Everything Old Is…Radically Different Again

October 20, 2008

“Wikipedia has evolved a radically different set of epistemological standards,” says Simson L. Garfinkel’s story in MIT’s Technology Review, Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth: Why the online encyclopedia’s epistemology should worry those who care about traditional notions of accuracy.

…standards that aren’t especially surprising given that the site is rooted in a Web-based community, but that should concern those of us who are interested in traditional notions of truth and accuracy. On Wikipedia, objective truth isn’t all that important, actually. What makes a fact or statement fit for inclusion is that it appeared in some other publication–ideally, one that is in English and is available free online. “The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth,” states Wikipedia’s official policy on the subject.

We ought to be talking a lot more about our understanding of truth in general, not . Not incidentally, I think this sort of philosophical talk, which can be had even with quite young children, is sadly missing in most schools.

But, let’s put aside for a moment the question of Wikipedia’s reliability, though it’s a good question, for sure.

There is nothing radically different about Wikipedia’s conception of the truth, not as Garfinkel describes it anyway. Wikipedia’s conception of truth is a very old one. There was a time before objective truth. You might say it was pre-Scientific Revolution, or pre-Descartes, or even pre-Strato (do you trust the link?), but there was a time. You get a good picture of it in the scenes in the Rainbow Inn in George Eliot’s Silas Marner. For better or worse, for centuries, what was true was what people said was true; it was, as Garfinkel says of the modern Wikipedia, “the consensus view of a subject.”

Before anyone can say, “Well, thank heavens we’ve moved beyond that,” let me say that one of chief errors of science is to think that anyone with a subjective view can’t be trusted. C. S. Lewis wrote an insightful and lovely short essay, Meditation in a Toolshed, in which he says we can look at things, that is objectively, as a scientist does. And we can look along things, that is we can look at them subjectively.

As soon as you have grasped this simple distinction, it raises a question. You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the “true” or “valid” experience? Which tells you most about the thing? And you can hardly ask that question without noticing that for the last fifty years or so everyone has been taking the answer for granted. It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists; that if you want the true account of sexual love you must go, not to lovers, but to psychologists; that if you want to understand some “ideology” (such as medieval chivalry or the nineteenth-century idea of a “gentleman”), you must listen not to those who lived inside it, but to sociologists.

There is nothing that makes looking at intrinsicly better than looking along, says Lewis. We need both points of view. Perhaps Wikipedia tries to combines these. That may be new to our eyes, but it’s hardly radical. In any event, the problem is not Wikpedia’s, but our own understanding of truth and epistemology. If we feel disoriented, it’s not because Wikipedia is radically different. It comes because we no longer give people the sort of epistemological compass–a good grounding in philosophy–in school.

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3 Responses to “Everything Old Is…Radically Different Again”


  1. Hey…Ken Wilber’s take on this is very interesting, situation truth in an integral framework gives nice rise to a nice inquiry about where truth lies in the subjective, objective, intersubjective and interobjective spheres. If you don’t know his work, lemme know and I’ll tweak you to it. It’s not something I’m certain you’ll like, but it may help frame some questions, and I’d love to be in conversation with you at any rate.

    Remind me to show you my map of the “colonization as truth” story that I draw using Wilber’s quadrants.

  2. braddodaddo Says:

    I’ll gladly take you up on the offer. Pop Wilber in the email. Sounds like we’ve a lot to talk about–more than we can squeeze in between tunes in a session. Maybe we ought to get together for some bread-making?

  3. Gardner Says:

    Very interesting post. Thanks!


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