When we had to spend 24/7 defending the mouth of our cave, we didn’t have a whole lot of time to wonder about anything, save where the next predator, be it man or beast, might be readying to pounce. And once we could trust each other enough to come out of our caves and hunt together – or later to plant and sow together – the most we could do in trying to understand the world was to personify the forces of nature. If there’s a storm at sea it must be because Poseidon is angry.

But then one day, in one very fortunate corner of the world, the climate and the soil and sea breezes were such that a few people – it also didn’t hurt to have a few slaves to do their bidding – had enough free time to think about what, other than Poseidon having a bad day, might explain “the sea, she is angry”, or bad things happening to good people, other than Hera having her period. And thus was philosophy born.

Etymologically the word means love of wisdom, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. It’s really more love of enquiry. It’s a conversation, one that Aristotle carried on from Plato, Alexander the Great inherited from his tutor Aristotle, and then he forwarded that conversation to all his conquests, from Egypt to Afghanistan. The Greek empire was inherited by the Romans, who spread the conversation southward to North Africa and northward to Britain and the bottom half of Europe. When Europe fell into disrepair after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was the Arab world that picked it up, and passed it back again via the Moors in Iberia and the Turks in the Balkans. Just in time, as it happens, for it to be carried by the European colonists to the Americas, to Africa, to south Asia, to east Asia, and to the Antipodes.

So though (what we mean here by) philosophy is a conversation, it’s a very particular conversation. There are other conversations that might call themselves philosophy, or at least wisdom, conversations that have been had in all these colonised places, and continue to be had there. But in this course we’re not going to join those conversations. Why? Because a surface conversance, which is all we could ever hope to acquire, is just one way of not knowing what we’re talking about.

Do we know what our philosophy is talking about? We do. We do because its critics are right. Our every thought is constructed by the vocabulary and rules of inference of this particular conversation. We could try to deconstruct it. But to what avail? So we can think and talk instead the way the natives do? Go right ahead. But not here. If you consider yourself the colonised – or even if you just think you should apologise to those who consider themselves colonised for (what Robin DiAngelo has called) your white fragility, take this course anyhow. Why? Because it never hurts to know your enemy. Provided, of course, you don’t become him.

Now put that on the back burner, and let’s start again. The Book of Genesis opens with “In the beginning …”, but it could as readily have read “Let’s begin with …” So let us begin with: What is it to know?

Suppose something is true but I don’t believe it. Suppose I believe it but it’s false. Suppose it’s true and I believe it but I’m not justified in believing it. Perhaps I just guessed. In none of these cases could it be said that I know it. So, concluded Plato in the Theaetatus, knowledge is justified true belief.

What it is to believe something belongs to the philosophy of mind. What it is to be true falls to the philosophy of language. But what counts as justification is the core question of epistemology. If by ‘different ways of knowing’ is meant a different understanding of what it is to believe or what it is to be true, then people who talk this way are just not speaking the same language as we are. But if we are speaking the same language, then different ways of knowing must refer to a different understanding of justification. But if it does, then once again we’re not speaking the same language. We each might know something the other doesn’t. But that can’t be because there are different ways of knowing.

Well, not quite. If there weren’t different ways of knowing we couldn’t say one way of knowing is better than some other. But meteorology is better than reading the entrails of a bird. What makes one way of knowing better than another is that it affords us better prediction and control. If your shaman had a better track record than our meteorologist, you could be damn sure we’d lay ours off and go with yours. But he doesn’t, and so we don’t. And, by the way, neither do you.

Figuring out what makes one way of knowing better than another is what we call the philosophy of science. As we’ve already seen, some people have developed better ways of knowing than others. People congregate into peoples. So some peoples have better ways of knowing than other peoples. By what measure? Prediction and control. Of what? Well, among other things, how to sail and fight. So in what sense were Europeans superior to the peoples they conquered and colonised? They had longer range ships, and more deadly projectiles. And the rest, as they say, is history.

And why did they have longer range ships and more deadly projectiles? In part it was the luck of geography. But also because of that particular conversation they’d been having for a couple of millennia.

I say we join that conversation. Some people want no part of it. Some people don’t want anyone else to join that conversation. They want it deplatformed. They want to keep their flush toilets and cardiac stents, but they don’t see any of this having anything to do with Aristotle or Darwin or any other dead white male. Surely the local shaman should do us just as well. Of course all our injustices – misogyny, racism, transphobia, and so on – have everything to do with Hobbes and Locke and Kant and Mill, also all dead white males. The local shaman could have figured out a set of political arrangements bereft of all injustice. It was all in those entrails.

I’m not sure that deplatforming dead white males is racist and sexist. Apparently, according to DiAngelo, it can’t be. But I’m pretty sure it’s stupid. Still, it’s your call. Add/drop is next Tuesday.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

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