Author Information: Mark D. West, University of North Carolina, Asheville, firstname.lastname@example.org
West, Mark D. “The Holidays and What is Given.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 17-19.
Editor’s Note: As we near the end of an eventful 2016, the SERRC will publish reflections considering broadly the immediate future of social epistemology as an intellectual and political endeavor.
Please refer to:
- Clarissa Ai Ling Lee, “ArtScientist/ScienceArtist: Finding a Creative-Intellectual Room of One’s Own”.
Image credit: geir tønnessen, via flickr
We have reached the holidays, and for some of us, these are happy times. The media, at least, treat these days as if the merriment and cheer are givens; decorations festoon stores and public places, and music about Christmas cheer permeates any space; where two or more are gathered; there “Jingle Bell Rock” is in their midst.
In the Jewish tradition, winter season means a hanukkiah will make its yearly appearance, with the story of how one’s family came to own it. A normal menorah has seven branches, each with a candle holder; a hanukkiah has an eighth helper candle, which is out of line with the others. The hanukkiah is used only on Hanukkah, with its light serving no function other than to recall the miracle of Hanukkah.
Every hanukkiah brings with it a story, and every hanukkiah is itself a gift of memory. Our hanukkiah was carried by my cousin through the streets of Jerusalem, down the crowded streets, and across the United States, finally coming to rest in our home, a gift after many years of travel. Other families tell stories of hanukkiah smuggled from foreign countries under the glare of repressive regimes, carried in suitcases through customs at Ellis Island, bought for pennies in shtetls in lands long fled. The hanukkiah is a given of the holiday, and is, often, itself, a given. Like a menorah, it gives light; but the light is for only one purpose—a ‘given’ purpose.
Gift and Given
Considering that the root of both ‘gift’ and ‘given’ is the Proto-Indo-European root *ghabh-, “to give or receive”, I don’t think it is too far afield, in this season of giving and receiving, to consider not only gifts but givens, which, after all, to be givens must have been given by someone or something. As such, we might ask ourselves as social epistemologists what are the givens of our field, and what does it mean, in Jean-Luc Marion’s pregnant formulation, to exist in the realm of the “étant donné,” the “being given?”
What I mean by that is that we (the rational ‘cogita’ who operate as the members of the SERRC) take ourselves as ‘givens,’ as ‘données.’ From our own existence, we bootstrap the existence of groups (if I can exist, then I must, as a good agent of the Enlightenment, grant such agency to others, who as aggregates, are groups). Once we assume our own existence as a ‘given,’ we can take as our ‘given’ the group; and our ‘gift’ to the world of the philosophical is the notion of group epistemology. Particularly in this age of the Internet, and of electronic publications and forums, the disembodied res cogitans of Descartes is closer to our felt sense of what we are, as a group, than we might wish.
The cogito, and various discussions of it such as Hintikka’s (1962, reprinted in 1967), are familiar to all. But, as Williams (2014) suggests, the Cartesian argument (“cogito, ergo sum”) is posed in a more complex manner than the familiar formulation has it; Descartes imagines first the existence of a deity, then (implicitly) a self thinking of that deity and the qualities of that deity including benevolence; then he imagines that some malicious entity might cause him to perceive the world and its qualities in some way that does not accurately reflect the real. But, reasons Descartes, he himself is thinking, and from that he bootstraps that he exists; hence “cogito, ergo sum” is the endpoint, not the beginning, of a thought process; and that thought process is more akin to an intuition than to a proof, one which Stone (1993) argues is best understood as an enthymeme. Boos (1983) argues that the cogito’s ‘thoughtless thinking’ must be about something; and that the Cartesian formulation ends up as a metalogical formulation something like “If I doubt that I am, I am,” with the “I am” serving as the “point ferme” of Gueroult (1953) and the Archimedian fixed point of the cogito’s Gödelian diagonal lemma.
As Boos suggests, the implication of this is clear; this sounds suspiciously like a variant of the Hintikka’s Positive Introspection Axiom (the KK-thesis), which argues that agents know that they know what they know. The debate concerning this thesis is substantial (see, for example, Williamson 2000; Ginet 1970; Carrier 1974). But our theorizing must begin somewhere; we must accept some sort of metatheoretic notion if we are to devise theories at all. In our case, if we are to speak of groups, there must be individuals, and the first individual of all is “I.” That is our given, if we are to avoid the endless cycle of “no more this than that” of the Pyrrhonian skeptics.
Assumptions and Limitations
This is not to say that a domain of study can not function with a fully negative conceptualization of its object of study. Jean-Luc Marion, in his book God Without Being (1995), considers the limiting case of an apophatic theology; if we can, as Maimonides (Benor 1995) argued, make only negative assertions as to the attributions of a divine entity, are we not at some point forced to suggest that even being is an attribute which the divine entity does not possess?
As Marion (2002) suggests, the givenness of the existence of a divine entity is not the predicate of theology, but the existence of those searching for the divine entity is; as Kaplan (2010) argued, it is possible to have Judaism without a deity, but not without Jews. In a philosophical vein, how does one privilege Husserl’s Gegebenheit (Leask 2003) without merely assuming it as a given? How do we understand Being without taking it as given, and without somehow making that ‘given’ into a ‘Given,’ with a somehow transcendental ‘Giver?’
We, as social epistemologists, are in an interesting position with such questions. We, at some level, are can-kickers par excellence; in our struggle to explain knowledge structures as arising from groups, we are indeed situated in a local struggle, with its own give and take. But sometimes, perhaps, we should look up from our regional debates, and consider the larger issues afield; the “not yet” of Hegel’s “tarrying with the negative” (Foshay 2002) of these limits of the Given, and of the gifts we receive, and give, as a result of this struggle.
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