Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge; the study of how we know what we know. The pursuit of knowledge takes place in so many fields, from maths, physics, chemistry to psychology, sociology, literature, economics that essentially, epistemology is the study of everything. It is the answer to the question “How do you know that?”
When applied to the injunction “Know thyself and to thine own self be true”, epistemology becomes the study of freedom. By learning how our understandings, our beliefs about the world and our capabilities in it are formed from our personal experience, our upbringing and the cultural milieu in which we swim we begin to free ourselves from automatic response and reactions and to become free to act in the moment, from a place of spontaneity.
My first impulse into this idea that freedom is a product of learning to think for yourself came from an independent anarchist pamphlet published some time in the 70’s in America. “Self Theory: the joy of thinking for yourself” asserted that all “isms” were prisons that trapped us in other peoples thoughts and ideas.
It tells the “joke” of the armed robber standing in front of the judge. Asked to plead “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” she says, “I’m unemployed and my child is hungry”. Each of us should have the choice to define ourselves in our own terms, to construct our radical subjective theory of the world instead of being the “object” of someone elses theory.
I remember a few years later meeting an Irish man who worked as a waiter and care taker at the Isle of Thorns Conference centre in Sussex. He was the kind of guy who would turn up with lemonade just as you realised you were thirsty. He would stand at the bar at the end of his shift, his single pint of beer in hand and he would look at the people in the group in front of him and some how he would get straight to the essence of who they were.
He would say, “Him, he’s the middle life crisis waiting to happen, to set in his ways; that one, he’s the rebel, the joker, always making it hard for himself; her? she’s the performer, has to be top of the class for daddy. ” He said to me, “You. You read too much. You let books do your thinking for you. You’ve got to find a better reason for believing something than it was the last thing you read.”