Thanksgiving Is Ruined

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December 27, 2006
2006: the year of national epistemological crisis?

"Epistemological crisis": A phrase probably best popularized by the very cool Alasdair MacIntyre. In his brilliant little essay, "Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science," MacIntyre provides some vivid examples of an ep. crisis and describes agents in the grip of the phenomenon thusly:

What they took to be evidence pointing unambiguously in some one direction now turns out to have been equally susceptible of rival interpretations. Such a discovery is often paralysing, and were we all of us all of the time to have to reckon with the multiplicity of possible interpretations open to us, social life as we know it could scarcely continue. . . .

And such an individual may as a result come to recognize the possibility of systematically different possibilities of interpretation, of the existence of alternative and rival schemata which yield mutually incompatible accounts of what is going on around him. . . .

Trapped in this epistemological circularity the general form of his problem is: "What is going on here?" . . .

When an epistemological crisis is resolved, it is by the construction of a new narrative which enables the agent to understand both how he or she could intelligibly have held his or her original beliefs and how he or she could have been so drastically misled by them.

A nice appreciation of MacIntyre's essay appears here, on the blog of self-described "amateur philosopher" Matt Kundert, who connects it up with themes of identity, self and sanity ("A skeptical crisis is terrifying because we are no longer sure of those around us. It further makes us unsure of who we are."). Other intriguing (and math-related) reflections on AM's essay are here.

Others have run with the ball in different directions, each of which could represent a different aspect of the current collective situation:

Salon, on ep. c. and the Dubya administration's mocking of the "reality based community";

the blog of one Weazoe, on ep. c., postmodern thinking and the journalistic quest for so-called "balance";

an intrepid and bright undergraduate in Ireland, who connects up ep. c., loss of faith in science, and "PMT" or pre-millennium tension; and

artist and educator Danielle Boutet, who links ep. c. with, among other things, the planet's impending ecological "point of no return."

The year of national epistemological crisis. What can this framework not explain?


The year when the explanatory narratives of so many hang in tatters.

When the non-tattered narratives are in the midst of massive rescripting on the fly, and disorientation.
[& while the new, "better" narrative may provide a period of short-term relief from psychological tension and confusion, it may itself be quite "off" in relation to reality's ever changing moods, and need on-going revision]
When even Karl Rove's "slam dunk" pre-electoral arithmetic fell apart.

When a red narrative shifted to blue.

Of Harry Frankfurt's B.S. and On Truth on the bestsellers lists.

When the "is" and the "seems to be" yawned apart as never before.

Year of the irreparable conflict between "gut" and "fact-based" decision making.

When the president's name and the word "denial" (or worse) hover ever closer in Nexis databases.

Of global warming deniers versus the disappearance of Lohachara island.

When the entire culture needs a remedial course in the concept of irony, as "Borat" opens in movie theaters, and neocons propose the reinstallation of Saddam Hussein to power in Iraq, or genocide, then attempt lamely to hide behind the name of Jonathan Swift.

When the sanest ones with access to the Oval Office turn out to be Pentagon generals and James Baker. [?]

When all of us ask all day long: Who's lying? Who's honest? Who can we trust? Where can you turn? What family member or friend will call this week with tales of someone completely flipping out, freaking out on them or losing their mind? What next?

When Stephen Colbert should have won Time's Person of the Year award for one word: "Truthiness."