I was working on my master thesis in sociology, trying for the life of me to understand Max Weber's writings on epistemology and objectivity. I remember almost nothing; but I remember this: A mental image of Weber, sitting in his study, observing himself.
His great insight was that the researcher himself is situated in a social context, subject to the social pressures of his time, from which he ought to strive to relinquish himself. To do this he argued fervently for "value free social science", in which the economist, historian or sociologist should strive to say "what is" in stead of "what ought to be." And he had a good reason to do so. His native germany was moving towards war, and social science was not neutral in the war effort. Students were infused from the lectern with a sense of national pride that would send them out into the killing fields. Weber wanted a theory of that would cover the domain of social science that would rob the lecturer with his mystical powers to proclaim the future; and instead put him down to earth, where he would admit that he was a fumbling idiot like the rest of us; albeit with the self knowledge that he was so.
And that is why I keep this image of Weber in my mind. It is Weber observing himself, having a theory of himself that will help him overcome his cultural biases. The result of this effort was a theory of sociological induction from empirical facts that I will not go into today; because today my quarry is philosophers.
The classical image of the philosopher is of a white man smoking a pipe in a study. And we know what the pipe means, it means thinking. After all, as Rene Magritte said this pipe is not a pipe. The philosopher is turning within himself to see what treasures lay there, which he can then gift the world. It is the closest activity to divine revelation we can get; a famously disastrous method of inquiry into the nature of reality.
Unlike sociology, philosophy, as a discipline, does not have a strong theory of the philosopher. At least, not commonly. Two philosophers, that I know, have this in mind when they write, or wrote; and that is Wittgenstein and John. Searle. They are united in this and little else; but that they have good theories of action in social life; and also the inaccessibility of each of us to each other. And that they seem to turn this gaze back at themselves and infuse it into their writing; Wittgenstein does this through his literary style in which we are forced outside of the common practice of word decoding to really see the world; and Searle does this by connecting his philosophy to the scientific endeavour, which is notoriously connected to the outside world.
Still, they lack the certain refinement of Weber, who's very thinking is infused with the knowledge that these thoughts are part of a contingent social context.
I'm being abstract, aren't I? Avoiding the difficulty of providing an example. Very well.
Lately I've been participating in discussions on the nature of metaphysics. There I find that there is a strong tendency to appeal to intuitions on a certain subject. The texts are also full of language guided by formal logic, where distinctions are laid along the possibility of expressing it formally.
In both cases, the criteria of acceptance for any given proposition lies within a closed system of values. In contrast to the philosophies of Searle of Wittgenstein, they do not keep in mind that any theory postulated must square with the type of reality in which a philosopher might live. That is, any theory of reality must take into account the many layers of things that have to be true for that activity to take place. In the next paragraph I will make a list. Each of the things in succession will be prior to the next, in the sense that the next thing could not be, without the prior in the list.
The universe, rocky planets, biological life, cells, multicelled creatures, complex animals, mammals, apes, humans, human brains, language, human culture, written language, intellectual culture, philosophy, philosophers, philosophical remarks on any prior part of this list meta remarks on the possibility of such a list being made in a philosophical context without the existence of the prior points.
Weber, as a sociologist, only had to write on the existence of the social for him in order to talk with sufficient epistemological humility about that subject, because that was one of the last layers in this complex list of ontological dependence. But what task had the metaphysician then set himself? It is an incomprehensibly more difficult task. His theories on reality must punch back through all these levels, and ensure that there are no major hurdles to saying true things, about, say, the atom.
Ah, the atom. At first envision simply an an undividable thing. Then, as a microscale solar system with the protons and neutrons at the core, orbited by electrons like planets around the sun. Then, quantum theory entered, in which the nice, cozy, familiar metaphors ended, and the quantum strangeness overtook reality's "bottom layer."
Within this last paragraph is embedded two long standing superstitions of the philosopher; the continued belief in a common sense physical substratum, and the belief in strata at all. Yet, had they seen reality through the lense of the theory of the philosopher, bound in his mortal coil to observe reality, he would have looked at this image of reality with suspicion.
The idea of strata is identified by George Lakoff as one of the fundamental metaphors of langue, the idea of directionality applied to concepts of transitive relationships. And indeed I could not even contrive to write this sentence without resorting to the very same metaphors, so deep are they. There are no levels of up and down in reality, things simply are. A cup is not made from, ultimately, clay, which is again ultimate made from atoms. A cup is clay is atoms. There is no stratification, only a simple fact of cupness.
And why the propensity to attribute classical newtonian mechanics to subatomic particles? This bit of insight comes from biology, which reveals that in terms of natural selection, it is beneficial for us to understand things in terms of their possibility to harm our bodies. We have a natural propensity for understanding physical phenomena as they behave at "our level", where they are most likely to harm us. Black holes and subatomic particles have, by themselves, killed very few people.
For each point of the list, we must crush the intuitive understanding to reveal the real structure of reality. Even something as mundane as rocky planets will cloud our vision. Most matter in the universe is not rocky; it is not even gaseous; it is in the state of plasma; which is what our sun is made of. I, am not typical of the universe; a fact that any theory of the ultimate reality of everything should take into account.
Sadly, the ultimate difficulty comes not from these comparatively lower levels, where complexity is low, and things are easy. The most problems comes at the levels of minds, language and institutions. The fact is that our theories of reality are heavily shaped by institute politics, trends in philosophical journals, current discourses, and simple mental limitations in what it is possible to think; at a psychological level. Most people who believe in God do not believe it because it is the most rational thing to do, but because historical factors of human history and their own lives have primed them for it; they have emotional attachments, and belief is rooted in institutions of which they are an insolvable part.
Similar institutional boundaries hinder us from peering into reality in an effective manner. We are bound hand and foot by the facts of the lives of ourselves as philosophers when we try to do philosophy that punches through our prejudices to produce an idea of reality worth listening to.
What can we then do to remedy this, and to liberate truth in philosophy? We can bring in two mottoes, two moral decrees from high point in our culture. The first is the delphic decree "Know thyself." The production of philosophical knowledge is rooted in the philosopher, which is a causal product of reality and time. When we write of reality, we cannot by "write ourselves", as our thought on reality stand there and then. To write then, is to write the best version of ourselves as we can fashion through the haze of historical and causal accident.
The second motto is Kant's motto from the age of enlightenment; "Dare to know!" Sapere aude. This is the motto that will help us "value truth above our friends", as Aristotle put it. We must be able to set our own knowledge of our whole selves to the test, by feeling the theories on the collected knowledge of what we know about who we are and what the world is, to see if the theories hold up. We must put our lives, as we know it, on the line. To punch, through the world - into reality.