Since Descartes’ attempted to try to obtain a certain knowledge about what is true based upon his introspective method, the concerns about knowledge in Western philosophy has taken a sharp turn towards the individual as the locus of reasoning and knowledge. Many discussions about epistemology revolve around the question of internalism vs. externalism. Internalism is the theory that all that we need to have epistemic justification for beliefs is either present or accessible to personal cognition. By contrast, externalism is the thesis that some grounds for justifying beliefs are external to the person’s cognitive awareness and access to them. However, despite the name “externalism,” it might be in some ways be more accurate describe a non-reductive internalism, where knowledge is still understood by reference to the individual knower, even as not all aspects of what make up knowledge are contingent upon cognitive awareness and access.
The point of this, however, is not to try to argue for a change of names in epistemology. I am far too much of an amateur when it comes to the various stances taken by epistemologists to be able to determine how they should label and understood the various epistemic options. Rather, my point is to situate the discussion of traditional epistemology against the background of human experience: the inward, meta-cognitive awareness and analysis of a thinking as thinking and the attempts to try to ensure better thinking, however better thinking is to be understood. Even many epistemic externalists are inclined to construe knowledge primarily in terms of individual cognition, even as they make allowance for factors external to cognition. In so doing, they along with most everyone else of analytic epistemology has situated the understanding of knowledge against the backdrop of a narrow range of human experience.
There is nothing wrong with this, to be clear, as there are many good reasons to consider that our thinking about thinking can have some powerful impacts on the operation and function of our lives. The potential pitfall of the turn towards the self in epistemology is that in the task to find a confident grounds for truth, reliability, justification, etc. that can cement our thinking, we dissociate the process of meta-cognition from the rest of human experience, thereby overlook how the whole of human experience is responsible for the development of our meta-cognitive capacities, both in terms of the cognitive processes and the norms we use to differentiate what is good, true, and right from what is bad, false, and wrong. It is, however, our bodies that are responsible for generating our conscious awareness of what is and what should be. Our sense of truth and normativity is realized bodily, not simply cognitively.
On one level, this critique isn’t entirely novel, as this can essentially be attributable to a various range of post-modern critiques that have emphasized to various degrees the relativity of truth and knowledge. What is different about this critique, however, is that the implication of this idea is that truth is to be understood in and through the body and its experience, to which our thinking about the body and its experience always filters pieces of our various sensations and perceives and expands upon other parts of our sensations. Then, when we think about thinking, we think perceive, filter out, and expand upon the contents of thinking that already emerged through perception, filtering, and expansion. This leaves fields that rely upon meta-cognition, such as epistemology, to be twice removed from the thing that generates our sense of truth and normativity: the body. This doesn’t mean that cognitive internalism is disconnected from truth and normativity, but only that traditional epistemology can be inclined to overlook some of the critical features that contribute to our possession of knowledge. This leaves it, to appropriate Ecclesiastes, to strive after the wind of our own interior consciousness. There is something real and true in it that we can perceive and recognize, but we will never be able to truly grab a hold of it and understand it.
What then? Perhaps it becomes relevant to situate the traditional concerns of epistemology against the background of how human life forms and develops and how it is that this development gives capacities, processes, and norms that are responsible for the development of epistemic processes. This isn’t that profound if one thinks about it, as developmental psychologists like Jean Piaget and Lev Vygostky have observed the way that cognitive processes are condition upon prior stages of cognitive developement (Piaget) and social learning (Vygostky). The cognitive processes that are necessary to meta-cognition and the forms of thinking that epistemologies tend to describe and contingent upon is nurtured, cultivated, and grown through the course of the lifespan, both by individual practice and social training.
However, how is it that this type of cognition grows? Is it because humans have an innate potential to do certain types of thinking that practice and training will nourish (that is, some sort of biological determinism of thinking)? Or, do we have a set of basic cognitive capacities that practice and training combine and develop in specific configurations that determine the way people think (that is ‘higher’ cognition is composited of various biological and cognitive ‘components’ that are uniquely brought together for specific tasks)? I would tend towards the latter, as I have observed, for instance, the type of cognition I employ in exegeting Biblical texts is a very different form of cognition from when I am thinking theological and philosophically about God and the Christian life. While there may be some similarities between the two cognitive tasks, their differences are substantial.
If the development of our higher cognition is compositional in nature, with various unique configurations possible for the development of cognition, it leads to a rather profound conclusion: the cognitive process of knowledge construction are highly sensitive to the cognitive development of persons and the specific contexts that determine the shape of cognition. While we may be able to observe similarities from person to person and from topic to topic, the similarities by themselves are not as important as the differences. While the similarities make help us to consider how different cognitive processes lead to the construction of knowledge, it is only through the various epistemic practices that we come to call our beliefs knowledge.
This allows for a pluralistic conception of knowledge, while at the same time not plunging into a full-blown relativism that suggests there is no “points of contact” between various forms of knowledge by which we can come to recognize and partially evaluate various forms of cognition. However, ultimately, we would need recognize that knowledge is determined by the somatic background of the thinker and how their embodied relationship with other agents help to form their cognitive processes that contribute to knowledge construction.
There is one interesting possibility that this allows for when it comes to Christian theology. If knowledge is contingent upon the background of the person, then leads to the consideration that certain experiences, actions, and attitudes such as love may have a profound impact on our epistemic practices. Those who have read NT Wright should be familiar with the idea of an epistemology of love. I would situated this epistemology squared within 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul contrasts Stoic-like knowledge about divinity and cosmology with a concern for the love of persons. Far from some sort of sentimental enthusiasm about emotional expressivity and experience, Paul is address the very way people think and understand other people and how that relates to the actions they take. While Paul does not give a cognitive account of love that we can look at and tease apart, we certainly see the foundations for a different form of cognitive and epistemic practice. The experience of love should normatively ground Christian thinking, which is the necessary prerequisite for then receiving the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 2.6-16).
What this means is that we don’t start from some a priori conception of the right form of thinking that we take as a given that try to fit love in somehow. Rather, it is love that will, through the cultivation of the person by its practice, generate an understanding of the right and wrong type of thinking. Od course, we need to not risk being overly general about this “love,” as if love and any type of love will do, but Paul would recognize that God’s love in Jesus Christ is the shape of human love. This type of love is the type of love that can receive the type of thinking that characterizes God’s wisdom. While Paul does not describe the reception of God’s wisdom in terms of internal, mental representations and cognition, but rather in terms of specific types of action (2.14-15) and sources (2.9-10), we may be able to theologically and philosophically surmise that what Paul is describing may be alternatively construed as the emergence of specific forms of cognitive processes and norms that allow for the comprehension and reception of God’s Wisdom in Jesus Christ when bestowed by the Spirit. If this is the case, we may suggest something of an epistemic “synergism,” where the human response of obedience to love God and love one another (grounded in faith, of course), allows for the reception and comprehension of what God makes know in and about Christ to the community, and not just to the individual thinker in isolation, where the love of God and the love of each other allows one to receive what God gives in His love and what others inspired by God’s Spirit give in love.