Thursday, 28 February 2008

Listening in for the Truth

Now, just because you eavesdrop does that necessarily mean you are closer to the truth?

RR says:

The discussion of issues relating to the nature and explanatory power of truth requires us to engage with our ontological standpoint, (what we believe to exist), our epistemological standpoint, (how we can justify what we know), and the interrelationships between the two. Both of these notions are extensive areas of philosophical concern in their own right. In summary then:

Our ontological position represents our explanations of what we regard as ‘real’. This can be fairly non-specific such as ‘a culture’ or very precise such as ‘a tree’ so that in crude terms the former implies an idealist ontology and the latter a ‘realist’. Blaikie (2007:14-18) outlines a more sophisticated categorisation of ‘realism’, where at one end of the spectrum there are ‘shallow realists’ where only observable ‘things’ and events are admissible, associated with naturalism, the natural sciences and the contention that there is “little difference between the behaviour of inanimate objects and that of human beings, the logic of enquiry appropriate to the natural sciences can also be used in the social sciences” (Blaikie ibid) through, conceptual, cautious, and depth realist positions, on to the idealists who contend that the external world is made up entirely of representations in the mind, and finally the subtle realist who agrees that there are independent knowable entities, its just that we can’t access them directly.

Our epistemological position involves us determining what we claim to be a warranted or justified belief. Robert Audi (1998) summarises our sources of justification, knowledge and truth as, Perception, Memory, Consciousness, Reason, and Testimony. Epistemologists carefully distinguish between knowledge and belief, causing us to face up to the conundrum that it is possible to believe things that are not true and disbelieve things that are true.

The significance of our epistemological position in relation to what we believe to be true is explained by Johnson and Dubberly (2000:1-2) who point out that epistemological commitments go frequently unrecognised, yet they are a “key feature of our pre-understandings which influence how we make things intelligible” going on to say that “our debates and conjectures about what is true pre-suppose prior agreement…about how we determine whether or not something is true” The challenge this poses is not insignificant, and echoes the general problem of using truth to define truth mentioned above. This challenge is characterised as the ‘circularity of epistemology’ (Johnson and Dubberly 2000:4) whereby any epistemological position is based upon having an epistemological view about what that position should be, such that “everyone adheres to some theory about what constitutes warranted knowledge” (Johnson and Dubberly 2004:5) and as with ontological positions there are a range of epistemological positions that can be taken too. Broadly speaking these resolve out into Rationalist, where only the mind can be trusted, Positivist relying on empirical evidence, Relativist and socially constructed epistemologies, whereby truths are created in the minds of people. Each general position contains nuanced variations.

Understandings of ontological and epistemological claims therefore lie at the heart of any discussion concerning the nature of Truth, and the role of Truth in explanations. An example of their significance in relation to social science enquiry is given by Martin Hollis (1994) who shows how the different ontological and epistemological positions taken by Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill influences their explanation of the truth in social affairs. Marx uses a naturalistic ontology, that values the methods of natural science for investigating social concerns, sees a world that consists of, forces of production, and legal and political superstructures, whereas Mill ignores these ‘things’ and refers to individuals and their ‘character’ and is less confident in the scientific method. Marx’s epistemology suggests that ‘social beings determine consciousness’ i.e. perceptions matter, whereas Mill confines “knowledge of the world to beliefs which observation can justify”.

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