"Time will tell, epistemology won’t"

Working on applied AI-related problems has really tempered my outlook away from theory. Apologies for another Rorty-related post, but I loved this little bit I just came across, from Stanley Fish (on slate.com):

When Rorty concluded one of his dramatically undramatic performances, the hands shot up like quivering spears, and the questions were hurled in outraged tones that were almost comically in contrast to the low-key withdrawn words that had provoked them.

Why outrage? Because more often than not a Rortyan sentence would, with irritatingly little fuss, take away everything his hearers believed in. Take, for example, this little Rortyan gem: “Time will tell; but epistemology won’t.” That is to say—and the fact that I have recourse to the ponderously academic circumlocution “that is to say” tells its own (for me) sad story—if you’re putting your faith in some grandly ambitious account of the way we know things and hoping that if you get the account right, you will be that much closer to something called Truth, forget it; you may succeed in accomplishing the task at hand or reaching the goal you aim for, but if you do, it will not be because some normative philosophy has guided you and done most of the work, but because you’ve been lucky or alert enough to fashion the bits and pieces of ideas and materials at your disposal into something that hangs together, at least for the moment. Or, in other, and better words, “Time will tell; but epistemology won’t.”

A co-worker of mine said, “when you’re in a meeting and someone mentions epistemology, the conversation is through.” :-)

And similarly from that article:

“The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.”

Reminds me of Clay Shirky on the semantic web:

The Semantic Web takes for granted that many important aspects of the world can be specified in an unambiguous and universally agreed-on fashion, then spends a great deal of time talking about the ideal XML formats for those descriptions. This puts the stress on the wrong part of the problem — if the world were easy to describe, you could do it in Sanskrit.

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3 Responses to "Time will tell, epistemology won’t"

  1. Shawn says:

    Maybe my image of AI engineers is wrong. How often does someone mention epistemology in a meeting?

  2. Brendan says:

    Both far too much, and not nearly enough

  3. Shawn says:

    Looking back over your post, Rorty probably would not have thought the semantic web was a good idea, for philosophical reasons. As far as I know, he was against the idea that there was a final description of things, e.g. that got at their essence. New purposes and new developments would necessitate the use of new descriptions. Although, I imagine the semantic web is having difficulty for more practical and less lofty philosophical reasons.