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Epistemology is one of those cornerstone terms that worries grad students and obsesses their faculty members such as yours truly. It’s your theory of knowledge—the unconscious tests you do mentally to figure whether some theory or fact is in fact true. Can it be trusted? Acted upon? Think of it like a filter, shaped by our culture, history and education. If a river is all of the stimuli and information we receive and interpret minute by minute in our daily lives, epistemology is the kayak we forget we’re in. Or the prescription glasses we forget we’re wearing.
Everything we see, think, hear and do, each practical, personal or policy choice we make, has gone through this filter—whether we’ve realized it or not. Hence the obsession with epistemology on the part of devoted faculty members worldwide—we don’t just want our students to think about X subject, we want them to think about thinking. How do we go about assessing what we accept as true and what we reject as false, or if not false exactly, opinion that doesn’t merit being the basis of research, policy or life choices.
This is why I’m so concerned with what would appear to be the American epistemology of the Gutcheck. Colbert mocked it, but CNN didn’t appear to get the joke, presenting the Gutcheck as an actual thing, a reliable means of determining what is or is not true. A disturbing amount of journalists and political elites seem to be on board with this perhaps uniquely American epistemology. Your gut is all you need. There isn’t a need for a deep sense of history, data or empiricism. There’s recently been a ‘gut check’ for about everything from torture to climate change. GWB was criticized for relying on a gut check to run much of his foreign policy but the prior examples suggest that this is not simply a conservative thing. There is something masculinist and simplistic to such an epistemology, of course, and it’s easy to conclude that Gutcheck’s popularity is partly a response to a violent and chaotic post-9/11 world. That’s surely a factor, but this epistemology—the epistemology of individualism and self-reliance, in somewhat more charitable terms, has always been part of Americana, with roots back to Emerson and Twain. At its best it can arguably encourage independence of mind and a willingness to hold unpopular opinions, healthy tendencies for a democracy. But at its worst the Epistemology of the Gutcheck is dangerous—reductive, macho, anti-scientific and ahistorical—leaving us without any solid ground on which to base votes, public policy choices or anything else. Followed to its (ill)logical conclusion, it becomes okay to have not just your own opinions, but your own facts. And that’s where real social unraveling begins.