Tag Archives: castorina

The normativity of human knowledge

I am now reading Prof. Castorina’s lectures on Genetic Epistemology. There he makes the case that human knowledge in general, and scientific knowledge in particular, involves a normative dimension that is often overlooked by naturalistic approaches to knowledge.

Let me explain this topic in my own words. Naturalized Epistemology is right in considering human knowledge as a fact of the world. Human beings are real, corporeal, natural entities. Human beings have (are) bodies; they have a physical existence. Any explanation of human knowledge must recognize that humans can know their world only insofar as they are equipped with wet computers (aka brains) that receive information from the world, process it, and respond to the world in a certain manner. There’s input, information processing and output. If your computer gets broken (in a serious car accident, for example), you might lose your ability to know the world.

Although I am already using a highly metaphorical language here (because the brain is different from a digital computer in many significant ways), I can buy the previous description up to this point. Human knowledge is a natural phenomenon and therefore it can be studied by using the methods of the natural sciences (for example, the neurosciences).

Yet when we look at actual human beings engaged in knowledge-related practices (human beings investigating, thinking, theorizing, teaching, learning and discussing about different issues) an important aspect of human knowledge comes to light. Not only do people know about certain things, they also know that what they know is true. For instance, they know that the sentence “dogs are mammals” is true; and they can defend the truth of such a claim through arguments. People can (and frequently do) justify most of their knowledge claims. They offer reasons why things are in a certain (and not in another) way. They argue for specific positions. They follow rules and shared criteria for adjudicating between rival hypotheses. They claim that some assertions are true and they also claim to know why they are true. In certain cases (two plus two equals four) most human beings would argue that the truth of this claim is universal and necessary. That is, they would say that they know not only that things are in a certain way, but also why they must be that way and couldn’t possibly be in any other way.

To put it differently: people care not only about the efficacy of their knowledge (whether what they know allows them to adapt effectively to the external reality) but also about the legitimacy of their knowledge. Any observation of actual human beings involved in knowledge-related practices makes this point self-evident. Any observation of naturalistic epistemologists giving talks in conferences or workshops or making arguments to convince others makes this point self-evident. They are not just blind mechanisms sputtering output; they try to be rational, sensible, persuasive.

There is a normative dimension to human knowledge. The problem with the naturalistic approach to human knowledge is that it cannot bridge the gap between the mechanistic – naturalistic level of explanation and the normative phenomena. What humans know is not just the result of some material mechanism (involving the interaction between the world and the wet computer) but is also the result of a complex socio-cultural normative process that requires to be addressed on a different level. The natural sciences by themselves cannot account for this normative component; norms and institutions must be included.

Epistemology, therefore (and this is Castorina’s point) should deal with the fundamental problem of how people and societies give themselves norms. Any relevant epistemology must start by recognizing the normativity of human knowledge.


Piaget and the logic of action

I’m reading Prof. Castorina’s lectures on Genetic Epistemology. They’re quite good.

One of the points he explains very clearly is that, for Jean Piaget, logic emerges out of the individual’s coordination of actions (or action schemata). Piaget considers that one of the basic features of all living forms is their tendency to self-organize. He thought that this principle or “functional invariant” applied to all levels of development, from basic organic forms to complex human behavior. It is an essential part of self-preservation that organisms produce complex and organized structures and that they maintain such organization actively throughout time in order to survive. Successful self-organization is thus the counter-part of successful adaptation; they are parallel processes, two sides of the same coin.

I buy it up to that point. But Piaget extends this biological framework further: intelligent life is manifestation of life as such; the same laws that apply to living forms also apply to intelligence and to cognitive development. Logic derives from action, and action is understood in biological terms. Logic reflects the inner organization of action. For example, the organized actions of babies that move, order and categorize objects are at the root of the (developmentally later) mental operations of classification, seriation, number, etc. The very logical principle of “conservation,” so central to Piaget’s theory, derives from the organism’s tendency to self-organize and self-preserve.

It is as if a logical instinct were inherent to human action. For Piaget, there’s a continuum that goes from biology, through action, up to logic and scientific knowledge.

In my opinion, Piaget underestimates the discontinuities between animal cognition and human knowledge. I consider the latter as an institutional phenomenon (I try to explain in other places). As I see it, the deontological nature of human knowledge is not reducible to biological action.