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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Folk Epistemologies

Noga Arikha
and myself organize a symposium on Folk Epistemologies on October 26 at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, Columbia University, New York.

A received view of scientific knowledge defines learned expertise in opposition to vulgar beliefs. A long epistemological tradition since Plato condemns popular beliefs and common sense opinion as a vestige of a primitive mode of thinking that must be corrected by a method for attaining the truth. Most of the canonical texts of the Scientific Revolution contrast scientific method with the mundane experience of the natural world. Science has developed as a counter-intuitive, depersonalised intellectual experience, which has no clear precedent in everyday thought. Yet, the continuity between learned expertise and a vast array of cultural practices aimed at understanding the natural world is now acknowledged by most historians of science.

The aim of the symposium is to explore further this continuity, especially in those domains of knowledge which have been stabilised by their explanatory power in the everyday understanding of our body, our minds and the natural world around us. Medical fads, alchemical theories, astrological explanations of personality, food prescriptions, humoural explanations of body and temperament, theories of personality types, entertain an intriguing and complex relationship both with learned science and with common sense. Some, like botanical lore, partake at once of a “folk” and of expert, scientific knowledge. In historical terms, their scientific status changes through time, along with the evolution of mainstream epistemological standards; some acquire this status, others lose it.

Beliefs that are not considered verified or established at the highest level of scientific practice remain robust in popular culture; this phenomenon is in need of a conceptual, not only of a historical account. A variety of historical, cultural, social, cognitive and biological biases play a role in stabilizing our practices and beliefs. Why, for instance, do we accept to take pills on the basis of a doctor’s prescription, without understanding their molecular structure or their impact on our organism? Inversely, why do those who mistrust “mainstream” medicine in favour of alternative traditions such as that of homeopathy, rely on an expert body of knowledge that does not constitute a scientific authority? In both cases, trust in the expert’s authority tends to entail a belief in a therapeutic practice, say, or in the power of a medical substance. The same is true for the other so-called “alternative” traditions, but not only: a 21st-century scientific scholar who would strongly reject the idea of an astrological influence on her personality may be inclined to accept fasting as a healing practice on the basis of her everyday experience even if she considers there is no scientific ground for the alleged therapeutic value of fasting. In most cases, it is the epistemic and practical value of such practices and beliefs throughout the history of thought that has ensured their survival. Among the speakers: Jonathan Adler, Robert Martensen, Steven Shapin, Anne Stoler.

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