Is Intellectualism and Rationalism in Epistemology Plausible in Light of the Relation Between Knowledge and Practical Interests? Discuss.

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 2836


This paper examines whether intellectualism in epistemology is plausible in light of the relation between knowledge and practical interests. The discourse begins by first conceptualising the debate, and providing a brief overview of terminology; including some definitions of the term ‘epistemology’ and what it entails, and a brief overview of what ‘intellectualism’ is and what it refers to. Following on from this, there will then be a section looking at the role of intellectualism in epistemology, and asking whether the marriage of the two ideas is still plausible when considering that much knowledge is produced as the result of practical subjective interests based upon instinct (with instincts having no place in the thought processes of the intellect). While this is a multifaceted and complex problem, a relatively simplistic view will be taken in order to clarify this discourse, and some examples will be given in order to illuminate some of the academic discussions in this area. Furthermore, there will also be a brief section looking at epistemology in the twenty-first century, and how such ideas reflect upon how people currently see the world; before a brief discussion is held critiquing the discourse in this area. Finally, some tentative conclusions will be offered with regard to whether intellectualism has any place in current theories of knowledge.

2 Conceptualising the Debate: A Brief Overview of Terminology

2.1 Defining ‘Epistemology’

The word ‘Epistemology’ comes from the Greek episteme, meaning ‘knowledge’, and logos, which means ‘study’. Therefore, from a linguistic point of view, the word epistemology is referring, in the most literal sense, to the study of knowledge (Horrigan, 2007). However, Horrigan (2007) elaborates upon this somewhat, and states that epistemology is “the science of knowledge studied from the philosophical point of view” (p. vii), or “the science of knowledge in its ultimate causes and first principle, studied using the light of natural reason” (Horrigan, 2007, p. vii).  Moreover, Popkin & Stroll (1969) also argue that epistemology is one of the most important branches of philosophy, and that: “Philosophers have attempted to discover the means by which our knowledge is acquired, the extent of our knowledge, and the standards or criteria by which we can judge the reliability of knowledge claims” (p. 204). Indeed, much knowledge that has been acquired throughout human history has already been overturned.

2.2 An Overview of ‘Intellectualism’: What is it?

Halliwell & Rasmussen (2014) note that some academics use the term ‘intellectualism’ synonymously with the term ‘rationalism’. However, Patterson (2012) takes a more straightforward approach, and explains that intellectualism is the philosophy or theory that knowledge is wholly or mainly derived from pure reason; or, it is someone who is “limited to the brain and its thinking” (Patterson, 2012, p. 64). Thus, pure reason alone is used by the intellect, with any notion of intuition or insight (which is likely the result of unconscious thought processes) being dismissed. As such, for the intellect, only the conscious mind is utilised in order to come to reasoned decisions, and intellectualism is thus a more pure form of rationalism. Therefore, the discourse shall now turn to whether intellectualism in epistemology is plausible.

3 Intellectualism in Epistemology: Is It Plausible?

To begin with, Bengson & Moffett (2011) question whether epistemology is compatible with intellectualism. The problem is that there are various kinds of knowledge, some that is based upon reason and science, and others that are based upon beliefs and instincts. For example, many people believe in a god. While for some, this is purely an instinctual belief that is based upon faith and religious scriptures, for others, it also has a scientific basis (with the ‘big bang’ theory pointing to, in the opinion of some, the existence of an original creator). However, for intellectuals, instinct and blind faith have no place in the creation of knowledge, and only pure logic and reason are the guiding lights. Moreover, Stanley (2005) points out that knowledge is also, on an individual level, often the result of practical interests, and people’s knowledge is often the product of what interests them—which is often a fragment of any comprehensive knowledge, and can result in researcher bias.

To elaborate upon this, Jun (2006) notes that: “a human activity is closely related to a person’s practical interests, and knowledge is a social product of shared meanings and perceptions in intersubjective relationships” (p. 138). Thus, for Jun (2006), knowledge is a social product, and much of this knowledge thus comes from practical interests. For example, some people are interested in astronomy, while for others it is sport. These are very subjective choices largely driven by instinct, and much knowledge from these fields—and indeed others—is derived from such practical interests. However, for the intellect, instinct has no place in epistemology and the development of human knowledge, and as such, in light of the relation between knowledge and practical interests, the inclusion of intellectualism in epistemology becomes problematic (and ironically, illogical)—and this has ramifications for the value and importance of knowledge (Fanti & McGrath, 2005).

Nagel (2008) also adds that practical interests can affect people’s beliefs, with subjects that receive the same initial information often coming to different conclusions due to their interests and general beliefs. Thus, someone who reads about crop circles, for example, may come to very different conclusions—regardless of the facts laid out—due to some people wanting to believe in such things, and others not wanting to believe. This is a very subjective reason for believing or not believing in something, but it is a route that many people take (often without even being aware of it). As such, in layman’s terms, people often believe what they want to believe based upon practical interests. In addition, Preyer & Peter (2005) state that: “In contemporary epistemology, the thesis that epistemic vocabulary is context-sensitive has been adopted by a number of authors”, including Williamson (2005). Thus, as humans use language and mathematics as their primary means of constructing knowledge, then the use of language in particular can be problematic, as unlike mathematics (where there is always a clear answer) language is often subjective and open to interpretation; and can thus be extremely context-sensitive.

Grimm (2011) also states that, in the intellectualist tradition, knowledge is determined by the amount of evidence supporting it. This then, is an orthodox form of epistemology in which truth-seekers are only concerned with purely epistemic accounts of knowledge. However, Grimm (2011) also suggests that such an approach may be a mistake, and that practical interests may be an important factor. This, then, is an anti-intellectual approach to epistemology, and based upon not purely intellectual notions, but also on pragmatic considerations. Indeed, Jager & Winfried (2012) also discusses the practical implications of knowledge, and suggest that certain knowledge is created when there is a strong reason to discover that knowledge. For example, if a disease is decimating a population, then it is more likely that the disease will be understood, and a cure will be found. However, if it is not really a problem, then it is less likely that a cure will be found—due to having less funding and scientific will. Indeed, it is commonly said that necessity is the mother of all invention, and this also might be the case with knowledge acquisition, as evidenced with the recent COVID-19 pandemic, and how quickly scientists developed a vaccine. Both on an individual and group level, then, the acquisition of knowledge is driven by need, necessity, and a desire for something, and in this sense, knowledge is extremely subjective and selective, with crucial gaps in knowledge perhaps defining how people see the world.

4 Epistemology in a New Millennium

As humans enter a new and exciting millennium where anything seems possible, the boundaries of knowledge and intellectualism are likely to be stretched taut. Alston (1989) notes how science often progresses by adding additional conditions onto an established theory, idea, or paradigm, rather than starting afresh. However, with an increasing search for a Theory of Everything (Hawking, 2005), it seems that twenty-first century science may be characterised by an overturning of dominant scientific paradigms and new discoveries that change the way that people see the world. For Lewis (1929) though, any empirical knowledge is the knowledge of probabilities, and the validity of such claims is based upon probability-judgment. However, Eames (1969) maintains that all knowledge that exists must come from direct or indirect experience, and this brings us back to the idea that the human senses cannot be trusted or ignored.

Popper (2009) also notes that Socrates himself stated that he was a little wiser than other people, as he at least knew that he knew almost nothing, while other people believed that they knew something. For Socrates then, intellectual modesty was the order of the day, while his pupil, Plato, abandoned this thesis of ignorance. For Socrates then, “the statesman ought to be aware of his ignorance [sic]; whereas according to Plato, he ought to be a thoroughly instructed thinker, learned philosopher” (Popper, 2009, p. xx). This then, is perhaps the very beginning of scepticism and intellectualism.

Rudolf & Monges (2009) also note that imagination, inspiration, and intuition are all important notions in the creation of knowledge—which do not sit well with intellectualism and rationality. However, there are cases where people seem to know something intuitively, and this is difficult to explain other than to say that perhaps they are using a part of the unconscious mind to come to such a conclusion.

In addition, Pust (2013) also examines scepticism and the a priori (the kind of knowledge that is known before an experience takes place), and states that: “The traditional problems of epistemology include the problems of justifying our perceptual beliefs, our beliefs regarding other minds, our inductive beliefs, our testimonial beliefs, and our beliefs in unobservable entities” (p. 205). For those seeking knowledge and truth, then—for intellectuals—‘highly probable’ will have to be sufficient. Thus, these are some of the problems laid out for those who study theories of knowledge, and they are problems that have been studied and talked about by philosophers and intellects for millennia.

5 Discussion and Analysis

The preceding discourse has highlighted a number of problems and issues in the field of philosophy, and more specifically, in discussions on the theory of knowledge. For intellectuals and rationalists then, reason and logic is the order of the day, and intuition and instinct has no place in science and the construction of knowledge. However, for many people in daily life, choices are made based upon instinct and intuition—and many of these choices can be life changing; but that is not to say that people do not also make choices based upon their current knowledge base, but simply that instinct and intuition is often used in conjunction with such knowledge in the decision-making process. Furthermore, such thought processes are not just used in everyday life, but also by scientists and academics, who are also sometimes subject to personal whims as a result of intuition, instinct, or even a practical interest—despite attempts to guard against researcher bias. This therefore means that scientists can be vulnerable to confirmation biases, and knowledge can be constructed on the basis of such interests, needs, or necessities. As such, there may be important gaps in human knowledge as a result of practical interests and confirmation biases, and new discoveries can overturn established paradigms that can change the way that people think.

For the sceptic, nothing can be proven with any degree of certainty, but this is perhaps going too far for many pragmatists, as a certain degree of faith has to be allowed if any human progress is to be made. For example, while it is difficult to prove that one is not dreaming, or even alive, most people have an ineffable sense that this is not the case, and that their conscious mind can be trusted (even if their senses cannot). Moreover, the same can be said for external objects, in that a viewer cannot prove that the objects exist, but most would agree, on a practical level, that they do, as their collective senses all give them the same, or very similar, information. As such, there is some value and power in the collective, which goes beyond individual intuition or faith. Therefore, perhaps a middle ground is the most pragmatic solution, whereby people, scientists, and truth seekers use both their intellect and their intuition and instincts to come to informed decisions and conclusions, and try to use logic and reason to back up any claims or conclusions that they came to through intuition, instinct, or faith. Moreover, while science will always have some degree of subjectivity (as the researcher will inevitably have their own views or interests that have contributed to them studying what they are studying), objectivity is striven for, and highly probable and statistically significant results are perhaps the best way of creating new knowledge, with intuition and instinct (which is likely a result of processes in the unconscious mind) perhaps best being utilised as supplementary tools in such knowledge creation.

6 Conclusions

In conclusion, it is perhaps best to agree with Socrates, in that people know very little about the universe, and have very little knowledge in general. However, human evolution and civilisation has been based upon our curiosity as a species, and the ability and desire to learn new things. Therefore, knowledge, however meagre, is constantly being built, with new paradigms being constructed, replacing old ones, while the human brain continues to evolve as a result of this increase in brain activity. Moreover, while it may be important to accept this level of ignorance that humans have, it is also important to not be too sceptical, as this will likely stunt the development of societies and the human species in general. As such, a balance needs to be sought, with a healthy level of scepticism being balanced by the dual knowledge bases of intellectualism and instinct. After all, human beings and their primate ancestors have survived due to their instincts for millions of years, with intellectual endeavors only used relatively recently on this time scale. Thus, it is not so easy to discard these millennia old instincts, and indeed, many might argue that they should not be. However, if human history is about nothing else, it is about evolving and changing to adapt to present conditions; and it seems ripe for humans to develop to the next stage, and to seek more knowledge so that humans might have other options if their home—the Earth—was to become uninhabitable. Indeed, with global warming advancing as it is, such scenarios could become a reality, and if necessity is the mother of all invention, then it is likely that people will find a way—by using a combination of established knowledge, and instincts, to continue their existence.


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