… Epistemology’s failures prove surprisingly inconsequential. We continue the cognitive quest, undaunted by our apparent inability to properly characterize its objective. We differentiate between justified and unjustified claims as a matter of course. And we stake our lives on our assessments, even if we lack a conception of justification capable of backing our claims.
This does not mean that we are right. We might be victims of the blind confidence that lures soldiers into battle and lemmings to the sea. But perhaps not.
… In building a system of thought, we begin with a provisional scaffolding made up of the relevant beliefs we already hold, the aims of the project we are embarked on, the liberties and constraints we consider the system subject to, the values and priorities we seek to uphold. We suspend judgment on matters in dispute. This ramshackle structure is not expected to stand by itself. Major improvements may have to be made.
… No mere castles in the air, systems in reflective equilibrium are tethered — not to Things in Themselves but to our antecedent understanding of and interest in the matter at hand. Coherence provides justification in the system; the tie to initially tenable commitments, justification of the system.
Does reflective equilibrium then consist in coherence with a consistent, suitably comprehensive class of initially tenable commitments? This too is problematic. Since initially tenable commitments have a presumption in their favor, they are not to be given up without reason. If nothing but conflicts among themselves supplies such a reason, there is no ground for repudiating such commitments unless they clash. In that case initially tenable commitments are irrevocable if cotenable. But it is unlikely that all infelicitous initially tenable commitments succumb to conflicts with their peers. So a policy dedicated to preserving every survivor is apt to reinforce and perpetuate error.
… Sustaining and underwriting initially tenable commitments may require additional commitments we are loathe to make. … We might, of course, treat the difficulty as an outstanding problem, expecting that in due course, it will be solved. Often this is a reasonable attitude to adopt. But in the long run our inability to formulate an account we are willing to endorse (or a tenable reason for thinking none necessary) casts doubt on the commitments we began with. Ultimately, their failure to seed a system we can countenance discredits such commitments.
… The system that vindicates a commitment need be in no one person’s ken. The scientists who collectively establish that the rain forests are being despoiled rely on one another’s expertise in much the way the amateur relies on others. The various agronomists, hydrologists, botanists, and zoologists are not likely to be privy to the constellations of commitments that render one another’s findings tenable. Nor are they apt to be able to validate the statistical techniques, calibrate the instruments, or vindicate the methods they use to establish their own findings. Together they do what none can do alone — construct a tenable ecological theory. There is then a division of cognitive labor. Rather than relying exclusively on considerations in my ken, I draw on the expertise of others, and they in turn draw on mine.
Why not hold each person individually responsible for supplying first-hand evidence to support her own cognitive commitments? In that case, much of what we purport to know is not in fact knowledge. I do not know that water is H2O, that mountain gorillas are an endangered species, that flying is safer than driving.
…What matters is not a commitment’s source, but its sustenance.
… An individual’s grounds for a commitment consist of considerations he is in a position to adduce, including chains he trusts.
… Perception is often held to supply epistemic access to its distinctive objects. Here if anywhere, it seems, I ought to be able to fend for myself. I cannot. For on my own, I have no way to determine whether my perceptions are reliable. I cannot, for example, tell directly by sight whether I am color blind. Regularities I discern enable me to make and sustain color ascription. … Only when I learn that other people draw distinctions I cannot discern do I discover that my color ascriptions are untenable. Nor could I discover on my own that I am tone-deaf, astigmatic, or blind. Standards of perceptual reliability are ineliminably intersubjective. Left to my own devices, I do not know what I am missing.
… The cognitive systems that underwrite my commitments are community property. Like a medieval tapestry, they are the work of many hands. It follows that the locus of tenability is the community, not the individual. Understanding and knowledge are collective accomplishments.
… ‘Understanding’ is a better term [than 'knowledge'] for the epistemic achievement that concerns us here. Not being restricted to facts, understanding is more comprehensive than knowledge ever hoped to be. We understand rules and reasons, actions and passions, objectives and obstacles, techniques and tools, forms, functions, and fictions, as well as facts. We also understand pictures, words, equations, and patterns. Ordinarily these are not isolated accomplishments; they coalesce into an understanding of a subject, discipline, or field of study.
Understanding need not be couched in sentences. It might equally be located in apt terminology, insightful questions, effective nonverbal symbols, intelligent behavior. A mechanic’s understanding of carburetors or a composer’s understanding of counterpoint is no less epistemically significant for being inarticulate. Even a physicist’s understanding of her subject typically outstrips her words. It is realized in her framing of problems, her design and execution of experiments, her responses to research failures and successes, and so on. Physics involves a constellation of commitments that organize its objects and our access to them in ways that render those objects intelligible. Understanding physics is not merely or mainly a matter of knowing physical truths. It involves a feel for the subject, a capacity to operate successfully within the constraints the discipline dictates or that challenge those constraints effectively. And it involves an ability to profit from cognitive labors, to draw out the implications of findings, to integrate them into theory, to utilize them in practice. Understanding a particular fact or finding, concept or value, technique or law is largely a matter of knowing where it fits and how it functions in the matrix of commitments that constitute the science. But neither knowing where nor knowing how reduces to the knowing that that traditional epistemology explicates.
Knowledge is supposed to be an all-or-nothing affair. Either you know that p or you do not. But understanding admits of degrees.
… Far from being primordial, facts are derivative of considerations of other kinds. Only in light of decisions taken, values espoused, options exercised, and methods applied do we have a framework that fixes facts. Still, once that framework is set, the facts it fixes are independent of, and may be contrary to, our beliefs and desires. Classical physics set the stage for the Michelson-Morley experiment by determining what makes for a physical fact and how such facts may be discovered. It did not thereby dictate the experiment’s result. Indeed, the unanticipated outcome of the Michelson-Morley experiment contributed significantly to the downfall of the system that engendered it.
Here again, the parallel with more familiar cases of construction is helpful. We may build a chair by executing a well-laid plan that incorporates tenable views about what is wanted of a chair and about how the relevant objectives can be met. Still, whether the resulting chair wobbles and whether it will support a two-hundred-pound man are matters of fact, independent of our beliefs and desires about them and independent of the beliefs and desires that informed the chair’s construction.
Constructionalism provides the resources for generating tenable cognitive systems satisfying a variety of epistemic desiderata. It does not, however, guarantee that all our epistemic objectives can be simultaneously met. Indeed, it forces us to recognize how often trade-offs are involved in achieving understanding of any kind.