David Coady on the Need for an ‘Applied Epistemology’

David Coady‘s new book What To Believe Now: Applying Epistemology To Contemporary Issues (Blackwell, 2012)–by making vividly clear the importance and the significance of epistemology to politics and political life–may well be the most important and interesting book on epistemology in recent years; anyone interested in the control of the flows of information, their influence on our politics, and the role of normative models of reasoning and knowledge acquisition in enforcing political ideology should read it. In particular, Coady’s analysis and writing–tightly argued, clear, and rigorous–reaches a fine rhetorical and polemical pitch in Chapters 4 (‘Rumors and Rumor Mongers’), 5 (‘Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorists’) and 6 (‘Blogosphere and Conventional Media’), which are described as ‘unified by two closely related themes, the importance of free public channels of communication and dangers of overcredulous deference to formal authority.’  That description should provide you with a hint of Coady’s unconventional take on the topics covered in these chapters; even if you aren’t an academic philosopher, you owe it to yourself to read them to have well-established preconceptions shaken up. (And to enjoy a  rather entertaining take-down of Cass Sunstein.)

Today, I’d like to provide a brief introduction to Coady’s book, and then, in the next few days and weeks, follow-up with some extended analysis of the chapters mentioned above.

In the preface, Coady says that while the study of ethics has been transformed in recent years ‘by addressing contemporary social and technological issues, the study of espistemology remains quite abstract and ahistorical.’ Such an underdevelopment and narrowing divorces the study of knowledge from the practical conduct of our lives. In particular, for us, situated at this point in time:

The information revolution and the knowledge economy have radically changed the way that we acquire knowledge and justify our beliefs. These changes have altered our epistemic landscape as surely as the sexual revolution and breakthroughs in reproductive technology have changed our moral landscape. The latter changes provided a good deal of the impetus for the applied turn in ethics, but the former changes have so far failed to result in a comparable turn in epistemology.

As Coady notes, to do applied epistemology will be to return to the ways in which epistemology was done in that period of philosophical history–the time of  ‘modern philosophy‘–which established it as a primary philosophical concern: David Hume‘s argument against belief in miracles was a blow struck against the idea of the Bible as a source of knowledge, a political move if there ever was one; John Locke‘s argument for religious tolerance was based ‘partly on the grounds that no government can be sure that the official religion is correct, which means that no government can be sure it is not persecuting the true religion;’ and John Stuart Mill argued, in particular relevance to our modern times, that ‘since no person has infallible access to the truth, we are most likely to converge on the truth in the course of debate sustained by laws protecting free speech.’

Belief and action are inseparably bound; politics is a form of action (most simplistically, putting political beliefs into motion). Citizens and philosophers alike have known and acted on these connections for as long as man has been a political animal. In recent times, political philosophy seems to have forgotten these considerations when it has come to providing critical analyses of the epistemological issues arising from developments such as the Iraq war. (Did we ever have good evidence for the existence of weapons of mass destruction?) Coady’s book should help set political philosophy back on track by making it pay closer attention to what should be a central aspect of its question-asking and answering.

Note: Examples and quotes drawn from ‘Introduction’, pp. 1-3.

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