Posted: Dec 06, 2021 11:38 am
by don't get me started
zoon wrote:
Frozenworld wrote:Skepticism is the default.

I’m beginning to wonder whether the ancient philosophical problems around knowledge, justification and scepticism may not be social in origin? This would be by analogy with consciousness, which is a weird and slippery concept if I’m following Descartes’ introspection and wondering what exactly the “I” that I’m so much aware of might be, but which makes much more sense in the context of humans as social animals which have evolved to use the similarities between brains to guess what others are likely to do? Imagining the world as another sees it is a good first step to predicting, with a fair chance of accuracy, what they might be likely to do about it, and the internal model, the imagined world from the other person’s point of view, is easily reified as that other person’s consciousness. When I am living in a group of people who are likewise seeing me as a conscious being, it also makes sense to have a model of myself as others see me, the better to manage social life. This model of myself as a conscious being is then internalised and reified, and then sets up all sorts of philosophical problems when it fails to slot into the scientific model of the world.

Similarly, the need to justify a belief makes a lot of sense if I’m trying to persuade someone else to do something; they may be resistant, and start asking why they should do this, on what grounds is it sensible for them to accept the beliefs on which I’m suggesting they act. In social life, I need to be ready to defend my beliefs if I want other people to act on what I say, if I want to be a functioning member of society.

If we were not social animals with our unique form of sociality, we would be unlikely to feel the need to justify knowledge or belief? – we would just go ahead and act according to our thoughts. Our bodies are an extension of our thoughts, with muscles attached directly to the nervous system.

As with consciousness, the philosophical problems start to look intractable if the social model is internalised to oneself. I can see another person’s consciousness as a mere imagined model easily enough, but it’s not so easy to see my own in the same light (one of the reasons Descartes’ cogito feels compelling)? Similarly, I can understand without confusion that attempting to justify my beliefs to another person may or may not work, but if I feel that all my beliefs should be justified to myself before I can reasonably do anything, then I may start to spiral downwards into doubting everything (Descartes’ original problem)?

From the scientific point of view, seeing ourselves as social animals with ongoing cooperation, the ongoing need to be ready with justifications for our beliefs makes sense, as an aspect of that cooperation. Without the social context, justifying beliefs becomes unnecessary and irrelevant, in the same way that a non-social animal would be unlikely to think of itself as a conscious “I”?

This is an excellent post Zoon and an interesting perspective on the ways that humans go about making sense of their world, each other and themselves- all three sense-making activities being deeply intertwined.

As Plato memorably stated in Theaeteus and the Sophist, thinking is ‘The soul’s dialogue with itself.’ Following from this I think you are right to make an explicit link between the head-internal dialogues that we engage in when we think (inasmuch as we perceive ourselves as being engaged in verbal thought), and the external, multi-participant verbal interactions we engage in (aka ‘conversation’) which are the ‘prime locus of human sociality’ (Schegloff, 1996).

Our need to demonstrate our epistemic status, and to come to an understanding of the epistemic status of others, is one of the driving forces of our interactive endeavors and has been referred to as the ‘Epistemic Engine’. (Heritage, 2012). It is not in any way surprising that the default setting of accounting for epistemic claims, and also negotiating epistemic rights and responsibilities with other participants in spoken interactions should find expression in our internal dialogue as well. As you note, this can spiral downwards towards questioning everything – failing to take account of the fact that a lot of what we ‘know’ is unavailable to introspection. (I once heard it described as the realm of ‘Mysteries for humans’...there is nothing magical here, it is just the limits of our evolved parameters, in the same way that humans can’t read bar codes or QR codes, or hear ultra-sound or make sense of the sound of a fax machine coming through the phone line. These are sensory limits and we probably also have parallel cognitive limits.)

The nature of ‘knowledge’ is often made clear to me as a person with a lot of experience teaching my language to speakers of other languages. It is quite clear to me that a lot of my ‘knowledge’ of language is deficient. I may know how to use a word exactly with a fine degree of nuance in my native language, but being asked to account for its meaning or function, or why it is different from a closely related word by a non-native speaker can leave me grasping at straws and fumbling for ad hoc definitions. I have knowledge that I can’t account for - even after prolonged cogitation.

I particularly like your linkage of epistemics to our unique form of sociality. It makes a lot of sense.


Heritage, J. (2012). Epistemics in action: Action formation and territories of knowledge. Research on language & social interaction, 45(1), 1-29.
Plato Theaetetus, 189e-190a & Sophist, 263e-264b. In J. Cooper & D. Hutchinson (1997). (Eds.), Plato: Complete works. Hackett Publishing Company.
Schegloff, Emanuel A. 1996d. Turn organization: One intersection of grammar and interaction. In E. Ochs, E. A. Schegloff, & S. A. Thompson, eds., Interaction and Grammar. Cambridge University Press, pp. 52–133.