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Why Epistemologists Should Sniff

By Charles Foster

There are lots of big and clever books about epistemology. It’s a complex business. Although one can do some epistemology (some icy thinkers say all) without making any empirical claims about what the senses show (and hence how the senses work), such empirical claims are essential for the discipline to get any real traction on the world.

Whenever this is acknowledged (and it often is not), the emphasis is very much on sight. There is the same bias in lay speech and thought – so much so that sight and some sort of cognitive process or conclusion are commonly conflated. ‘Seeing is believing’, we say. ‘I see’, we say, when we really mean that we understand.

This is not surprising. Language and cognition are intimately entangled, and so are vision and cognition. Vision and ‘higher order’ cognition (important inverted commas, those) are spatially close to one another in the brain: that spatial closeness is reflected in functional closeness. Evolutionarily older centres – notably olfaction – are buried deep in the brain. Since they don’t have an office near to ‘higher order’ cognition, their contribution tends to be overlooked in the cognitive league tables. The insights of the nose tend to be denigrated.

There’s another kind of selection bias going on too. Philosophers are unusually cognitive people. Because of that intimate alliance between cognition and vision, epistemologists will tend to favour the sense that is closest to their over-cognitive selves – vision – and to come to conclusions about the way the world is primarily on the basis of what the vision-cognition axis says. Vision dictates their view of cognition, and the way their own brains do the work of processing, and hence dictates the whole way in which they conclude that brains can know anything about reality.

This is rather worrying. We have at least five senses (surely a massive underestimate: didn’t Aquinas say that we had nine?). If we use only one of them, we are making our epistemic and other consequential judgments based on, at best, only 20% of the available data. If we make decisions about business or relationships on the basis of only a fifth of the relevant information, we’ll be bankrupt and miserable. Yet that’s what we’re doing with the whole world. No wonder we don’t feel at home here. No wonder we feel a queasy dissonance between what we see, and what our intuitions (fed by more than our eyes) tell us.

This should be an urgent concern for epistemologists. If they want us to take them seriously, they should sniff more.



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