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) 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 “critical” conditions of knowledge, 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 (he even called it “archaeology”). 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 let us “construct our reality”. Personally, inspired by Steve Fuller’s take on “the end(s) of knowledge,” 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.

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