‘Street epistemologists’ aren’t epistemologists say ‘street epistemologists’!

A common criticism of the ‘street epistemology’ movement is that the vast majority of the people who identify as such are not actually epistemologists in any meaningful sense of the word. [1] In ordinary English usage an epistemologist is usually taken to mean an expert in the study of epistemology. Despite this being the case street epistemologists seem to think this criticism is nothing to worry about. [2]

In a recent street epistemology hangout video this criticism appears to cause the members great entertainment. During it a member calling himself Pinecreek Doug (top right in the photo below) decides to reply to this criticism. He says:

hangout

“In my opinion I think this is a big issue. If you love philosophy, if you’ve studied philosophy, if you have thirty or more credit hours in philosophy you’re gonna hate the word epistemology behind the word street. It’s gonna be offensive. And so my advice to any philosophers out there is just… let it go… just imagine this is a word used incorrectly, in the wrong context, view this as just a interview, asking questions and try to remove that urge to view this as anything professional.”

The message is quite clear. Don’t take what they say seriously. When they use words they don’t mean them in their ordinary usages. They mean something which is merely an in-house colloquialism. They don’t want to be clear. They don’t want to be transparent.

This should not surprise us. Their founder modelled this behaviour. When Boghossian said ‘faith’ he didn’t really mean faith. When he said ‘intervention’ he didn’t really mean intervention. When he said elenchos he had no idea what he was talking about! When he said he was a philosophy ‘professor’ he didn’t really mean professor. [3]

So when you hear a street epistemologist say ‘epistemologist’ or ‘epistemology’ just laugh. I know I do!


[1] I currently lack evidence any of them are epistemologists in the proper sense of the term. One of them called himself a “professional epistemologist” but once I found my way through the smoke and mirrors it turns out he has experience doing business negotiations!

[2] ‘Epistemologist’ is commonly defined as one who is an expert in epistemology. Epistemology is the academic study of the theory of knowledge and commonly contains the following subject areas:

https://www.iep.utm.edu/epistemo/

[3] When Boghossian’s book came out he was frequently calling himself a ‘professor’ of philosophy. Now, many years later, it appears he’s been demoted since he is now an ‘assistant professor.’

In a talk at the American Atheists National Convention in 2018 Anthony Magnabosco defined epistemology as “the study of knowledge” (yay correct definition!) but then he says people should think of it as just a ‘method’, ‘technique’, or ‘approach.’ Again, less than clear.

Without so much as a hint of irony later in the video they appear to find it funny that people think they are disingenuous! All of this reminds me of a lecture by Steven Pinker on the abuses of language in recent years. Here’s a clip:

Here’s a link to the ‘street epistemology’ video:

I wouldn’t recommend watching. I watched the first hour. All I’m going to say is that listening to drunken sophomores at 3am in the morning is more enlightening! They sound very much like a cult which is attempting to agree, among themselves, how they are going to use language in a way which accords the views of their community. This is exactly the practice advanced by Objectivists (those who adhere to Ayn Rand’s philosophy in a cultish way) and we all know how seriously they are taken by philosophers!

(PineCreek (PC) has a whole YouTube channel dedicated to his critiques of, mostly, Christianity. In one particularly hilarious video entitled ‘Critiquing Alvin Plantinga’ he tells his audience he is “quite, quite confident” Plantinga is a Calvinist. Well it would appear PC should be less confident about this. Anyone who’s bothered to read Plantinga would know he is a Molinist and not a Calvinist (if you don’t know the difference you know your homework!). He then goes on to butcher Plantinga’s epistemology and Reformed Epistemology alike. I’d like to write a post pointing out just how utterly flawed his understanding is on this matter but my ears are beginning to bleed after just ten minutes of listening to the guy. Life is too short to interact with such low-hanging fruit for very long.

I’m no prophet but I made this meme when SE first hit the streets!

45494672

For more on the practical problems Street Epistemology encouters go here:

https://aremonstrantsramblings.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/is-street-epistemology-methodologically-disingenuous/

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About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
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1 Response to ‘Street epistemologists’ aren’t epistemologists say ‘street epistemologists’!

  1. Joe says:

    Hello
    I am very glad you are posting again! I love your blog.

    I have been thinking about how important it is to learn from people who are experts and have some mixed feelings.

    I graduated with a major in philosophy in undergrad and took one course specifically in epistemology. I also have law degree and practice law. I admit that my own experience is not going to always be as insightful as a philosophy PHD who specializes in epistemology. That said I think I have certain practical experience with how evidence works and what leads people to form beliefs about disputed matters that many people with doctorates often seem unaware of. I do think my experience brings something to the table.

    That said I don’t want to be like the scientist who claims to know more philosophy than the philosophers because he thinks science is just superior. Generally studying the law is not superior to understanding philosophical issues than studying philosophy. I say generally because there are some bad philosophy teachers out there.

    This discussion makes me think of Sam Harris’s disrespectful remark about philosophers and this response by Kenan Malik

    “Imagine a sociologist who wrote about evolutionary theory without discussing the work of Darwin, Fisher, Mayr, Hamilton, Trivers or Dawkins on the grounds that he did not come to his conclusions by reading about biology and because discussing concepts such as “adaptation”, “speciation”, “homology”, “phylogenetics” or “kin selection” would “increase the amount of boredom in the universe”. How seriously would we, and should we, take his argument? It is one thing to want to “start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and can find helpful”, something that many of us, including many of those boring moral philosophers, seek to do. It is quite another to imagine that you can engage in any kind of conversation, with any kind of audience, by wilfully ignoring the relevant scholarship because it is “boring”.”
    https://newhumanist.org.uk/2538/test-tube-truths

    In the same token, the reason I likely will not pursue an advanced degree in philosophy is because I would likely have to learn many things that have nothing to do with the questions that are of interest to me. I do not claim to be an expert on mind body dualism or the philosophy of mathematics. Even within philosophy of religion, I am not particularly interested in the unmoved mover argument. Sure these various topics may add something to the issues of meta-ethics or epistemology that interest me. But I think the law and my life experience as a lawyer also did that.

    That said I have spent some considerable time trying to learn the language of meta-ethics and understanding the arguments for the various positions. (although I never took a specific course on the matter) Moreover I also read about epistemology issues that are of interest to me. And here I understand epistemology in a broader sense beyond just what is “knowledge” but also when beliefs can be justified or not justified.

    As I see it the problem is really with both sides. Those who do study these issues seem only interested in publishing papers in esoteric journals that use words that most normal people do not understand. They do not seem to make efforts to help intellectually curious people who might be interested in learning the basics.

    So what happens is certain hucksters fill in that gap. I also try to fill in that gap with my own blog. But I try to do it in a way that sets forth my arguments and typically only after I have done some research to see how the topic has been dealt with elsewhere if at all. I try to make sure I understand the language and arguments that have been made. That is the key difference. Between what I do and what these other guys do.

    Red flags should go up anytime anyone derides philosophy as a boring or a waste of time right before they try to tell me their position on a philosophical issue (be it epistemology or meta-ethics). Get ready for confused understandings of the issues.

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