Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Epistemic Irony in Philosophical Narrative

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Epistemic Irony in Philosophical Narrative

Article excerpt


Philosophy is a strange subject in that its name suggests that it isn't a subject at all, but rather an affection: the love of wisdom; and yet, philosophy is also viewed as the parent of all theoretical knowledge. What then is the relation between wisdom and knowledge? Perhaps it is right to insist that the wise distinguish what they know from what they do not know. Broadly, the purpose of this project is to explore this suggestion.

Socrates was the first Western thinker to maintain something like the view that philosophers can distinguish what they know from what they do not know. In Apology Socrates reports that he consulted one who had a reputation for his wisdom, but that "in the process of talking with him and examining him," Socrates was driven to the conclusion that his companion wasn't wise at all. In fact, Socrates congratulates himself, because although he thinks that he doesn't know anything much worth knowing, at least he doesn't think that he knows something worth knowing.

So, I left him, saying to myself as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really worth knowing, I am at least wiser than this fellow--for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows: I neither know nor think that I know. In this one little point, then, I seem to the advantage of over him. (1) (Plato/Jowett, Apology, 21df, p. 345)

Ironically, Socrates seems to imply that there is at least one thing worth knowing, and that is knowing that one doesn't know anything (else?) worth knowing. Irony is achieved by using a fragment of language to assert or designate the exact opposite of its literal meaning. I suppose, if anything is bad news, it is that no one really knows anything worth knowing.

The ironic response to Socrates' narrative surely is the current cliche: "Good to know."

The Socratic Paradox: On a Grand Scale

The above passage from Apology has given rise to a series of puzzles collectively designated as the "Socratic Paradoxes." Indeed, if one really knows nothing worth knowing (or perhaps doesn't know anything at all) but thinks that one knows, one must be seriously mistaken about what knowledge is or what it takes to get it. Imbedded is a crucial distinction between being aware of a given proposition and not knowing whether it is true and believing that there might (or even must be) some factor that is relevant to knowing that proposition, but not knowing what that factor is, or else what to make of it. Issues of this sort arise in epistemology and metaphysics, in natural science, in analysis of personal introspection and in the statistical analysis of significant empirical correlations.

Newton and his successors knew that the "wobble" in the precession of the perihelion of Mercury's orbit around the sun posed a threat to Newton's own unified account of terrestrial and celestial motion. One might attribute the deviation to some sort of intervention by God or perhaps to the gravitational attraction of a hitherto unobserved object (which was tentatively named "Vulcan." during the 19th century). Yet for over 200 years no one suspected or could have even conceived that the explanation for Mercury's misbehavior lay hidden in the presupposition of Newtonian science that space is "absolute." Unfortunately for Newton, Einstein demonstrated that the geometry of space depends upon the presence of mass. Although space emptied of all mass would be Euclidean, actual space is Riemannian, meaning that Euclid's Fifth Postulate is false of actual space, where straight lines within a plane do not have parallels. It is therefore the "deformation" of space due to the mass of the sun that accounts for the "wobble" in the precession in the perihelion of Mercury. (2)

Sometimes the impossibility of knowledge of specific facts is a consequence of scientific theory itself. For example, a consequence of the Special Theory of Relativity, which treats of non-accelerating inertial frames, is illustrated by Makowski's famous space-time diagram, which illustrates the fact that space and time are not independent and as a consequence much of the universe is inaccessible to us. …

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