Shut Out

But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair

And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out
Paradise Lost. Book III, 45-50

Hey everybody, let’s go out the baseball game,” the legendary 1960s Chicago disc jockey Dick Biondi said in the joke that (according to the myth) got him fired. “The boys,” Biondi is alleged to have said, “kiss the girls on the strikes, and …” In the story, of course, Biondi never finished the sentence—but you see where he was going, which is what makes the story interesting to a specific type of philosopher: the epistemologist. Epistemology is the study of how people know things: the question the epistemologist might ask about Biondi’s joke is, how do you know the ending to that story? For many academics today, the answer can be found in another baseball story, this time told by the literary critic Stanley Fish—a story that, oddly enough, also illustrates the political problems with that wildly popular contemporary concept: “diversity.”

As virtually everyone literate knows, “diversity” is one of the great adjectives of the present: something that has it is, ipso facto, usually held to be better than something that doesn’t. As a virtue, “diversity” has tremendous range, because it applies both in natural contexts—“biodiversity” is all the rage among environmentalists—and in social ones: in the 2003 case of Grutter v. Bollinger, for example, the Supreme Court held that the “educational benefits of diversity” were a “compelling state interest.” Yet, what often goes unnoticed about arguments in favor of “diversity” is that they themselves are dependent upon a rather monoglot account of how people know things—which is how we get back to epistemology.

Take, for instance, Stanley Fish’s story about the late, great baseball umpire Bill Klem. “It ain’t nothin’ til I call it,” Klem supposedly once said in response to a batter’s question about whether the previous pitch was a ball or a strike. (It’s a story I’ve retailed before: cf. “Striking Out”). The literature professor Stanley Fish has used that story, in turn, to illustrate what he views as the central lesson of what is sometimes called “postmodernism”: according to The New Yorker, Fish’s (and Klem’s) point is that “balls and strikes come into being only on the call of an umpire,” instead of being “facts in the world.” Klem’s remark in other words—Fish thinks—illustrates just how knowledge is what is sometimes called “socially constructed.”

The notion of “social construction” is the idea—as City College of New York professor Massimo Pigliucci recently put the point—that “no human being, or organized group of human beings, has access to a god’s eye of the world,” and that we ought therefore rely on an epistemic model in which “many individually biased points of view enter into dialogue with each other, yielding a less (but still) biased outcome.” The idea, in other words, is that meaning is—as Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking described the concept in The Social Construction of What?—“the product of historical events, social forces, and ideology.” Or, to put it another way, that we know things because of our culture, or social group: not by means of our own senses and judgement, but by the people around us.

For Pigliucci, this view of how human beings access reality suggests that we ought therefore rely on a particular epistemic model: rather than one in which each person ought to judge evidence for herself, we would instead rely on one in which “many individually biased points of view enter into dialogue with each other, yielding a less (but still) biased outcome.” In other words, we should rely upon diverse points of view, which is one reason why Pigliucci says, for instance, that because of the overall cognitive lack displayed by individuals, we ought “to work toward increasing diversity in the sciences.” Pigliucci’s reasoning is, of course, also what forms the basis of Grutter: “When universities are granted the freedom to assemble student bodies featuring multiple types of diversity,” wrote defendant Lee Bollinger (then dean of the University of Michigan law school) in an editorial for the Washington Post about the case, “the result is a highly sought-after learning environment that attracts the best students.” “Diversity,” in sum, is a tool to combat our epistemic weaknesses.

“Diversity” is thereby justified by means of a particular vision of epistemology: a particular theory of how people know things. On this theory, we are dependent upon other people in order to know anything. Yet, the very basis of Dick Biondi’s “joke” is that you, yourself, can “fill in” the punchline: it doesn’t take a committee to realize what the missing word at the end of the story is. And what that reality—your ability to furnish the missing word—perhaps illustrates is an epistemic distinction Keynes made in his magisterial 1920 work, A Treatise on Probability: a distinction that troubles the epistemology that underlies the concept of “diversity.”

“Now our knowledge,” Keynes writes in chapter two of that work, “seems to be obtained in two ways: directly, as the result of contemplating the objects of acquaintance; and indirectly, by argument” (italics in original). What Keynes is proposing, in other words, is an epistemic division between two ways of knowing—one of them being much like the epistemic model described by Fish or Pigliucci or Bollinger. As Keynes says, “it is usually agreed that we do not have direct knowledge” of such things as “the law of gravity … the cure for phthisis … [or] the contents of Bradshaw”—things like these, in other words, are only known through chains of reasoning, rather than direct experience. In order to know items like these, in other words, we have to have undergone a kind of socialization, otherwise known as education. We are dependent on other people to know those things.

Yet, as Keynes also recognizes, there is also another means of knowing:  “From an acquaintance with a sensation of yellow,” the Canadian economist and thinker wrote, “I can pass directly to a knowledge of the proposition ‘I have a sensation of yellow.’” In this epistemic model, human beings can know things by immediate apprehension—the chief example of this form of knowing being, as Keynes describes, our own senses. What Keynes says, in short, is that people can know things in more than one way: one way through other people yes, as Fish et al. say—but also through our own experience.

Or—to put the point differently—Keynes has a “diverse” epistemology. That would, at least superficially, seem to make Keynes’ argument a support for the theory of “diversity”: after all, he is showing how people can know things differently, which would appear to assist Lee Bollinger and Massimo Pigliucci’s argument for diversity in education. If people can know things in different ways, it would then appear necessary to gather more, and different, kinds of people in order to know anything. But just saying so exposes the weakness at the heart of Bollinger and Pigliucci’s ideal of “diversity.”

Whereas Keynes has a “diverse” epistemology, in short, Bollinger and Pigliucci do not: in their conception, human beings can only know things in one way. That is the way that Keynes called “indirect”: through argumentation and persuasion—or as its sometimes put, “social construction.” In other words, the defenders of “diversity” have a rather monolithic epistemology, which is why Fish for instance once attacked the view that it is possible to “survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that … disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description.” If such a thing were possible, after all, it would be possible to experience a direct encounter with the world—which “diversity” enthusiasts like Fish deny is possible: Fish says, for instance, that “the rhetoric of disinterested inquiry … is in fact”—just how he knows this is unclear—“a very interested assertion of the superiority of one set of beliefs.” In other words, any other epistemological view than their own is merely a deception.

Perhaps though this is all just one of the purest cases of an “academic” dispute: eggheads arguing, as the phrase goes, about how many angels can dance on a pin. At least, until one realizes that the nearly-undisputed triumph of epistemology retailed by Fish and company also has certain quite-real consequences. For example, as the case of Bollinger demonstrates, although the “socially-constructed” epistemology is an excellent means, as has been demonstrated over the past several decades, of—in the words of Fish’s fellow literary critic William Benn Michaels—“battling over what skin color the rich kids should have,” it isn’t so great for, say, dividing up legislative districts: a question that, as Elizabeth Kolbert noted last year in The New Yorker, “may simply be mathematical.” But if so, that presents a problem for those who think of their epistemological views as serving a political cause.

Mathematics, after all, is famously not something that can be understood “culturally”; it is, as Keynes—and before him, a silly fellow named Plato—knew, perhaps the foremost example of the sort of knowing demonstrated by Dick Biondi’s joke. Mathematics, in other words, is the chief example of something known directly: when you understand something in mathematics, you understand it either immediately—or not at all. Which, after all, is the significance of Kolbert’s remarks: to say that re-districting—perhaps the most political act of all in a democracy—is primarily a mathematical operation is to say that to understand redistricting, you have to understand directly the mathematics of the operation. Yet if the “diversity” promoters are correct, then only their epistemology has any legitimacy: an epistemology that a priori prevents anyone from sensibly discussing redistricting. In other words, it’s precisely the epistemological blindspots promoted by the often-ostensibly “politically progressive” promoters of “diversity” that allow the current American establishment to ignore the actual interests of actual people.

Which, one supposes, may be the real joke.


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