Notes on Woke EpistemologyMark Gullick
[L]ike the great majority of mankind the savage is above being hidebound by the trammels of a pedantic logic.
— James George Frazer, The Golden Bough
Woke culture has a singular feature. While its entire project revolves around core philosophical concepts, none of its practitioners and most vocal mouthpieces have the slightest idea of that fact, or what those concepts might be. While a cast drawn from the media, academia, government, the public sector, and the authorities conform to the hyper-ideological, ex nihilo cult of Critical Race Theory (CRT), none of them seem aware of the philosophical context in which they are operating, and the choices and positions that have been made and taken. Nor are they aware of the consequences.
This ignorance of the tenets of philosophy should not surprise us. A central aim of the “woke” post-modern Left is to expunge any trace of white intellectuality from the educational system, and philosophy has been one of the first victims, its most famous classical practitioners having generally having been white men of the monied class, Socrates’ poverty notwithstanding. The revolution which has been coming for well over half a century is here, and the guillotines and tumbrils are busy.
The tide of anti-reason which began to rise in the 1960s is now a tsunami breaching all the levies of Western civilization, and it is washing away all traces of the Enlightenment: rationality, empiricism, objectivity, reasoned debate, the work of the great encyclopedists such as Diderot and Voltaire, as well as Dr. Johnson (who sought to fix meaning as something definite, anathema to the Left today), even the Cartesian gold standard of mathematical truth, are all cast as white, and therefore hegemonic, and therefore oppressive, and thus racist, and ultimately not merely to be criticized, but cast from the city, like the Ancient Greek pharmākos, the “scapegoat” required to expiate the sins of the populace.
One of this pariah class is that area of philosophy known as epistemology. Epistemology is, put very simplistically, the theory or study of truth, and seeks to ask what we can know, and to examine that which is held to be true and understand how we come to know it. You have to have an epistemology; you don’t have any choice in the matter. Even extreme Cartesian skepticism requires an epistemology, if it is true that everything can be doubted. Even the insane have their truths. Epistemology is a labyrinth and, as the title suggests, I am simply offering notes and sketches from a longer work in progress. The truth, then.
Compare the following two statements, which both concern the number 4:
2 + 2 = 4
The country of Japan is composed of four islands
Both are true. The grounds of their being true, however, differ. The first, a mathematical truth, is true because its truth is guaranteed by its premise, which is that the number 4 can be “parsed,” as it were, into two sets of 2. I am no mathematician, and so put crassly, 2 + 2 = 4 can’t not be true, and it was true when Plato was alive and it would be true on the moon or in Paris and it will not stop being true under any set of circumstances or any possible future. By the time you have absorbed the first half of the formula, you already have the second.
This is not so with our other group of four. We know this fact about Japan, but not in the same way we know the truth of the equation above. Our belief in the quaternary make-up of Japan’s geography is, as it were, slightly more faith-based than our mathematical formula. We could prove Japan’s existence to our satisfaction by visiting Japan, but the extreme skeptic might start fretting about fake film sets, like the Apollo landings. How do we know we actually went there? The paranoid schizophrenic will chime in with the fact, which he knows and you apparently do not, that everything you see about Japan — and its four islands — via the media is another high-budget scam. We still don’t know, they would babble, Japan even exists, never mind its islands. And, amidst the derangement, and just as the speech of the fool is linked in the classical mind with at least a certain truth — see Shakespeare — they have a subtle epistemological point. And it is one that leads us away from the light of truth — the lumen naturale of Descartes — rather than towards it.
We have seen that Japan’s being composed of four islands is a contingent truth, 2 + 2 = 4 a necessary one. And whether we like it or not, our belief in that fact about Japan requires a degree of a human trait which the mathematical statement does not, and which is undeniably linked in the Western mind with religion: faith.
It is hardly startling news that “woke” culture — if culture it is — has an analog in the Medieval Catholic Church. This has been noted by many different writers from the dissident political Right and even vaguely mentioned by the MSM in one of their fits of clarity.
Woke culture has its scriptures (CRT texts, Di Angelo, Kendi), its high priests (black people), its indulgences (apologies for social media gaffes, woke advertising), its heretics (anyone insufficiently woke or sufficiently white), its Papal infallibility (the sacred nature of any and all ex cathedra black or proxy black pronouncements, and we will return to this), its Calvinist notion of predestination (being born irredeemably racist) and original sin (being born irredeemably white), its ecclesiastical councils (big tech and woke corporations), its cherubim and seraphim (Hollywood, TV and sports stars), its conversions (going “woke”), its archangel Gabriel or Holy messenger (the media), its saints (George Floyd and other black criminals), and so on and so forth. I am sure there are excellent books on the subject.
One thing a religion also has, and has to have, is an epistemology: a comprehensible range or field of truths, and an acceptable or at least feasible methodology for arriving at those truths. For a religion, this is usually largely metaphysical and highly faith-based (various historical attempts at proving God’s existence notwithstanding), and the validity of religious articles of faith has always been less important than the range of their effects. Religion is still very real even if you don’t subscribe to its deity. In the Dark Ages, it didn’t matter if you believed in the God of the Catholic Church or not, but the Church made it expedient to act as though you did. You didn’t need to prove God’s existence to avoid persecution under the Inquisition or the Puritans. You just had to say you believed in him. There, perhaps, we have our final parallel between religion and woke: you must say the catechism right.
So, we have two basic types of truth, or two truth-functions. One is, as it were, hermetically sealed and simply true in and of itself (even if it doesn’t get us very far). The other means that, if we believe Japan to be composed of four islands, we have to suspend disbelief, to quote Coleridge. We just don’t have to suspend it very much.
I am assuming here that faith is somehow qualitative, which I know is quite a claim, but my assumption is based on my belief that although believing in Japan’s existence requires faith, something about that faith — something not available for calibration but able to be measured heuristically — differs from the faith held by some that the sacrament is the actual body of Christ, L. Ron Hubbard will one day return to earth (his old desk and pen with its perennial green ink are ready for him at Scientology HQ. I’ve seen them), and Jonah lived for a while rent-free inside a whale.
So, two truth functions. They may share epistemological DNA, but they are clearly not the same creature. They are more like isotopes, different forms of the same thing. We know, or we should know, the difference between my two rough-and-ready types of truth. And so we ought to know that ideological statements purporting to be true can only ever be of the second order.
The epistemological sleight-of-hand the Left has pulled on us, utterly oblivious of the fact as they may be — is to base their arguments on statements that require no “working” to be shown, no inductive path from unknowing to knowing. Instead, the central tenets of CRT are held as logically, mathematically true, and it is not unusual to hear Leftist pundits referring in a Spock-like way to their opponents as “illogical.” To continue my religious comparison, the statements which provide this dysfunctional ideological impetus for the Left, CRT, and so on, are statements made ex cathedra.
The term ex cathedra means not “from the cathedral” but “from the chair,” the chair in this case being the Papal throne. The power of a statement made ex cathedra lies in the notion of Papal infallibility, that is, if the Pope makes a pronouncement on a matter, it becomes truth immediately — it is made. It should be noted that these instantaneous epistemes are not guaranteed by the Pope qua Pope, but are God’s will expressed by Christ’s vicar. The Pope is just a bag man for the big guy. Obviously, the high-water mark for this phenomenon passed long ago, but the concept of Papal infallibility has not disappeared in some very Catholic countries. I know. I live in one.
The diktats that issue from the Papal thrones of CRT are absolutist. They resemble the fabled pronouncement of Thales (6th century BC) that everything was made of one fundamental element, water, with his successor Anaximenes making the same reductionist claim for air. The difference is that the pre-Socratics were searching for independent knowledge of their experience of the world, apolitical and inquisitive. They wished to add to mankind’s store of knowledge. The woke Stasi won’t even use the word “mankind.”
When we look at the statements which are intended to support CRT, we see the same assumption of infallibility. “Black underachievement is due to systemic white racism” thus becomes a truth not on the order of the contingent, as when we could investigate Japan as to its geography, but of the necessary, as with our simple arithmetical equation.
We will have a closer look at another central supporting wall of CRT, the Tower of (psycho) Babel the post-modernes have created: “It is not possible for white people to be the victims of racism as non-whites lack power.”
If we unravel this flat-packed, self-assembly syllogism, we find the four component elements to be “whiteness,” “non-whiteness,” “racism,” and “power.” Now, without the workings — as children are required to provide when working out a mathematical problem (of which more later) — this sentence makes about as much sense as “It is not possible for Icelanders to be sarcastic because it is too cold in Iceland.”
The sentence makes formal sense but is useless otherwise — except possibly as a line in a Monty Python gag — because it makes category mistakes, muddling attributes that don’t interact in the real world. So, sentences can look authoritative until you unpick the stitching. “All triangles are green” makes formal sense and obeys syntactical rules. It just doesn’t mean anything outside maybe poetry. But the ex cathedra pronouncements from the cathedral of woke are composed of just such epistemological imposters. They are uttered with the imprimatur of truth but none of the inductive reasoning that should accompany truth. We would do well to realize just how dangerous this is.
In conclusion, something of a footnote to what are anyway mere notes. Mathematical knowledge, the discipline of mathematics and its little sibling arithmetic, looks as though it should be untouchable even according to the epistemology of CRT. While mathematical proofs in themselves should not be realistically seen as a gold standard for truths of all kinds — although both Descartes and Spinoza took this route with their epistemologies — they are surely not negotiable and remain hermetically sealed within the boundaries of their own truth function.
Not so. There have now been several features and much social media chatter about the inherent racism within mathematics and demands that mathematics — and by extension logic — be re-assessed in the light of the mania for equity. Why, they ask, is having the right answer so important? Because white hegemony says so. Why should children show the working of their math? This leads, with a grim inevitability, to questions of why punctuality is so important. Isn’t it just a white construct? Well, yes. It is a contributing factor to the white supremacy, you see.
A word of warning. We are aware that having the right answer to a math question and having the right answer in a civil engineering project involves shared principles, however different they look as intellectual and social environments. If standards of mathematics are lowered so that blacks can join in, it might be desirable years from now to plan your car journey in advance, and check whether any bridges you cross en route were designed by black engineers.
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Move over, Apollo. Make room for Dionysus.
The overall social character of Western culture is unbalanced toward the Apollinian end of the continuum. Apollo demands order and clarity.
Very good column, Mr. Gullick, much of it accessible even to a philosophical novice such as myself.
One quibble: I believe this text none of its practitioners and most vocal mouthpieces have the slightest idea of that fact should read none of its practitioners and almost none of its vocal mouthpieces have the slightest idea of that fact.
PS very interested in any column you might write about how one would go about moving to CR.
Brilliant dissection of the Cult of Intersectional Leftism, the religious analogy is spot on. The most fervent followers constantly have to adapt on a quicksand floor since their “truths” are always shifting at a fever pitch. The lack of that solid grounding has to contribute to the stress and mental degradation of the shamed white adherents (hence why they look so soulless, tired, and crazed). Their beliefs fly in the face of human nature to seek out the concrete (truth) in an attempt of building up one’s self and his family.
We both share in a fear of the future where black engineers and architects start leading projects. In my line of work, I’ve met dozens of AA hires at these firms who pale in comparison to their white colleagues. With this push by companies like Amazon for more black owned businesses, you just know we’re on the cusp of black owned and led engineering outfits. And they’ll get an influx of contracts and grants as everyone rushes out to show how woke and anti-racist they are. Yikes.
The mural of St. Floyd wearing a suit jacket cracked me up, I hadn’t seen it before. Give it another few years and the mythos of George Floyd will morph into him being a strong, black businessman providing for his community. Perhaps even a banana salesman! Excuse me, banana salesperson.
There is already an example of “woke” or affirmative action engineering excellence, the pedestrian bridge in Florida that collapsed in 2018 killing six people. One of the engineering firms was family owned Hispanic and the other emphasized women in important positions in the company. The MCM Munilla Construction Management (Munilla family) was engaged in massive legal bribery (campaign contributions) to get contracts, S. American style.
I guess in their defense the MCM company can point out that only two of their recent projects collapsed and only one killed people; look at all the projects that didn’t collapse! It would sort of be like Dr. Conrad Murray in his defense pointing out all the times Michael Jackson was dosed with propofol and didn’t die. Oh yeah, another example of minority excellence.
It is lamentably infrequent that I read an article such as this that simply makes me smile, and relax in pleasure, from the writer’s command of Her Majesty’s language.
Right now, we cannot even claim the United States is a country with a certain configuration and boundaries, as required by the definition of ‘country’, since our Southern border seems to no longer be in existence. So, what is true?
One further comment — the last sentence of this essay sums up perfectly the whole hypocrisy of the Left and their ‘woke’ nonsense.
Just how far can we continue to deconstruct language and — good grief! — mathematics, before our whole civilization crumbles like badly designed and built buildings?
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