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Clark Glymour on Epistemology

After repeated inquiries we are bringing again Clark Glymour's magnificent interview in Epistemology: 5 Questions.

Five Question for Epistemologists

Clark Glymour

1. Why were you initially drawn to epistemology (and what keeps you interested)?

Call me Meno. I know just the moment.  I was five. My grandmother, always wearing a long gray coat, summer and winter, and carrying a small black money purse, took me about Los Angeles by streetcar.  Since my grandmother treated money so carefully it occurred to me that money, which I had never been permitted to touch, might be the best thing in the world. One day I crept into my parents’ bedroom and stole a dollar bill. Taking it to my room, I looked it over from all sides, smelled it, ran my hands over it. Just paper—this couldn’t be the best thing in the world. (To my credit, I returned the dollar.) So I thought I would look for other candidates for the best thing in the world, but then it occurred to me—if I found the best thing in the world, how would I know I had found it?

And then there was the little green man and the Rag Man. The friendly little green man lived in the tiny box house my father made and put on a shelf above the kitchen table, where my father and I would sometimes sit together to listen to Joe Louis’ boxing matches. The Rag Man came down the street once a month in a wagon pulled by a horse, knocking on doors to ask for rags. My father assured me the little green man lived in the tiny house, and my mother assured me the Rag Man would carry away bad children. I did not think I believed either of them, but I kept looking for the little green man and I kept hiding whenever the Rag Man came to our street. That made me wonder what it is to believe something.

Despite my childish skepticism, I was pretty sure I was on to the best thing in the world in Junior High School, walking Jane Trent home each day with my hand under her coat...This led in high school to another epistemological concern. When I was 16 or so I spent a lot of time thinking about specific cases of the problem of other minds: what do girls think, and in particular what did Rettie Jane, then the subject (or object, however that works) of my aspirations think when  she said she was “washing her hair”?  I had no clue. So many hypotheses, so little evidence. For a while I held the Butte high school record for most refused dates. It occurred to me that some problems are underdetermined and the best one can do is to make very general assumptions from which experience can then lead to discoveries, discoveries that will be true if the assumptions are. Knowledge is provisional, but some provisions are indispensable. That girls, and in particular, Rettie Jane, had perceptual experiences and beliefs and categories pretty much like mine seemed a necessary assumption if I were to have any real moral relations with them (I was interested mostly in immoral relations, but morally arrived at), that they shared everyday desires like mine, but maybe not my specific desires. This led to my recognition of the importance of causal premises in the assessment of hypotheses:  discounting the boasts of some of my buddies, I considered the hypothesis that females as a general rule do not enjoy sex, but this seemed clearly refuted by the abundance of people on the planet. Which of course led immediately to the conclusion that the problem was my hair, but what alteration was needed--waterfall and duck-ass, or Peter Gunn brushcut? I digress.

2. What do you see as being your main contributions to epistemology?

Creating the Philosophy Department at Carnegie Mellon.

3. What do you think is the proper role of epistemology in relation to other areas of philosophy and other academic disciplines?

In The Dynamics of Reason, Michael Friedman states my view more eloquently than I can.

“Science, if it is to continue to progress through revolutions…needs a source of new ideas, alternative programs, and expanded possibilities that is not itself scientific in some sense—that does not, as do the sciences themselves, operate within a generally agreed upon framework of taken for granted rules. For what is needed…is precisely the creation and stimulation of new frameworks or paradigms, together with what we might call meta-frameworks or meta-paradigms—new conceptions of what a coherent rational understanding of nature might amount to—capable of motivating and sustaining the revolutionary transition to a new first-level or scientific paradigm. Philosophy, throughout its close association with the sciences, has functioned in precisely this way.”

4. What do you consider to be the most neglected topics and/or contributions in contemporary epistemology?

What can be learned under what computational bounds and with what assumptions, by what learning and inference strategies on what computational architectures, from what kinds of data? Contributions of these kinds can be found all over in various guises, but in philosophy they tend to be very localized efforts rather than the cynosure of contemporary epistemology.

5. What do you think the future of epistemology will (or should) hold?

I have said above what I think it should be. The rest of the question asks for a prediction. The present is prelude.

I am reminded of an event from some years past. The late Laurence Rockefeller, a benign benefactor of the Princeton Philosophy Department, once came to campus to announce optimistically that a great religious revival was about to sweep America, and he wanted the graduate students to tell him what philosophers were going to do when the great day arrived. Stumped, or too intimidated to object, they sat silent until a particularly resourceful student told him that when the great religious revolution arrived, philosophers would analyze the concepts involved. Indeed.

Michael. Friedman’s book does not mention a single 20th century example of his vision for philosophy, not one. There are some—the elaboration and application of the idea of logical form, the foundations of decision theory, the theory of computable learning; near the middle of the twentieth century philosophical logic, part epistemology, formed the content of early attempts at machine learning. I could go on, but not far.  .

The contributions of the most of the contributors to this volume, including myself, are minor notes in the sociology of contemporary epistemology, of which a more faithful sample would include writers such as McDowell, Peacocke, Jackson, McGinn and others. Principal stream epistemology—my prediction for what the future holds--requires parody rather than commentary, the talents of Tom Lehrer, which I do not share and which the present venue in any case does not allow. So, a device: The New Yorker runs an endpage column with cartoons for which captions are solicited, and candidate captions offered for vote. Quotations will have to do in place of cartoons; it seems sufficient to consider passages, taken very much not out of context, from three contributors to this volume.

“…the potential of an ecologically modeled epistemology to disrupt a hegemonic social imaginary of domination and control. Ecological naturalism interrogates the instrumental rationality, abstract individualism, reductivism, and exploitation of people and places that scientistic epistemologies underwrite, to promote a social-political imaginary sensitive to human and geographical diversity, respectful of the natural world, and responsible in its democratic epistemic practices.”

---C’mon, baby, just tell me that you hate me.

“If I have reason to believe that someone else believes p, I have at least a weak reason to believe p myself.”

--Sakes alive, I have reason to believe 2 +2 is five.

“…all human beings will be saved and will enjoy everlasting life with Christ.”

--Quantifying in may be no sin

But is it quite logical

That the epistemological

Should turn eschatological?


Read the other exquisite interviews by Horacio Arlo-Costa, Sergei Artemov, Alexandru Baltag, Johan van Benthem, Luc Bovens, Lorraine Code, Fred Dretske, Pascal Engel, Robert Fogelin, Alvin I. Goldman, Clark Glymour, Alan Hájek, Joseph Y. Halpern, Sven Ove Hansson, Jaakko Hintikka, Wiebe van der Hoek, Kevin T. Kelly, Martin Kutsch, Jonathan L. Kvanvig, Isaac Levi, Rohit Parikh, John L. Pollock, Krister Segerberg, Ernest Sosa, Wolfgang Spohn, Timothy Williamson, Linda Zagzebski

Epistemology: 5 Questions
Edited by Vincent F. Hendricks and Duncan Pritchard
September 2008
ISBN 8792130070
372 pages
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