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Monday
Oct292012

Epistemological Modesty… What?

I was listening to an interview with David Brooks the other day. The interview was conducted by, of all people, Alec Baldwin on "Here's the Thing", a show I discovered on public radio.

Alec Baldwin is a good actor for a certain kind of role, and can be quite funny, but we have learned things about him which are not very likable at all, right? But who knew that he was very intelligent and quite a good interviewer?

The David Brooks interview is very interesting and enlightening and I recommend it. But this post is mostly to point you to a highfalutin term for something that makes a lot of sense to me:

"The correct position is the one held by self-loathing intellectuals, like Isaiah Berlin, Edmund Burke, James Madison, Michael Oakeshott and others. These were pointy heads who understood the limits of what pointy heads can know. The phrase for this outlook is epistemological modesty, which would make a fine vanity license plate.

The idea is that the world is too complex for us to know, and therefore policies should be designed that take account of our ignorance." (from "The American Scene", a blog I stumbled across when googling the phrase "Epistemological Modesty")

Here is the David Brooks quote where I first encountered the phrase:

"David Brooks: Yeah, so I was a lefty and I was assigned a book called "The Reflections of the Revolution in France" by Edmund Burke. And here is a guy saying you really shouldn't think for yourself. The power of reason is weak. What you should do is rely on the just prejudices that have survived the test of time. And I just loathed that book, that idea -- because I thought 'I want to think for myself. I want to come up with my own ideas.'

But as I got older, and especially I became a police reporter covering crime, murders and rapes in the south side of Chicago, I began to see that he's right. Our power of reason is weak. And part of the core of my conservatism is the phrase 'epistemological modesty;' the world is incredibly complicated; we can’t know much about it. We should be very suspicious that we can plan." (from Here's the Thing: David Brooks Transcript)

 Anyway, it's kind of dangerous to be linking to blogs I never heard of or references to books that I might loathe, references to intellectuals like Isaiah Berlin, and so on: but who has the time to check all this stuff? I think the underlying concept of Epistemological Modesty is right on. (Now I got to go to look of the definition of epistemological. See u!)

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