A brief epistemic history of Western thought (Part 1)
Tracing the effort to maintain our epistemic confidence
This post covers lots of ground - from Socrates to the beginning of the ‘Modern’ period - in very little detail. Consider it a historical sketch of the way epistemic confidence and humility have shifted in Western thinking that will get extended and also filled in with more detail in future posts (although likely not one of the next few). Comments and corrections are always welcome.
Socrates, with his strident defence of epistemic humility - “I know that I know nothing” - is considered to have shifted the course of Western thinking (the Greek philosophers before him are known as the ‘Pre-Socratics’) and triggered tremendous growth in the intellectual tradition that we now consider to be Western philosophy. He is therefore a natural starting point for our epistemic history of Western thought, the aim of which is to track the epistemic attitudes of major thinkers following him and how they shift. Please note that this post is only a sketch and covers around 2000 years of thinking in under 2500 words. It will necessarily flatten out nuance and produce caricatures rather than portraits, all with the aim of understanding the broad flow of historical thought.
Before the history, we need to cover the key attitudes. The first is epistemic confidence, namely that humans can acquire knowledge, and wide ranging knowledge, with complete or at least considerable certainty. At its most confident, this can drift into epistemic certainty, the conviction that humans have (or at least the author has) achieved genuine and reliable knowledge (about certain topics) and no-one can reasonably doubt it.
In contrast is the attitude of epistemic humility, that genuine knowledge is difficult to acquire for everyone, even with the best of care and attention. A bolder, but related, conviction is epistemic skepticism: the belief that knowledge is not achievable and we genuinely know nothing (or very little).
It may help to think of these four concepts as belonging to a continuum from skepticism (we can know nothing) through humility (knowledge is hard) and confidence (we are confident we know plenty) to certainty (we can be absolutely certain about what we know).
So what does the history of Western thought and philosophy look like in terms of these attitudes?
The Socratic Challenge
Socrates is famous for puncturing common assumptions about what was true through targeted questions and, in our terms, a thorough epistemic humility - bordering on an epistemic skepticism: I know that I know nothing.
This conclusion, that we don't know very much, particularly about the things we are confident we do, was so uncomfortable for his Athenian society that Socrates was condemned to death. It is hardly more comfortable for the rest of us, and especially for the most brilliant minds in history. Surely Socrates was wrong and we do know what we think we do!
However, Socrates' arguments and approach cannot be easily dismissed and he thus has posed a challenge for philosophers ever since: how can we justify a principled epistemic confidence and prove Socrates (and other philosophical skeptics) wrong?
The Ancient Greek response: disciplined human reason
The immediate responses to Socrates came from his follower Plato and subsequent thinkers like Aristotle, Epicurus and Zeno. Plato's response to the challenge is illustrative of the approach these thinkers took.
For Plato, disciplined and trained human reason, as exemplified by philosophers, enabled humans to grasp with great confidence the underlying forms or nature of the world. His famous allegory of a cave illustrates his view. In the allegory, humans are like people living in a cave who see the outside world only by shadows. Some disciplined thinkers (the philosophers) manage to escape the cave and see the world as it truly is.
For Plato, disciplined human reason was sufficient to achieve epistemic confidence and even certainty. Put differently, applying human reason the right way was enough to understand the world as it truly is. This response to the Socratic Challenge, relying on disciplined human reason to justify epistemic confidence, characterised Ancient Greek philosophy - even though there were significant disagreements about what reason proved.
Aristotle opposed many of Plato’s conclusions and focused on observation of the world around him and careful reasoning from these observations. He established a formal study of logic and reasoning that was influential for millennia afterwards and is still taught today. Nevertheless, for Aristotle, epistemic confidence was also guaranteed through disciplined human reason - so long as it was carefully applied to observation, rather than the “poetic metaphors” that he thought Plato focused on.
Epicurus directed his main attention to the question of how to live a good life, which for him was about achieving pleasure and avoiding pain. He established a sophisticated and enduring way of living based on careful consideration of how to live in a way that maximises pleasure and minimises pain. Notably he advocated moderation and constraint and considered that the pleasures of the mind were greater than those of the body. His epistemology was empirical, but the focus was on the careful examination of our sense perception and feelings. This examination, a disciplined use of human reasoning, was for him enough to establish with confidence the truth of his views.
Zeno founded Stoicism, which held that the reason was the driving force behind the universe and, therefore, human reason was the reliable guide to achieving knowledge. Reason enabled the disciplined philosopher to achieve certain knowledge, be unaffected by the vicissitudes of life and live a virtuous life.
The Medieval Christian synthesis: reason plus revelation
The Greek philosophical consensus, that disciplined human reason was sufficient to establish epistemic confidence, held sway until Christianity gained significant intellectual and cultural influence within the Greco-Roman world. Disciplined reason had clearly failed to reveal the specific truths of Christianity and therefore could not be sufficient as a guide to knowledge and truth. Christian thinkers needed something more. In fact, many core theological claims of Christianity, the doctrine of the Trinity is one example, were directly opposed to the disciplined reason of the Greek philosophers.
While Christian thinkers were compelled to reject the sufficiency of disciplined human reason as the guarantee of epistemic confidence, many were strongly influenced by Greek thinking, especially the Neo-Platonists, and so incorporated Greek ways of thinking into a new approach.
The development of early Christian philosophy and theology was complex, but achieved a lasting expression in the work of Augustine of Hippo. Put simply, Augustine paired the disciplined reason of the Greek thinkers with the insights of the special Revelation from God as the sources of knowledge and truth. For Augustine, if these are properly understood, they are not in conflict and together provide a solid confidence for knowledge - at least within the limits of what humans can know. For Augustine and other Christian thinkers God was ineffable or unknowable, so their epistemic confidence did not extend as far as it did for many Greek thinkers.
This joint reliance on reason and revelation as the basis for confident, even certain, knowledge was the foundation of an intellectual and philosophical approach that blossomed into the broader Medieval worldview. It reached its most complete philosophical and theological expression in the exhaustive work of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, for whom the combination of revelation and reason was sufficient to enable us to know many things with certainty.
However, in various ways it was already being questioned by thinkers like Duns Scotus and William of Ockham - and especially by the rediscovery within Europe of large number of Ancient Greek manuscripts. These examples of Greek-style reason were harder to synchronise with Christian revelation.
Collapse of a confident consensus
While we tend to have a negative view of the 'Dark Ages', the Medieval Christian synthesis that paired Greek reason and Christian revelation provided a philosophical and cultural framework that survived for almost a thousand years. This is a remarkable longevity for a worldview, especially one that was not attached to a singular dominant empire.
However, from the 1300s through to the 1500s, cracks appeared in this philosophy - and the cultural institutions supporting it - and it collapsed as a dominant worldview. While it splintered in various ways, the rebelling views fit broadly into some well-known traditions.
The first is the Renaissance which, to simplify, sought to undo the synthesis and reprioritise reason as primary, while downgrading (or eliminating) the role of revelation. For Renaissance thinkers, prompted by many Ancient Greek texts that were newly available in Europe, the Medieval synthesis represented a wrong turn and a Dark Age in human thought. To frame it in the terms we are exploring here, their guiding attitude was that the Ancient Greek approach was correct and that placing disciplined human reason as the primary epistemic tool would provide epistemic confidence.
A second tradition is the Reformation which, again to simplify, prioritised the importance of revelation (through the primary text - the Bible) over against reason and the many traditions founded on reason that had built up over time. Reformation thinkers didn't reject reason as indispensable to truth, but subordinated it to revelation. For thinkers like Luther and Calvin, revelation, supported by reason, gave us epistemic certainty about the many issues that mattered. For example, there were many strident and confident positions, leading to bitter debates and splits, on topics like transubstantiation and consubstantiation that to many today feel unanswerable or irrelevant.
Both of these two approaches, and the defenders of the older synthesis, maintained a thorough, typically strident, epistemic confidence. All sides were convinced of their epistemology and their conclusions, and therefore believed the other sides were mistaken, heretical and probably evil. This epistemic fragmentation contributed to a period dominated by war, persecution, inquisitions and societal turmoil.
Three responses to collapse and chaos
Culturally and intellectually, the strident fragmentation of the 1500s was not sustainable, but the philosophical and intellectual responses varied. To oversimplify, three main intellectual traditions emerged in the 1600s that have continued in various forms. By the attitudes covered here, two of them accepted a form of epistemic humility while the third tried to reground epistemic confidence. We'll focus on three key thinkers as representatives of these traditions.
We'll start with Francis Bacon - regarded as the 'Father of the Scientific Method'. Bacon opened his seminal work, the Novum Organum, with a scathing account of human reason as being inevitably distorted by the four Idols of the Tribe, the Cave, the Marketplace and the Theatre. For Bacon, human reason was insufficient to achieve truth and, instead, he proposed a method by which human ideas would be systematically tested against the world around us. Bacon's proposed method was inductive - we build up knowledge by observing patterns in the world - but the core approach is what we now regard as the scientific method: something is not considered to be true unless we can confirm its accuracy with well structured or systematic experiments about the world.
Bacon's philosophy, and the scientific method, embodies a clear epistemic humility that was a profound break from the existing philosophical tradition: knowledge is hard, as human reason isn't a sufficient guide to truth, thus we need to test what we think we know independently of us.
The novelty of this approach is lost on us today. Given the astonishing success of science as a way of acquiring knowledge, we take it for granted. As a result, the epistemic humility embodied in the scientific method is also often lost on us today, as the success of science has boosted our epistemic confidence. For many of us today, science is a guarantee of truth. In other words, science has become a method that delivers epistemic certainty.
In contrast to Bacon, Rene Descartes embarked on a philosophical project that he hoped would rebuild our epistemic confidence - and became famous despite failing utterly in his project. Descartes sought to ground knowledge on a series of 'clear and distinct ideas' that were indisputably true. To achieve these, he tried to discard all the beliefs that we could feasibly doubt and build up our knowledge on the certainties that were left. The first - and unfortunately only - truth that Descartes established was the famous cogito ergo sum: I have thoughts therefore I exist (although it's not clear what this ‘I’ actually is). He couldn’t conclusively establish anything beyond this with his philosophical method.
Ironically, Descartes set out to regain epistemic confidence through a new philosophical approach and is now known for Cartesian skepticism. As such, he established a challenge for modern philosophy that is analogous to the Socratic Challenge - escaping Cartesian skepticism. How different philosophers have tried to regain epistemic confidence post Descartes is a story for elsewhere.
In contrast to the more epistemological approaches of Descartes and Bacon, John Locke’s major contribution was in political and social philosophy. This started from a practical epistemic standpoint: as a matter of fact, European and British society was fragmented into communities with incompatible worldviews. Instead of seeking to resolve them into a single worldview, Locke took a position of epistemic humility and considered how these groups could live together in a harmonious society, without agreeing on core truths. To simplify, Locke promoted a concept of tolerance grounded in regard for people as individuals - a train of thought that developed into liberal ideas like human rights and freedom of speech and conscience. His thinking also prompted a range of reactions, some of which rejected his epistemic humility.
Can we learn anything for today?
These three broad philosophical traditions that developed in response to the collapse of the Medieval worldview, alongside thinking following the Renaissance, the Reformation and updated versions of the Medieval Synthesis, have continued, intersected and continue to shape the way we think today. We have to leave this history for another day, however there are some observations we can make.
The first is that the Socratic Challenge has not been answered - there is no sure way to establish epistemic confidence in the philosophical literature. But notably, many successful intellectual traditions have not sought to answer the Challenge but to incorporate epistemic humility into their approach: the scientific method being the most obviously successful. This dynamic, by which we end up knowing more by starting with epistemic humility is surprisingly common and future posts - including the next one that will look at quantum physics - will explore examples.
At the same time, there is a very human tendency to prefer confidence and downplay humility whenever we can. One example is in the previous post on critical theory. Another is the way we have taken a scientific method built on humility about human reason and created a cultural confidence that scientific knowledge is entirely reliable and unquestionable. Such strident epistemic certainty has historically been associated with significant social and political unrest, for example around the period of the Reformation, and we are seeing similar dynamics today.
Update: Part Two has now been published and follows the core philosophical traditions from Descartes through to the present day.