Distance: the epistemic norm

I heard a story from one of my tutors of an english literature lecturer who was once asked: why is it that we are not taught modern literature after the 1970s? Why don’t we read Salman Rushdie, or Zadie Smith, Will Self or Philip K. Dick?

The reply from this english scholar was: we don’t know what’s good yet.

It is important to have distance in order to have a proper appraisal of things. There are many different kinds of distance one can have in the appraisal of a situation. There is historical distance, where the event in question is far enough so that we may see it from a wider perspective than the one immediately constricted to our point of view. It is hard to see the tragedy beyond our own loss.

I remember hearing a story about how Thucydides, in his history of the early Athenian statemen and their enacted policies, is said not to be trusted in his account of one or two of the archons, because of his personal attachment and his own hardship that had happened to his life as a direct result of their action. I think it is either the account of Perikles or Kleon where this ‘ad hominem’ appeal is made. Even the founders of narrative history have attachments to their subject.

The issue is not whether we should judge Thucydides reliable, but to take distance as an epistemic guide, or even norm. The notion of having distance as a mark of good judgment can be made in the following ways:

1. Disinterest (Kant’s Aesthetics): To have a genuine appraisal of the aesthetic worth of a thing, one must have a sense of detachment from the enjoyment of the thing, and one’s invested and partial ends. Food for instance, is a habituallly consumed commodity, it is done so to both fulfill a need and sate a wholly subjective desire unique to one’s own palette (let us exclude the psychology of preparing food for now). Here are a couple of factors that undermine the genuineness of our aesthetic judgments:

i. Personal attachment: is it right to like a band because your friend or family member is in it? It would be seen as sacriledge to denigrate their musical effort on aesthetic grounds, as it would be seen as a personal offense not to like their work. (I’m in this situation a lot)

ii. Mistaking judgements as non communicable, solely subjective, and not propositionally based; against those which are ‘not just subjective’ and thus communicable, and preferably propositionally based.

iii. Recieved and esteemed opinion: we may have nonrational prejudices to a judgment. By this, I mean beliefs which are culturally learned or given a great deal of importance to the agent. We might believe certain things because parents, peers, or those whom which we give either importance or authority (on grounds of ignorance and their percieved higher wisdom) make us believe or encourage us to believe. Peer pressure, childhood beliefs are perhaps the greatest enemies to distance. It is, as if we associate a judgment orp reference to a particular time of our lives or personage.

2. Moral distance: To be an impartial party in a deliberative matter is to give no party a preference. There are reasons why we might be partial in moral situations. It is because we have those that are friends and family that defines the difference between partial and impartial. Often stated to some ethical theories is the charge that moral impartiality is anathema to those most fundamental building blocks to our relationships.

While partiality may be an important part of our ends as persons; it may also be anathema to our appraisal of a situation morally insofar as we prefer the view of one agent to another in a situation where it may be epistemically better to use a ceteris paribus approach.

3. Epistemic distance: This was mentioned in the first point so I shall not try to repeat myself. We might have epistemic norms and practices (rather than beliefs, as stated in 1.iii.) that are preferred over other ones. Those epistemic norms may either be deleterious to the truth, or inadequate. We might have primitive epistemic norms learned from primary education or parental upbringing, such as:

i. trust x as an authority figure
ii. trust authority figures in general
iii. ad hominem testimonial appeals against character
iv. elaborating a thought as a crude question such as ‘so where did she get it from, then?’, or ‘if x did not do it then y must have’ where y denotes an explicit particular

It is a useful tool for history to have a bit of time passing an event before having a proper appropriation of it. How may history see the US presidents George W. Bush, or Barrack Obama. I personally think that Obama may not be seen in the optimistic way that he is seen now. This is for a few reasons: firstly, it is the newness of his position that gives us a better opinion of him and the many ‘firsts’ that he represents. That is a kneejerk response more than anything from the US president previous to him (and his reptuation). We may, on the other hand, see the actions of GWB in a more, or less charitable light, when we see the implications of his domestic and international enactments. Few people acknowledge the campaign in Afghanistan than they do on Iraq, for instance. Perhaps one should question whether the Afghanistan campaign was legitimate, instead of concentrating their energy on the Iraq military campaign. A thought focused on one issue is a thought ignored upon another.

Historical distance also gives us less of an immediate investment in its impact. With the exception of a small few, few people may have a personal view of the French occupation of Prussia, or the Hundred Years War in the way that they may have of the current economic situation, or the UK industrial strikes of the 1980s, or of Thatcherism. A Prussian would almost certainly have a pretty poor opinion of Napoleon, but skip forward a few generations and it is not so clear.

Historical situations may eventually form the climate of our current political age, but we are not often invested personally in what happened, we often are led to accept a single narrative, which is sometimes apolitical, of the events. In this sense, we are given a sense of universal history.

I think here is where I end this post; as the notion of universal history is another issue.


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