In the jargon of academia, the study of what we can know, and how we can know it, is called “epistemology.” During the 1980s, philosopher Richard Rorty declared it dead and bid it good riddance. To Rorty and many other thinkers of that era, the idea that we even needed a theory of knowledge at all rested on outmoded, Cartesian assumptions that the mind was an innocent mirror of nature; he urged that we throw out the baby—“truth”—with the bathwater of seventeenth-century rationalism. What’s the Use of Truth?, he asked in the provocative title of his final book (published in 2007). His answer, like that of many of his contemporaries, was clear: not much.
When millions of voters believe, despite all evidence, that the election was stolen, that vaccines are dangerous, and that a cabal of child predators rule the world from a pizza parlor’s basement, it becomes clear that we cannot afford to ignore how knowledge is formed and distorted. We are living through an epistemological crisis.
Epistemology is thus not only poised to be “first philosophy” again. In a real sense, we must all become epistemologists now—specifically of a kind of epistemology that grapples with the challenges of the political world, a political epistemology. –Michael Patrick Lynch, Boston Review