CEPA eprint 1685 (HVF-103)

Apropos Epistemologies

Foerster H. von (1985) Apropos Epistemologies. Family Process 24(4): 517–520. Available at http://cepa.info/1685
Table of Contents
A language gained is a language lost. – Herbert Brün [1]
Epistemology, the word, has lately been used, overused, and abused in writings and discussions about matters this journal is concerned with. This word’s referential power seems all to have evaporated. It could by now refer to a waterproof flooring or to causality being circular or straight. A parasite, “episto-babble,” has taken over the host. If the word in its original meaning were to fall victim to this parasitosis, family therapy, and in fact all therapeutic practice, would loose a conceptual strategy, an analytic method, a cognitive policy that could give guidance in gaining insight, understanding, and new perspectives for generating help for those who seek it.
Held and Pols [7] too recognize the danger of this semantic pollution and suggest a way to defuse the confusion about the various uses of “epistemology.” Their method of clarification is that of defining, that is, of setting limits. A wealth of citations by workers in this field is presented and is taken as a basis for drawing appropriate distinctions.
In the following, I should like to create a context, a semantic-philosophical environment, in which “epistemology” can be seen to occupy a particular niche. To hold the description of this environment to a minimum, without letting it collapse into a trivium, I shall consider just four aspects of philosophical concern, namely, metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, and ontogenetics.
The fabulous Encyclopedia of Philosophy [5] begins its 3, 000-word article on the “Nature of Metaphysics” with the sentence: “Almost everything in metaphysics is controversial, and it is therefore not surprising that there is little agreement among those who call themselves metaphysician what precisely it is that they are attempting” (p. 300). I shall extricate myself from this dilemma by taking for the moment the historical route. As “every schoolboy knows” [3], it was Aristotle who coined this neologism when, after [“meta,” in Greek] he had written on meteorology, the heavens, the animals; and how they move; on coming and going, etc.; and of course on physics, he finally sat down to write about what this is all about [“meta to physika”]. He began his 30, 000-word-essay on metaphysics (in the English translation 1908 by Ross [2] from a German translation 1895 by W. Christ from the Greek [15], p. vii) with the sentence:
All men by nature desire to know. [980a]
Feminists may complain that again it is supposedly only men who “by nature desire to know.” However, the original Greek anthropos embraces both genders and translates correctly but clumsily into “human being.” Moreover, there are in Greek several expressions for “to know,” e.g. gnosis, episteme, etc., with various shades of meaning.
Gnosis, which is used here, expresses a “seeking to know,” an “inquiry,” even a ‘judicial inquiry,” hence the translator’s choice of “desire to know.” Thus, Aristotle’s first line could as well read:
All human beings are inquisitive by nature.
Aristotle’s metaphysics recommends principles, fundamentals, guidelines for successful inquiries. For him, the notion of causation appears to be central and crucial; he distinguishes four cases: the formal, the material, the efficient, and the final cause.
All these cases have the same scheme of inference, in which an effect is tied to a cause via a rule of transformation. However, in the case of the efficient cause, the rule of transformation is usually interpreted as a “Law of Nature,” with the cause preceding the effect, and in the case of the final cause, the temporal sequence of cause and effect is reversed: an action now is caused by a goal in the future – a purpose – the driving agent being either desire or obedience.
Causa finalis appears to be in Aristotle’s metaphysics the Very First Principle: “Everything serves a purpose.”
Kant, on the other hand, felt such a First Principle should be causa efficientis: “Everything that happens has a cause.” Let me add to Aristotle’s and Kant’s positions Ludwig Wittgenstein’s [19] opinion on these matters (Proposition 5.1361 in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus): “The belief in causality is the superstition” (p. 79).
It is clear that this excursion into metaphysics says not much about causation but something about the metaphysicians Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein.
“I am” in Greek is eimi, with the infinitive einai “to be” (Latin esse), and with the present participle on “being.” Ontology is the science, theory, study, etc., of being, or inquiries into “as it is.” When, in the seventeenth century, this notion and that term arose, the “it” was, of course, thought to be God. Since one of the jobs of a theologian was (and still is) to prove the existence of God, ontology was in its early stages a theological preoccupation with a central theme: the ontological argument for the existence of God. One form this argument took was the inference of existence from a concept: if one can conceive of a perfect being, then it must also exist!
Although Kant, Schopenhauer, and others had cleaned up this syntactic-semantic mess, it still persists today in different guise. One change in this argument that took place over the last 150 or 200 years is a shift of the “it” from referring to God to refer to the world: the job of ontology is to explain the nature of the world as it is.
Of course, there are ontologists who see their job in a different light – for instance, Heidegger [6], who considers the dyad “being” and “nothingness” as the central theme of ontology, or Quine [14], who contemplates the existence of what kind of thing belief in a given theory implicates. Essentially, however, ontology became for many ontologists essentialism (as opposed to existentialism, of which I shall say a few words later), that is, how to explain the essence of the world. In attempting to do so, a “world” has to be stipulated; otherwise there would be nothing to explain. Consequently, there is a danger that an ontology will be derailed into a naïve realism; there is an absolute world out there, independent from us who may or may not observe it. The question “Is the moon there when nobody looks?” will be answered by naïve realists (and most likely by ontologists as well) with a confident “of course!” [11]. Note again that this says not much about the moon but, following Quine, something about ontologists.
The term epistemology derives directly from the Greek. With the prefix epi- meaning “up” or “above,” and histamein “to stand,” it could be translated verbatim as “standing above” or an “upper-standing.” Speakers of English apparently prefer to see things from below; hence instead of “upper-standing,” they speak of “understanding.” The German version of this cognitive faculty is puzzling, namely, ver-stehen. Stehen is, of course, “to stand,” but with the meaning of the prefix ver, creating a sense of removal, loss, untoward action, using up, change, reversal, etc., ver-stehen may best be understood as “un-standing.”
Although in the original Greek the semantic links to upper-standing are to skill and practice, that is, to motor competences, both the German and the English expressions of un- and under-standing have closer links with gnosis, that is, with mental competences: Erkenntnis and knowledge. This is apparent in the usual rendition of epistemology as Erkenntnis-theorie and “theory of knowledge” or, as I would prefer to say, a “theory of knowing,” a “theory of understanding.” However, since a theory of something is to bring about an understanding of that something, I submit that epistemologies aim at understanding understanding.
For a full appreciation of the peculiar, surprising, and important logical properties of concepts that can apply to themselves (second-order or autological concepts), I have to refer to the literature. Nevertheless, I draw attention to the self-referential character of these concepts as a warning signal to those who remember that self-reference is believed to be the seed for paradox. However, there are paradox-free, stable solutions for self-referential expressions, if the recursive nature of the problem in fmding such a situation is recognized.
The following sentence by Lee Sallows [9] is an example:
Only the fool would take trouble to verify that this sentence was composed of ten a’s, three b’s, four c’s, four d’s, forty-six e’s, sixteen fs, four g’s, thirteen h’s, fifteen i’s, two k’s, nine l’s, four m’s, twenty-five n’s, twenty-four o’s, five p’s, sixteen r’s, forty-one s’s, thirty-seven fs, ten u’s, eight v’s, eight w’s, four x’s, eleven y’s, twenty-seven commas, twenty-three apostrophes, seven hyphens, and, last but not least, a single!
The introductory phrase of this tour de force should not discourage anyone from verifying its self-referential claims.
Problems in mathematics of similar logical structure have been known and solved for about a century. After David Hilbert [8], solutions for those problems are called Eigen-values or Eigen-functions, the German Eigen meaning “proper,” “one’s own,” “special,” etc. Returning to the problem of finding a solution for a theory of knowing, an epistemology, it must be one that accounts for itself or, when Hilbert’s language is used, it must be an Eigen-theory.
Jean Piaget links understanding with experience through action [13]: “No knowledge is based on perceptions alone, for these are always directed and accompanied by schemes of action. Knowledge, therefore, proceeds from action” (p. 23). Thus, if “theory of knowing” is synonymous with “epistemology,” then so is a “theory of experiencing.” In fact, the orthodox juxtaposition of ontology and epistemology is to say that ontology explains the nature of the world, epistemology the nature of our experiencing the world.
Although one cannot do more than warn the ontologist not to fall into the trap of naïve realism, one can undo the trap altogether for the epistemologist by removing the last two words in the above sentence: epistemologies explain the nature of our experiences.
Experience is the cause.The world is the consequence.Epistemology is the rule of transformation.
Ontogenesis refers to a process, and ontogenetics to the science, theory, study, etc., of this process. Meant, of course, is the process of “becoming” expressed through the combination of a reference to “being,” onto- (as in ontology) with one to “origin,” “birth,” “creation,” the Greek genesis. The Latin equivalent verb is ex-sistere, “to arise,” “to come forth,” “to appear,” with ex- “out,” and sistere “to stand,” akin to the Greek histamein (as in epistemology). Close to the Latin “to out-stand” is the German ent-stehen, with the prefix ent – having the flavor of an unfolding.
On the other hand, when Romans spoke of genesis, they were referring to the constellation that presides over one’s birth, and when existence is used in English, the meaning has degenerated from a dynamic becoming to a static being. Of course, it is more comfortable to be a human being than a human becoming. In the first case, one’s humanity is guaranteed whatever one may do; in the second case, one has to substantiate one’s humanity at every instant. That is what Franid, Sartre, Jaspers, and other “becomers” had most likely in mind when they talked about existentialism.
Ontological inexplicables may turn out to be ontogenetic necessities. The navel is an ontological joke, a curlicue, a baroque riddle on one’s belly. Ontogenetically, however, we would not be without it. Evolutionists and creationists alike reach for an ontogenetic explanation for an otherwise inexplicable phenomenon: Here we are!
“What is language?” is a question that can be considered answered by having been asked. I conjecture that all autological concepts will turn on themselves when approached ontologically but may reveal their nature when apprehended ontogenetically [10]: “Whence comes language?”
Our nervous system computes invariants on perpetually changing stimuli; we act as if the future equals the past; and we are embedded in a culture that favors permanence. Perhaps it is because of this that there are so few voices talking about “Becoming,” “Beginning,” and “Change” [17]. Here is at least one [12]:
Nothing is ever the same as they say it was. It’s what I have never seen before that I recognize. (p. iv)
[1] Arbus, D. and Israel, M., Diane Arbus, Millerton, N.Y. An Aperture Monograph, 1972.
[2] Aristotle, Metaphysica, The Works of Aristotle, vol. 8, 1st ed., trans. W. D. Ross, Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1908.
[3] Bateson, G., Mind and Nature, A Necessary Unity, New York, Dutton, 1979.
[4] Brün, H., “Futility 1964,” in Compositions, Non Sequitur Records, Champaign, Ill., Side Six, 1983.
[5] Edwards, P., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, New York, Macmillan, 1967.
[6] Heidegger, M., Existence and Being, trans. D. Scott, R. Hall, and A. Crick, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1949.
[7] Held, B. S. and Pols, E., “The Confusion about Epistemology and Epistemology – and What to Do About It,” Fam. Proc., 24, -, 1985.
[8] Hilbert, D., Foundations of Geometry, 2d ed., La Salle, Ill., 1971.
[9] Hofstadter, D. R., “Metamagical Themas,” Scient. Am., 246, 16-28, 1982.
[10] Löfgren, L., “Autology of Time,” Int. J. Gen. Syst., 10, 5-14, 1984.
[11] Maturana, H. R., “Biology of Language: The Epistemology of Reality,” in G. A. Miller and E. Lenneberg (eds.]) Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought, New York, Academic Press, 1978.
[12] Mermin, N. D., “Is the Moon There When Nobody Looks? Reality and the Quantum Theory,” Physics Today, 38, 38-47, 1985.
[13] Piaget, J., “The Psychogenesis of Knowledge and Its Epistemological Significance,” in M. Piatelli-Palmarini (ed.) Language and Learning: The Debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1980.
[14] Quine, W.V. 0., From a Logical Point of View, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1953.
[15] Ross, W. D., “Preface,” The Works of Aristotle, vol. 8, 1st ed., op. cit.
[16] Varela, F.J. G., “A Calculus for Self-Reference,” Int. J. Gen. Syst., 2, 5-24, 1972.
[17] Von Foerster, H., “Notes pour un Opistamologie des objets vivants” in E. Morin and M. Piatelli-Palmarini (eds.), L’Unitó de L’homme, Paris, Edition du Seuil, The English version under the title: “Notes on an Epistemology for Living Things,” in H. Von Foerster, Observing Systems, Seaside, Calif. Intersystems Publications, 1984.
[18] Von Foerster, H., “Formalisation de Certain Aspects de l’Equilibration de Structures Cognitives,” in B. Inhelder, R. Garcias and J. Voneche (eds.) Epistemologie Genetique et Equilibration, Neuchatel, Delachaux et Niestle, 1977. The English version under the title “Objects: Tokens for (Eigen-) Behaviors,” in H. Von Foerster, Observing Systems, Seaside, Calif, Inter-systems Publications, 1984.
[19] Wittgenstein, L., Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, New York, The Humanities Press, 1961.
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