02/12/2011

what it is


Was skimming an epistemology book; came to the Epilogue. These two pages suddenly jump the book into space. Author wrestles with a Cartesian demon called Krebs (German for 'cancer') and goes on to give a metaphor for the entire project of all academic philosophy, in the manner of Kafka:



"I know that there is no Krebs, but what if I were wrong? I am not, but I could be, but I am not, though I may be.

A wall has been built, and it is being built; we think it will continue to be built. No one knows exactly who started the wall, though many have helped. Nor does anyone know how far it reaches: it seems to go on and on forever. We think the builders are our principals
.

The wall is to protect us from the invasion. Wall soldiers man the wall. Whenever a soldier is overcome by an invader, he must be replaced by a stronger soldier, & we are forever sending replacements. We have even sent soldiers to man the wall in the distant provinces. No one knows how strong the enemy forces are there. We need as many soldiers as we can get, but we want only those who are strong enough to repel an invader. It is possible that there is a man strong enough to repel an invader. We know if a man isn't strong enough if he is overcome by an invader. But if he is not, we don't know whether it is because he is strong enough, or good fortune has kept stronger invaders away. We have found a section of the wall where the invaders are too strong for anyone weaker than K. So we know that no man weaker than K will do there. For the time being we risk it: we judge that K is strong enough. Perhaps someday K may have to be replaced. Yes, we know that.

Meanwhile we stare at the long reaches of the wall and wonder."

- Paul Ziff, Epistemic Analysis



I like this because of its totalitarian melodrama. Though Ziff himself is a sturdy coherentist, the way he presents epistemology here casts postmodern shadows - "why do the invaders invade? who started this war? is the centre even worth defending? what would happen if the wall fell?" The wall, after all, is not Knowledge, Science or Virtue, but an ideology: that of orthodox Western philosophy. The little pastiche of academic prose towards the end is so tense that I don't know where the bottom to his irony is.

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