human, and supernatural worlds –or between being, knowing, and doing. Now, to get back to epistemology. As with questions of identity (Chapter 5), questions of nature epistemology tend to be organized at present largely around the essentialist/constructivist divide. Essentialism and constructivism are contrasting positions on the relation between knowledge and reality, thought and the real. Succinctly, essentialism is the belief that things possess an unchanging core or identity, independent of context and interaction with other things, that knowledge can progressively know. 79 Concrete beings develop out of this “natural” core (hence essentialism entails a certain naturalism), which will eventually find an accurate reflection in thought (whether through a proper scientific method, the study of the thing’s attributes to uncover the essence, or what have you). The world, in other words, is always already pre-determined from the real. Constructivism, on the contrary, accepts the ineluctable connectedness between subject and object of knowledge, the knower and the known, and, consequently, the problematic --never tidy-- relation between thought and the real (this means that epistemological constructivism entails much more than the assertion that reality is socially
constructed, as it is assumed at times). The character of this relation yields varieties of constructivism. Much of scientific research has tended to remain within an essentialist conception, although this has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Paradoxically, it could be argued that groups such as those of the Pacific, who could be thought to be essentialist at heart, evidence more constructivist features, given the transformational character of their model; it would be hard to posit that they believe in unchanging natural forms, or that their knowledge progressively unveils the essence of natural beings. If we follow the essentialist/constructivist divide, it is possible to observe an array of epistemological positions, from the most established positivism to the most recent forms of constructivism, each with their respective philosophical backgrounds and political attachments. 1. Epistemological realism. This position has two distinct varieties: a) Positivist science perspective. This has been the predominant approach to the relation between knowledge, thought, and the real. It starts by assuming, first, the existence of nature as a distinct ontological domain of the real and, second, a correspondence between knowledge and reality. This positions also upholds the distinction between the constructed and the naturally given, between knowing subject and known object, observer and observed, representation and the real. This epistemology reigns in most of everyday normal science, including in those social sciences largely unchanged by post-structuralism (economics and much of political science, for instance). Ecology and biology function largely within this tradition, including mainstream cognitive science --with its notion that cognition is the process of representation of the world by a pre-given mind, external to that world (see Varela, Thomson and Rosch, 1991, for a critique).
The broad philosophical framework in which this tradition fits is well known.
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- Fall '13