Friday, December 13, 2013

Misty Epistemology

The two bit definition of epistemology is that it's the study of how we know things. It's a big ol' field, and of particular importance to people who work in fields that draw on multiple methods of getting at a capital-T Truth. Think of epistemology as quality control for intellectual pursuits. Epistemology assesses the validity of, inter alia, statistical methods, a priori reasoning, intuitionism, heuristics, and my special favorite, Smithian sympathy.

Don't let the tender affect of the word "sympathy" throw you. Adam Smith went out of his way to distinguish the sanguine sentiments of compassion or pity with the more aseptic, clinical assessments granted by the diligent exercise of a serene sympathy. viz:
Sympathy, therefore, does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it. We sometimes feel for another, a passion of which he himself seems to be altogether incapable; because, when we put ourselves in his case, that passion arises in our breast from the imagination, though it does not in his from the reality.
Smithian sympathy enjoins a complete, thoroughgoing appreciation for the in situ ecology of the object, not merely idle daydreaming about day-tripping in someone else's shoes. "I'd feel awful to have to take a job in a sweatshop" is emphatically not Smithian sympathy. "She took a job in a sweatshop because it was the best of the available options" is a little closer the mark. Smithian sympathy as an epistemological tool insists on resetting null hypotheses, on adopting an appreciation for systematically foreign BATNAs. It's deceptively rigorous.

It is my moderately considered opinion that to have an appreciation for Smithian sympathy fits well with using the tools of euvoluntary exchange to gauge the moral merit of choices. Furthermore, EE asks those hands practiced at the art of Scottish-E sympathy to recall that there are plenty of people out there (people that vote!) accustomed to the naïve, affective, soft sympathies characteristic of people who, whether through narrow scopes of experience or mere poverty of imagination refuse to abandon parochial approximations of reasonable alternatives (if indeed alternate conditions occur to them at all).

To Smith as well as to the sensitive euvoluntary exchangeur, sympathy is no mere idle flight of fancy. It is analytically demanding, a vital, necessary component of a mature epistemology. Train accordingly.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?