A Paper on the Philosophy of Renee Descartes in Regard to Epistemology

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Descartes’ road map for epistemology and its application to Contemporary Social Epistemology

Descartes’ philosophy in regards to epistemology relied only on knowledge he acquired himself or by “perhaps in the great book of nature” . Descartes disregarded other people’s ideas and information, including those of his teachers and predecessors. In this essay I will discuss Descartes roadmap for epistemology and its adequacy for contemporary ways of knowing.

In present time, individuals acquire knowledge from each other several times a day. There are a million ways individuals can attain outside sources of knowledge such as friends and families or the internet. Regarding knowledge received from social sources, Alvin Goldman states in his text Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction, “We trust them (for the most part) to tell us what they know, or what has been communally assembled as the facts about a target subject.”(205) A great deal of social knowledge, however, is arguably useless and lacking in factual evidence. Goldman then presents and argument for social epistemology stating, “the priority of the social, on the grounds that society and culture influence the very epistemic standards we employ.”(206) If the knowledge acquired socially meets the standards of epistemologist then why should individuals not share factual information they have received from a source outside of their control?

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Goldman then presents the concept of Social Epistemology (SE) and its three branches. The first branch of social epistemology operates within the boundaries of tradition being defined as “Epistemic appraisal of doxastic decisions by individual agents using social sources” (206). The difference between the first branch of SE and traditional forms of epistemology is the individual’s consideration of social evidence. Social evidence can be defined as information coming from what others say or think.

The second branch of social epistemology states, “Epistemic appraisal of doxastic decisions by collective agents” (206). This branch of SE emphasizes knowledge acquired by collective agents such as groups and communities. Questions revolving around this branch are how group attitudes arise, and how should individuals make epistemic evaluations of community beliefs?

The third and final branch of SE is focused more contemporary forms of epistemology, stating “Epistemic analysis of the informational features of social institutions, systems, and networks” (206). Not necessarily social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, but also science and education as social institutions are all forms of receiving and gaining knowledge. While the knowledge may lack in factual evidence, social networks and significantly influence epistemic ends. Institution such as science and education revolve around the basis of gaining new knowledge.

Descartes would disagree with social epistemology as solid branch of epistemology nor as a source of knowledge because it is coming from another person group, community or online network outside of his control. The only information Descartes will accept is information discovered by him or through nature. Descartes beliefs regarding epistemology stem from his beliefs regarding overall philosophy. Descartes can only be sure of his own existence and experiences, and therefore is unable to trust knowledge acquired from outside himself.

I believe that Descartes’ roadmap for epistemology is impractical and cannot be properly applied to social epistemology. Nowadays, an individual cannot survive without the practice of social epistemology. We learn everything from the weather to terrorist threats and the effects of natural disasters all from sources outside of ourselves. Descartes and others with thoughts on epistemology similar to his own might argue that information not acquired yourself has no guarantee of being accurate and could potentially lead you into an unfortunate situation. That skeptic form of thought, however, is impractical and couldn’t be useful in the contemporary world. I do agree that not all information acquired through SE is factual and that information gained through SE should be held to some sort of epistemic standard if there is a desire for it to be deemed as knowledge.

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