Personal Epistemology

My Couples and Family Therapy program has a lot to say about epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. We don’t get so much into the history of it–what various philosophers have decided gets to count as knowledge–but we do get a decent overview of what they call modernist, systemic, and post-modern epistemologies.

The basic question for someone thinking about epistemology is, “At what point can I say I know something to be true?” Here’s a super-oversimplified version of a few “epistemologies”:

Pre-modern: I can say I know something if a book or person that I believe has sufficient authority says it is true. Forever. Also, if I feel very certain about something I might consider it true.

Modern: If I observe something with my own senses, I can say that it is true, at least for that instance. If others who look at the same thing make the same observations, that gives more weight to my belief. I ideally keep the possibility open in my mind, however, that new evidence may come along and change my belief.

Post-modern: I can never really say that something is true, as I am forever limited by the perspective given me by my sense organs, my mind, and my acculturation. I will never have direct apprehension of reality. The closest I can come to real knowledge is a guess that produces useful results.

My program conflates post-modern epistemology with what they call “systemic” epistemology. “Systemic” refers to cybernetics, or systems theory, and in my view is actually an extension of modernism. Traditionally, modernism looks for linear causality and uses reductionism to learn about things. Systems theory looks at causality in terms of networks of interacting, mutually affecting/effected influences, all of which you must see, in action, to understand. It’s holistic, not reductionistic. It doesn’t rely, however on the post-modern insight about the limitation of each person’s perspective.

What I like about my program’s emphasis on epistemology, though, is that they encourage us to examine our “personal epistemology,” so that we know as much as possible how the lens that we view reality through shapes our perspective. A very post-modern idea. We are to think about how we think about reality and own our epistemology. We wrote a series of essays in this vein.

Gregory Bateson, one of the founders of the field of family therapy, said that anyone who doesn’t think they have an epistemology just has a bad epistemology. How would you describe your epistemology? What is your bar for labeling an idea “truth”? What things do you believe are certainly true? Why? Do you think your experiences tell you something directly about reality? Can you take anyone’s word about reality confidently?

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, April 25, 2010.]