Ways of Knowing

One can distinguish between two different epistemological stances:

(a) The theoretical attitude: this is the standard claim about the nature of western thinking, where one stands in a propositional attitude towards the world, either as a belief or as a claim or whatever. It is this attitude that western thinkers have one the one hand tried to universalize in order to explain all phenomena, from quarks to quasars, and on the other hand claimed as being uniquely true of western thought, its inheritance from the ancient Greeks. For example, here’s what the well known German philosopher and ur-phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl has to say about this topic:

“‘The spiritual image of Europe’ — what is it? It is exhibiting the philosophical idea immanent in the history of Europe (of spiritual Europe). To put it another way, it is its immanent teleology, which, if we consider mankind in general, manifests itself as a new human epoch emerging and beginning to grow, the epoch of a humanity that from now on will and can live only in the free fashioning of its being and its historical life out of rational ideas and infinite tasks.

No matter how inimical the European nations may be toward each other, still they have a special inner affinity of spirit that permeates all of them and transcends their national differences. It is a sort of fraternal relationship that gives us the consciousness of being at home in this circle. This becomes immediately evident as soon as, for example, we penetrate sympathetically into the historical process of India, with its many peoples and cultural forms. In this circle there is again the unity of a family-like relationship, but one that is strange to us. On the other hand, Indians find us strangers and find only in each other their fellows. Still, this essential distinction between fellowship and strangeness, which is relativized on many levels and is a basic category of all historicity, cannot suffice. Historical humanity does not always divide itself in the same way according to this category. We get a hint of that right in our own Europe. Therein lies something unique, which all other human groups, too, feel with regard to us, something that apart from all considerations of expediency, becomes a motivation for them — despite their determination to retain their spiritual autonomy — constantly to Europeanize themselves, whereas we, if we understand ourselves properly, will never, for example, Indianize ourselves.”

OK, I got it, there is something about Europe that’s both unique to Europe and is universal enough that everybody else wants to emulate. But what if we dont want to do that? Do we have some other ways of knowing at our disposal? If you think of theoretical knowing as “knowing that”, then there is a well known alternative, which is knowledge based on action or “knowing how”. That is to say:

(b) Dispositional attitudes. Here one includes the various ways of acting in the world — performing right actions, rituals etc. According to S.N Balagangadhara this is the way in which we Indians “understand” the world, not as theoretical belief claims about the nature of the world, but rather, ways in which to act in the world. One may agree or disagree with Balu, but there is no doubt that knowledge grounded in action is different from knowledge based on propositions. Strangely enough, “knowing how” is making a comeback in cognitive science and neuroscience in the form of embodied and enactive approaches to cognition. So it may turn out that the entire biological universe (apart from some western Europeans) is bereft of theoretical knowledge. What a tragedy for all of us.

So far, so good. But: are these the only two epistemic attitudes? In other words, are these the only two ways of being embedded in the world, epistemically? For example, do emotions come under one or the other? What about existential insights? They seem neither theoretical, nor dispositional. If theoretical and dispositional attitudes are not enough to cover the range of epistemic states, do we need to have a more general notion of epistemic attitudes in order to have a broader theory that covers both theoretical and dispositional attitudes?

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