Epistemology and Comparative Philosophy in Confluence and the APA Blog

At the beginning of the month, there was an interdisciplinary conference in Kanazawa, Japan–the International Conference on Ethno-Epistemology – Culture, Language, and Methodology. Jonardon Ganeri gave a keynote presentation, “Pluralism about Epistemic Cultures” and Anand Vaidya, along with Purushottama Billimoria, gave a paper, “Colonialism and the Impossibility of Empirical Ethno-Epistemology.” I mention their talks first, although there were other people (including myself) giving papers on Indian philosophy, because of two online conversations I want to highlight.

First, the new online journal Confluence has published its fourth issue, which includes a symposium centered on Ganeri’s paper, “A Manifesto for Re:emergent Philosophy.” This paper (abstract here), looks like it echoes his presentation at the conference, in which he also argued that “Only an epistemic culture, which is open to a plurality of epistemic stances, he contends, can propel polycentric modes of knowledge production” (from the abstract). Second, Vaidya has begun a series of three blog posts at the Blog of the APA on Gettier problems and the “inclusion problem” in Western philosophy. In them, he is going to present views derived from Nyāya philosophy and Mohist philosophy that “[show] how non-Western traditions may have responded to the Gettier examples, by extrapolating from the textual evidence a general epistemic theory that can be applied to handle the Gettier cases.”

Returning the conference in Kanazawa–this was a conference which brought together philosophers working on what’s known as “X-phi” or “Experimental Philosophy” with linguists (primarily those working on the Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach, NSM) and philosophers doing Chinese and Indian philosophy. On the side of Indian philosophy Eberhard Guhe (Fudan University) gave a talk on “The Indian Blue-Pot-Paradox in Navya-Nyaya and the Chinese White-Horse-Paradox”, I gave a talk on “Is Ellipsis Completion Knowledge?” While neither of our presentations engaged with experimental philosophy directly, these presentations, and our presence, along with the others from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, means that analytically-trained philosophers thinking about theories of epistemology are becoming more aware of the philosophical resources outside of the West. We’ve discussed this elsewhere on the blog, where Anand Vaidya has argued that, if one is going to engage in experimental philosophy, one shouldn’t only be testing Gettier cases on everyday speakers of Bengali, but drawing on theoretical expertise from Indian, Chinese, and other philosophical traditions–and then testing on everyday speakers of English. While Indian philosophy as a broader field may not wish to hitch its wagon to the X-Phi or NSM movement, I think collaborative participation in these kinds of conferences is important.


About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Humanities Division at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

5 Replies to “Epistemology and Comparative Philosophy in Confluence and the APA Blog”

  1. Hi Malcolm

    Thanks a lot for posting up this accurate description of things that went down and things that are going to go down. I just wanted to comment on the last part of your post, the part about x-phi and nsm. I only have a small point to make. I think that comparative philosophy, in particular Indian philosophy, should not, as you say, ‘hitch their wagon to x-phi or nsm’. In my estimation that would be a massive mistake. But I do think it is useful to join forces with, for example, x-phi, in terms of opening up philosophy to a wider range of individuals. What cross-cultural research in x-phi shares in common with comparative philosophy, is the view that non-western views are just as important as western views. Where the two differ is that x-phi focuses on the judgments of non-western subjects, while comparative philosophy focuses on the theoretical views of non-western philosophers. Now that similarity and difference, as sad as it maybe, is something important in the attempt to put philosophy further down the road of having no borders. I wish things were so much further down the road, but in my estimation they are not. So, at this stage I still see a benefit to collaboration, as you mention. What I am worried about is whether any of these projects, x-phi or nsm, could undermine in some unforeseeable sense the possibility of traditional comparative philosophy. One worry I and Dr. Bilimoria had was the reason we went to the conference. It was based the very purpose of the conference. The conference was centered on the claim that it might turn out to be true that the inferential and semantic properties of ‘S Knows that P’ in English map all the relevant properties, and thus we don’t need to look at how a translation of ‘S Knows that P’ functions in Japanese. The argument for the claim is that when we test the intuitions of western and non-western participants they seem confirm that, for example, ‘S Knows that P’ is sensitive to Gettier style Epistemic Luck. The set up of this kind of investigation seems to force out the idea that what we want are only the intuitions of non-western thinkers and not their theories. That is, x-phi is focusing on western theories of knowledge, but a broader testing base. And this set up is what Dr. Bilimoria and I were strongly worried about. What we need to do is look at both intuitions and theories.

    Thanks again for the post.

  2. I think Anand’s point also reflects what if I remember correctly is a more general critique of experimental philosophy. Who actually has intuitions about things like Gettier cases? Does one have to spend some time developing one’s theoretical background to even have a real intuition about such things? Sure, anyone can answer a survey, but can someone really understand the issues at stake without some background in epistemology? Is there such a thing as a “raw intuition”? Is it possible that what counts as an intuition is actually a theoretically-cultivated prejudice?

    Maybe, as Anand suggests, we’re better off talking about the merits of theories of philosophers who’ve been thinking about things for a long time, which in our context would mean looking at theories of Indian philosophers rather than randomly selected people in Kolkata. It’s not that experimental philosophy and intuitions can’t be philosophically interesting and useful to some extent, but relying too much on them is a bad idea for both general philosophical reasons and for popularizing Indian philosophy.

  3. Hi Ethan and Malcolm

    I think Ethan’s echo of the sentiments about X-phi is correct. But one thing I want to emphasize is a logical point that often gets missed in the back and forth on this. And it was missed by Stephen also. I am advocating looking at both A and B, that is both theories (A) and intuition (B). And that is both intuitions of lay folk as well as the intuitions of expert philosophers. I don’t think that A is more important than B or that B is more important than A. What I think is that looking at B without A is rather crazy, and looking at A without B is not as comprehensive as could be. I personally prefer to look at A, rather than B, but I don’t have a grudge against those that carefully explore looking at B and understanding how to present it in a way that is useful for the discussion they are engaged in. What I think we (Indian philosophers) as a community ought to be policing and looking in on is encroachment: is the exploration of lay folk intuition in some way leading to ignoring rich theories. And this is where I think Stephen was right to be worried and, well, down right confused about why anyone would go in for looking at intuitions. If we have centuries of refined views about, say knowledge, why look merely at intuitions of Bengali’s?

    Anyway, I think we are all square on this, lets see what the future brings.

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