Thursday, February 07, 2013

Confusing Ontology with Epistemology

Once the subject-object distinction is taken as absolute, then, as we have mentioned, epistemology becomes a pressing, indeed, I would say, insoluble, problem. Given that situation, it is natural for anyone who has made such a move to think that anyone doing fundamental philosophy must be trying to solve the epistemological quandary in which they find themselves. Therefore, when an idealist claims "Reality is a world of experience," the dualist quite understandably thinks he is encountering an epistemological argument along the lines of, "I can't know about the existence of things I can't know about; therefore, what I can't know about doesn't exist." (This is pretty much how Stove interpreted idealism, and how several commenters here have understood my posts.)

But look at (a small part) of Oakeshott's argument: "The view that objectivity signifies independence of experience must be rejected because the notion (which it implies) of a world of existence outside experience is self-contradictory" (E&M, p. 59). Oakeshott is not saying "Because I can't know it it must not exist." Instead, he is claiming that the idea he is rejecting is self-contradictory: it is like a square circle or an odd number evenly divisible by two. This is an ontological, not an epistemological, argument. It may be right or wrong, and you may not buy it, but if, like Stove, you treat it as an epistemological argument, you are not even addressing it.


  1. I confess I find Oakeshott's statement mystifying. What is self-contradictory about the idea of there being a world of existence outside experience?

  2. Does he say it is self-contradictory because when you posit that there is "a world of existence outside experience", you are declaring that that real, objective world is different from the world we experience or perceive, and in so doing you are making a statement of faith that would embarrass a church lady because you cannot, by definition, have any knowledge of it?

  3. OK, lads, I had deliberately "bracketed" the question of whether Oakeshott's claim is sensible: what I wanted to show was the not the claim Stove and similar critics say idealists are making.

    However, as two of my most beloved commentators, you guys deserve an answer. It will be in a new post. But I will give a hint here: I view this problem as similar to that picture that could be a lady or could be a rabbit. If someone can't see the rabbit, there is no "argument" by which you can make them see it. But you can give them hints so that might lead them to flip around the image: and that's what I will try to do tomorrow.

  4. I know a thing about a thing or two, how I do not know.


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