Monday, January 27, 2003


The contemporary philosopher Susan Haack (in various articles and books, such as Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate) offers us a nice distinction amongst three kinds of inquirer. The first is the good kind, the real inquirer. This is the person who desires to know the truth and therefore conducts disinterested inquiry in order to get it. (Haack points out that "disinterested" means lack of bias in interpreting the evidence. It doesn't mean "uninterested in what the truth turns out to be." You might hope that the truth is that, for example, substance X will cure cancer and make you rich, but you can still engage in disinterested inquiry, as you do when you fully acknowledge evidence that your hoped-for belief is wrong.)

It's the other two kinds of inquirer which are the bad ones: the fake inquirer and the pseudo-inquirer. They are dishonest, and what they do is not really inquiry at all. The fake inquirer merely digs up evidence and slings arguments around in order to convince people of propositions because doing so is fun, will make him rich, will make him seem sophisticated, etc., but not because he wants to know the truth or because he desires that those certain propositions turn out to be the truth. He doesn't care about inquiry or truth. He cares only about the other things I mentioned. Still, he is biased and not disinterested, in that he uses mere rhetoric and dishonest argument in order to win at debate. He wants the proposition he upholds (but doesn't really care about) to be accepted by others.

The pseudo-inquirer is differently perverse. He is the dogmatist. He has a cherished belief. He thinks it is true and won't give it up under any circumstances. He is thus biased and not disinterested in his evaluation of the evidence but will forever attempt to distort it. He doesn't desire to know the truth, whatever it is. He desires that his dogma be the truth.

(Haack's Evidence & Inquiry is a great work in epistemology. She's best known for Philosophy of Logics.)