Epistemology with Oprah!

Lately, I’ve been paying alot more attention to what I’m saying. I guess it has to do with that brush with Frege not so long ago, when I was started on the business of worrying about to what I was really referring when I looked to to the moonlit sky and proclaimed that I was staring up at Hesperus. My, I would say, Hesperus is certainly bright tonight. By the way, it’s easier to say it’s Venus. Anyway, when you pay attention to what you’re saying, you’re also, consequently, paying attention to what you are thinking, and often asking to yourself not only the meaning of what you say, but also whether you’re saying anything that you know for sure. I could have all my references correct, but is what I’m saying really known to me as fact? What? Ok, let me backtrack and try to make what I’m saying less jumbled. What I mean is that sometimes I’m so caught up in the meanings of what I say, that I’ve lost track of whether what I’m saying is correct at all. There. That said it. Maybe I should get straight on whether I am saying anything that I know before I try to assess whether what I’m saying means. With me so far? As all of my friends and family knows, I watch a tremendous lot of television. I think that the technical term for my TV watching is called “get a life”, but needless to say, I do. Watch. Alot. I think that among philosophy types, it’s the rather “in” thing to proclaim to you’re colleagues that you either don’t own a TV set, or that you don’t have cable. (I only read Truthout and listen to Pacifica, they might say).That way, by saying so, you distinguish your eudaimonic lifestyle from that endless and decidedly unphilosophic television watching of all of the other swine. But, seeing that I disdain philosophic types and all that they stand for, especially those who shop at Trader Joe’s and profess veganess, I freely cop to the fact that I do indeed watch TV. Alot. I think that the reason why so many philosophy types deny that they watch TV is because of the “low” culture of popular society, and the reputation associated with those who either use or participate in it. Popular culture is the sophist to the Socratic individual. If it is anything, popular culture is kryptonite to the philosopher. His philosophical powers are weakened by exposure to all things pop — eventually resulting in complete philosophic collapse. Popular culture, especially TV, makes idiots of us all. (Or at the very least, it churns out a few empiricists). But I say, on this one, the philosophy type is wrong, for the modern age’s greatest philosophical sage is on the air for all to see: Ms. Oprah Winfrey. This is no joke. I’m really quite serious. I know that there is almost a cottage industry of professional Oprah-bashing out there. I’ve participated in a great deal of it myself. But once I actually started watching Oprah instead of listening to what other people told me about the “Oprahdization” of society, I found that there are plenty of lessons in store for even the most Aristotelian-minded philosopher. I was browsing some time ago on Oprah’s website, where there is listed 20 things that Oprah knows for sure. Now, as a philosophy type person, any suggestion made by someone that they know anything with certainty is bound to grab my ear. So I took a look at Oprah’s list. At fist glance, the list can be easily dismissed as pop-psyche, motivational speaker babble. And in reality it is. But, there’s something else at work behind the simple and obvious claims, like, “what you do comes back all the time, no matter what” (by the way, Oprah says that that statement is her creed). I thought when I read Oprah’s creed, well duh, every culture on earth has some sort of idea of karma. I, for instance, ws raised with the “Golden Rule”. Wiccans, I think, believ in a 3-fold law, and so on. But, how do I know that? How is it that Oprah’s bit of advice failed to tell me anything that I didn’t already know? Suddenly, Oprah’s list of 20 became an exercize in seeking the epistemic nature of “duh”. How is it that Oprah can claim that she knows anything for sure? And how is it that, without having seen Oprah’s list before, I know these 20 things, too? John Dewey, the American pragmatist, said that the knowledge that we gain through our experiences must be of practical value. For the pragmatist, all that info is fine and dandy, but real knowledge tells us one simple thing: I can use it to so something. If it works, then it’s good to know. If it does not, then the info is useless. Knowledge, for Dewey, enabled man to master our environment. For Dewey, the test for what counted as knowledge was a test of coherence. Does what I accept as true fit with what else I believe is true? If it fits, then it is true. Oprah’s creed certainly has practical value. If we realize that we may be subject to human or divine retribution, our actions or sentiments (because Oprah believes that beliefs have force as well) are more likely to be kind instead of malevolent. Given similar religious or moral beliefs (and experiences)about how our behaviour can “come back” at us, Oprah’s creed seems to pass the test of coherence. But, as Dewey admits, coherence is a shaky criteria for knoweledge at best. Because all people are different, all people do not share the same set of held “truths”. We all have different beliefs to which a piece of data does or does not cohere. Anything approaching universal knowledge would have to be decided by committee, or at least hopelessly relativistic. But, Oprah tells us that her creed is a truth “no matter what”. It is universal and not subject to relativity. So, I looked another epistomological method to test the truth of Oprah’s claim. I remembered that, some time ago, in my epistemology class, we discussed reliabilism. Now, if I remember correctly, reliabilism has something to do with accepting a belief as true only if it has been formed in a reliable manner or by way of a reliable process. I can’t quite remember the example that we handled in class, but I remember thinking that reliabilism tends to yield alot of beliefs that are, for lack of a better word, “duh” beliefs (like Oprah’s creed). That is, if my eyes never failed me before, that is, I can rely on the accuracy of what they are seeing, and I think that I see a steamroller coming towards me, I can reliably believe that there is, in fact, a steamroller coming towards me. Or something like that. So now I thought, is that the hidden epistemic factor at work with Ms. Winfrey? But, then I thought, it can’t be — Oprah says that she knows these things for sure . Even reliable methods fail from time to time. So then I thought, if Oprah knows these things for sure, what she knows for sure cannot be derived from any outside means. We know that if we hinge our knowledge on what we discover from the world around us, we may come across false information or worse yet, arrive at a false belief. So, Oprah’s stipulation that she knows these 20 things for sure suggests that her basis for knowledge cannot be empirical. So then I thought, if not empirical, then we (or at least she) knows these things for sure without experience. And that led me to the rationalists: When Descartes wrote the Meditations, he asked of what things he can know for certain. Descartes stated that any knowledge he derived from his sense must be discarded until he could be certain that that knowledge was not subject to doubt. Ultimately, he arrived at the truth of his own exixtence. That knowledge, Descartes claimed, was known a priori — without experience. Even if he doubted that he existed, something, Descartes reasoned, must be thinking that it does not exist — so he exists. That fact at least cannot be doubted. But, Oprah makes an even bigger claim. She’s not just stating that she exists, she’s claiming a list of 20 truths that she knows with certainty . Now, I know that Oprah does not rule out the existence of a creator-being that put the world and events in motion. So, I guess that we could say that what is revealed to her as the truth concerning her 20 claims is the product of the Divine Light of Reason. I guess we could say that Oprah knows these things because God revealed them to her as true. This was Descartes’ method of coming to the knowledge that the world outside of himself exists. Ok, that will do, but I think that there’s something more at work, here. I feel that somehow, that explanation is not Oprahly satisfying. When I watch Oprah, I often hear her say that something is a gut feeling or known to us as some sort of intuitive notion of the way that things are or should be. So, that means, or at least suggests, that Oprah’s 20 things are given to us (or her) intuitively. (hurray, GE Moore). (I’m not even going to attempt to explain intuititionism). But, here we find another snag. Oprah’s creed, “what you put out comes back all the time, no matter what”, seems to rely on some sort of empirical varification. How would we know that whatever we put out comes back unless we actually put out something that came back? Is Oprah telling us that her life lessons possess some sort of synthetic a priori quality? Kant suggests that there are some knowledge about the world that possess both a priori and empirical “qualities” (I use the word qualities, simply because I lack the proper vocabulary to express exactly what Kant means). In the case of mathematics, for instance, it is true that 5+7=12 a priori, but we need to see the operation of adding five to seven to varify, if you will that 5+7 does indeed equal twelve. I think that this may be putting us on the right track here. Indeed, what Oprah may be suggesting is that there is an intuitive a priori knowledge. The fact that there are things that we know for sure suggests that there are undoubtable truths that transcend our own experience. They are true “no matter what”. But, there is also alongside that truth, the feeling that we know these things from our guts, that we simply “know” them, but they are not revealed it seems, until we actually begin to interact with others in the world. I’m not sure whether Oprah is correct that we can know one thing, let alone 20 things for sure. But, I also think that when we easily dismiss Oprah and other so-called mind numbing entertainment, or say that we cannot gain from watching them, we are wrong in saying so. It is arrogant, and I think, philosophically dangerous to believe that only those who are endowed with the proper philosophic credentials are credible sources for philosophic theory or discussion. If we want others to think philosophically, we should encourage them to see philosophic questions and answers in everything they see — even on TV. As I wrap this up, I need only think to the slave that Socrates used to demonstrate that even the uneducated possess knowledge that they may not even know that they possess. That’s worth thinking about or at the very least encouraged. And it’s also worth thinking about the idea of intuitive a priori knowledge. I might make a name for myself at last!

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