“Epistemological modesty” means it takes a village

In his New York Times column a few days ago David Brooks reported feeling alarmed that President Obama is planning to tackle the nation’s problems on all fronts at once. As Obama said on Feb. 21:

We cannot successfully address any of our problems without addressing all of them.

Brooks says Obama’s strategy fails the test of what he calls “epistemological modesty,” or the idea that what any individual can know is painfully limited. As proposed by the conservative eighteenth-century Brit Edmund Burke, if individuals can know only small pieces of knowledge, their actions need to be likewise small–aimed toward gradual not sweeping change. Burke is famous, not surprisingly, for opposing the French Revolution. (Also no surprise, he grew from genteel stock, a prosperous, landowning family who it could be argued never had reason to yearn for big social changes.)

Brooks calls for epistemological modesty–or at least is alarmed at the possibilities of its alternative–because he associates it with a proper conservative approach: being “skeptical of technocratic, rationalist planning and suspicious of schemes to reorganize society from the top down.” I guess he failed to notice the top-down changes implemented over the past eight years. As policy expert and Harvard professor Stephen Walt puts it:

There was no “epistemological modesty” involved when Bush placed loyalty above competence and let lobbyists and other special interests loose in Washington, or when he launched a foolish and ill-planned war in an attempt to transform the entire Middle East. And let us not forget that Brooks himself was an enthusiastic supporter of these policies; I guess he forgot his Burke back when his party was in power.

I happen to share Burke’s conviction that what individuals can know is severely limited. But I don’t agree that limited knowing should result in limited doing. I listened to Obama’s speech last night cheering wildly for every change the president proposed. We need sweeping initiatives in energy, education, and health care. It doesn’t take omniscience to see that.

What epistemological modesty does suggest is that changes will be appropriate for a broadest spectrum of people the more people are contributing input and direction. Epistemological modesty means it takes a village. Since none of us can know much, everyone’s unique perspective is needed. Only by putting our heads together–and our efforts for change–can we build a society with greater benefit for all. Barack the community organizer knows this well. I applaud his bold proposals for change.

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2 Responses to “Epistemological modesty” means it takes a village

  1. Mandy says:February 25, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    I think for Obama’s changes to have broad appeal, he needs to have advisors from all walks of life. In his campaign, Obama certainly tried to reach out to different groups and he seems be trying to do that now – there are some groups who seem to be resisting his invitations. It is very difficult trying to work people who have opposing views to your own but as Obama said himself, he’s a glutton for punishment and he’s going to keep reaching out. I hope he succeeds!

  2. To argue that President Obama fails the “epistemological modesty” test is not to suggest that President Bush passed it, unless one can view it only through the lens of partisan politics in which “I win, you lose.”

    A Burkean conservative would say that both men failed — or are failing — it.