources” of particular kinds, like “books” and “periodicals”, “chapters” and “articles”, but also databases and their data and metadata. And when I talk about writing, I’m talking about words, sentences, paragraphs, essays, papers, dissertations, etc., which some would say are covered by the general term “texts”. The point (today) isn’t whether these terms are the exactly right ones but just that these are things I “know something about” as a librarian or writing instructor. They constitute the universe of my knowledge. They indicate my ontology. They are the “things” I can “refer” to because I am a “knowledgeable” person.

Notice I can refer to them without saying anything about them, without really making a knowledge claim. At best, I’m claiming that books and paragraphs exist. And that’s the whole theme of ontology. What things exist?

I said that Quine suggested we always relativize our ontology to our theories (or our language). We should ask, “What is this theory about?” when we are looking into its particular ontology. Notice that the two examples I sketched were not really theories, but what we could well call practices: archiving, writing. All we have to do now is realize that our practices can be theorized and that when we theorize our social practices what we’re actually doing is taking what people are doing as “subjects”, driven around by “necessities” (what they must and mustn’t do), and construing them as “objects” in a space of “possibilities”. We’re taking an “objective” view of “subjective” experience.

In so doing, we’re going to construct theoretical objects and these will constitute our ontology. At one level, we can say that we know something about “people”. But we might also be studying groups or classes of people, or we might be studying their motivations or their identities. Or we might not really be studying persons at all: maybe we want to say we study decisions in organizations (populated by members), or transactions on markets (for goods).

As a preparation to write key sentences for paragraphs I often suggest that people take a few minutes just to make a list of the things they know something about, without yet thinking about what they want to say about them. Just name the things that populate your world. The world you are studying. The objects of your theories.

Tomorrow we’ll think of things to say.

Philosophy of Science

A good philosophy of science should make you a better academic writer. In fact, a healthy approach to academic writing probably depends on having an adequate philosophy of what science is. After all, you are writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. Before you can do that, you need to have a working understanding of what it means to “know things”; and, if you’ve paid attention in your introductory philosophy class you will know that we’re now already well on our way into the thickets of epistemology (“What is knowledge?”) and ontology (“What things are there?”).

I’m going think out loud about this over the next few posts, reflecting a little on my own understanding what science (or research or scholarship) actually is. I’m always looking for a positive sense to give to the word “academic”, which today suffers from misuse both as a pejorative and an honorific, leading us to either ridicule or venerate academics in unhelpful ways. There’s a T-shirt I see promoted online with the variations on the slogan, “That’s what I do. I read books, I drink coffee, and I know things.” There’s something at once self-deprecating and self-important about talking like that, but it also captures that key question of the philosophy of science: What is it we think scientists do? What are they doing when they “know things”?

More tomorrow about how this will make you a better writer.


Knowledgeable people are people who are able to know things. This means that they are able to conquer their ignorance. Obviously, you can’t conquer something that fills you with dread whenever you encounter it. So one of the things you often find in very accomplished scientists and scholars is a sanguine attitude about the things they don’t know.

This comes up in my writing instruction when I prepare students for the experience of sitting down to write and discovering, only in that moment, that they don’t know what they’re talking about. They followed the plan. They took a moment at the end of yesterday to decide what to say today; but, when the moment arrived, and they were typing out their key sentence, they realized they had nothing more to say, or nothing, in any case, that they felt comfortable saying to someone who was qualified to tell them that they’re wrong. Now what?

The short answer is to take the planned 18 or 27 minutes of your writing moment and use it to explore the depth and the breadth of your ignorance on the chosen topic. Rewrite the key sentences a few times at greater or lesser levels of generality until the gears click. Or simply write the negation of the same sentence; if you don’t know why the sentence is true, maybe you know why it’s false? Try to imagine specific examples of the general point you’re making, even if you don’t know they are true. And try to imagine precisely the cases that your key sentence seems to exclude, the experiences that would falsify your claim. Here you can imagine actual facts in the world or the opinions of the scholars you had planned to cite. These images are excellent ways to understand what you mean.

Whatever you do, make sure that you write the paragraph you said you would, however imperfect you already know it’s going to be. Later, when the writing is done, you can go looking for the facts or sources that you have vaguely imagined while you were writing. Resolve the issue. Then, next week, write the paragraph properly.