The Stale Remnants of Old DebatesA friend of mine and I were having a fairly uncoordinated debate about skepticism and modern scholarship quite sime time ago. I made an argument lifted directly from Thomas Haskell, in an article entitled “Objectivity is not Neutrality.” In that article, Haskell uses a story about travelers in Europe as a humorous anecdote about epistemology. To make a very funny story short the travelers suffer the misfortune of bringing their map to a French philosopher for interpretation. The philosopher is amazed they could possible think something so simplistic as a map could ever lead them to Paris, taking into account as it does so little of reality, it being for example a 2 dimensional representation of 3 dimensional space. The solution to the philosophers problems, Haskell suggests is not to discard the map but to find a different philosopher. The interesting question is not why the map doesn’t work; we know very well that a map can work. The fascinating question is why it does.
My friend had an interesting reply to this. He claimed that our French philosopher isn’t in fact spouting useless nonsense. Rather he is asking a simple question. What are the limits of the map? In retrospect I find his point insufficient.
To explore the outer boundaries of knowledge is to attempt to answer my very question. What does a map do for us and why does it do it. We cannot know the outer boundaries of human knowledge if we don’t understand the inner boundaries. To specify what is not in the set of knowable things is not particularly interesting without also trying to specify what is in the set of knowable things.
This is precisely the problem we find with the Frenchman in the example. He lists problems with the map, which are not particularly helpful without understanding the limits of those problems. What can a 2 dimensional representation of 3 dimensional space do? Without understanding the answer to this question his problems seem to either a) invalidate the whole project of ever getting to Paris or b) to uselessly distract us from our journey. The Frenchman must do more to truly help us.
Or to put it another way (quoting Thomas Nagel in Haskell):
The search for objective knowledge, because of its commitment to a realistic picture, is inescapably subject to skepticism and cannot refute it but must proceed under its shadow. Skepticism, in turn, is a problem only because of the realist claims of objectivity.