Constitutional Epistemology

A review of Jonathan Rauch's "The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth"

These days, everyone recognizes the importance of teaching “critical thinking.” It appears in course “learning outcomes,” and has even graduated to the lists of institutional “values” championed by colleges and universities. Even the marketers have taken notice: the old, unsexy “Informal Logic” course books from 20 years ago now all have “Critical Thinking” lurking somewhere in the title.

The specific Critical Thinking course I teach is mandatory for all first-year psychology students at my university. It is an easy sell: we are giving students a software update that will enable them to go out into the world and spot the shoddy arguments, logical fallacies, and pseudoscientific clap-trap before they are duped. Their minds will be equipped to navigate the digital media landscape without fear of stealthy algorithms or the latest dime-store conspiracy theorist. Put another way, critical thinking is the mental vaccine providing immunity to the harmful epistemic viruses now in circulation.

Unfortunately, by telling this uplifting tale, I am failing to play my role in the “reality-based community,” as described and defended by Jonathan Rauch in his superb new book, The Constitution of Knowledge. Indeed, the very idea that we can smoothly function as self-contained, truth-tracking individuals, or that we could, for example, take a 12-week course and expunge our evolved, hard-wired cognitive frailties, is one of the early targets of the book.

Going all the way back to Plato, Rauch glosses how difficult it is for Socrates and Theaetetus to define knowledge, but embraces the rigor and humility exemplified by their search. Plato’s dialogues also reveal that the pursuit of wisdom is conducted through conversation, such that even a genius like Socrates must ask for and give reasons, and submit his claims to the rational scrutiny of his various interlocutors.

Aristotle also built on this social foundation, and performed his scientific work with teams of researchers. He also made an effort to rigorously survey the opinions of his philosophical predecessors in order to sift through and discover what might be of value. Even his political science was organized around a deep understanding of the constitutions he collected from city-states throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

The problem, of course, is that while these endeavors point toward the complex sociality of knowledge production, their scale was small, and they lacked the network of support found in today’s “constitution of knowledge.”

This focus on “the institutional and communitarian foundations of collective inquiry” marks the crucial difference between this work and Rauch’s earlier book, Kindly Inquisitors, a defense of “the modern liberal epistemic order.” As such, The Constitution of Knowledge functions much like a sequel, now updated to address a new, and much more toxic, informational environment.

As the title hints, Rauch develops his defense of “the reality-based community” by way of an extended analogical argument: just as the Constitution of the United States requires unwritten norms and institutions to properly function, so too does the constitution of knowledge. No matter how adept we are as critical thinkers, a reality-based community cannot develop or be sustained without a soft infrastructure of informal rules, implicit virtues, and distributed decision-making procedures. More concretely, such a community requires…

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