Ways of Knowing

Nathan Richardson

In a previous post, “What Makes Me a ‘Me’?” I described two conflicting assumptions about the nature of self in psychology. The first paradigm, Self-interest, assumes that we are entirely separate and distinct individuals, not inextricably connected or related to each other in any inherent way. The second paradigm, Other-interest, assumes that the self’s existence is created by the existence of other selves, which the self distinguishes itself from. That is, I am intrinsically connected to others because their existence is what makes me distinct.

This belief or lack of belief in inherent connectedness has implications in the ways we seek knowledge about the world around us (epistemology), particularly knowledge about other selves. (The following discussion relies heavily on a thesis by Renée Beckwith,1 and I am indebted to her for her insights.)

Self-interest

In the first paradigm, since the self is considered to be inherently detached from and unconnected to the rest of reality, “how one comes to know about the world, others, and reality is also fundamentally centered in detachment. Rationality and objectivity are the only ways one can see things as ‘they really are.'”1 Since emotions connect us with other people, they are considered an obstacle to truly understanding the “real” world. Pythagoras, for example, taught that emotions inhibit a clear mind when he said, “Strength of mind rests in sobriety, for this keeps your reason unclouded by passion.”2 The natural conclusion to reality’s inherent division into separate units is that bonds between those units inhibit a true understanding of reality.

According to one central and influential tradition, the state appropriate to moral wisdom is a dispassionate one. To make considered, sound moral judgments, we should abstract from our emotions, feelings, sentiments. . . . At best, they are irrelevant distractions, like so many pains and tickles. At worst, they are highly distorting influences: emotions “incite” and “provoke” us; desires “cloud” our judgment and “bias” our reasoning. … To be objective is to be detached; to be clear-sighted is to achieve distance. To be careful in deliberation is to be cool and calm.3

In short, the further away I get from you, the better I see you. Conversely, if I’m touching you, I can’t see you.

Other-interest

In the second paradigm, our inherent relationship with others implies that we cannot truly understand the world around us without acknowledging our involvement in it and honoring our connection to it. To examine something of which we are a part while simultaneously attempting to remove ourselves from it can never result in plenary knowledge. It’s like pulling our own arm off to see what it looks like—in distancing ourselves, we’ve distorted the reality we attempt to see. And given the self-interest implicit holding an egoistic, atomistic view, the other-interest view offers the ability to understand something without ulterior motives. “The patient eye of love . . . teaches us how real things can be looked at and loved without being seized and used, without being appropriated into the greedy organism of the self.”4

In contrast to this [first] tradition, certain feminist theorists have argued that emotion and desire are valuable aspects of the wise person’s epistemic repertoire. Certainly, our passions and inclinations can mislead us and distort our perceptions, but it is a falsely narrow perspective to think that they invariably do so or that they have nothing distinctive to offer epistemological projects. Distance does not always clarify. Sometimes truth is better revealed, the landscape most clearly seen, from a position that has been called “loving perception” or “sympathetic thinking.”3

In short, I’m always touching you, so to pretend I’m not will only distract me from seeing you accurately. Improving our contact helps me see you even better.

Discussion

Perhaps the attractiveness of objectivity is its lack of obligation. We get all the intellectual thrills of achieving an “aha!” moment without having to reorganize our actions and priorities. It may also stem from over-applying the physical sciences. The observer effect refers to the fact that when observing some very small particles, the fact that they are being observed changes their position or velocity. Thus, researchers try to reduce their interference with the thing being observed. If anything though, this might teach us that we inherently interact with that which we try to understand.

Two applications of this second paradigm come to mind. First, love leads to understanding. We shouldn’t feel silly or irrational when we base our decisions on love. Mothers and fathers can provided multiple witnesses of intuitively knowing what to do in a new child-rearing situation, even when it wasn’t logical. Second, understanding leads to love. In the words of the fictional character Ender, “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”5



Notes

1. Renée Beckwith, “Exploring Maternal Ambivalence: Comparing Findings with Two Opposing Paradigms of Intent,” master’s thesis (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2003), p. 28.
2. Pythagoras, en.Wikiquote.org, “Pythagoras.”
3. Margaret Olivia Little, “Seeing and Caring: The Role of Affect in Feminist Moral Epistemology,” Hypatia 10, 117–137; reprinted in Russ Shafer-Landau and Terence Cuneo, Foundations of Ethics: An Anthology (Blackwell), p. 420.
4. Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 65).
5. Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game, ch. 13.