The Owl of Minerva Problem

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

OwlWisdom is a product of experience and reflection. As a consequence, it's often quite a long road to that goal. It's for this reason that the poetic expression, "the Owl of Minerva Flies at Dusk," has its effect. Only at the end of the day, once the work is done and we recline in thought, do the insights of what we ought to have done, what the best option was, and what was wrong about a particular decision become clear. We live forward, but we understand backward. And that can occasion distinctive problems.

In democratic politics, this point about insight is certainly true. And it extends not only to the errors we may make as a country, but also to the errors we make in understanding ourselves and our decision-making. In its current form, much democratic theory is focused on the decision-making and argumentative elements of modern political life. This deliberative democratic movement casts democratic life as that of participating in ongoing discussions, wherein all have a voice, no issue is beyond question, and every decision must be justifiable to all those whom it effects. There are admirable ideals, but we understand the ways we can fail those ideals only in making mistakes, only in witnessing the pathologies to which public reason is prone.

We experience living in a democracy and then we see the particular kinds of challenges and errors to which reasoning together can be prone. Perhaps we should have anticipated the effects of group polarization that seem to define contemporary political discourse, but we understand it all too well now that we live under its conditions. The incurious dogmatism of epistemic closure, the slippery euphemism of Orwellian Newspeak, and the abuses of and visceral reactions to political correctness are all political phenomena that require we see as developments from histories and arising within particular social settings. We do now know them a priori.

The Owl of Minerva Problem at first looks like a simple point about the retrospective nature of knowledge: You must first have experience to know, so knowledge must be dependent on (at least some) events of the past. But the Owl of Minerva Problem raises distinctive trouble for our politics, especially when politics is driven by argument and discourse. Here is why: once we have a critical concept, say, of a fallacy, we can deploy it in criticizing arguments. We may use it to correct an interlocutor. But once our interlocutors have that concept, that knowledge changes their behavior. They can use the concept not only to criticize our arguments, but it will change the way they argue, too. Moreover, it will also become another thing about which we argue. And so, when our concepts for describing and evaluating human argumentative behavior is used amidst those humans, it changes their behavior. They adopt it, adapt to it. They, because of the vocabulary, are moving targets, and the vocabulary becomes either otiose or abused very quickly.

Consider the use of fallacy vocabulary less as a device for the cool evaluation of arguments, now, but rather as a tool of evasion or attack.

Ted Cruz famously attacked Donald Trump during the primary season for being the kind of person who relies on the ad hominem.

Further, the use of the term ‘straw man' charge to defend against any and all criticism in online argument is so widespread, the strategy has been added to a comic pantheon of argumentative personae.

Straw man charge

The point, again, is that the tools we've used to make sense of and evaluate and improve our attempts at rational exchange have been tools of subverting it.

And now we see the same phenomenon with the expression ‘fake news.' The term had its purchase originally as one to explain the proliferation of false stories about the 2016 Presidential election in the US. For example, that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump, that Hillary Clinton was running a child pornography ring in a pizza parlor's basement. Now, however, the expression ‘fake news' is used by Donald Trump to disparage claims he holds are contrary to his interests. And so he says that CNN is fake news, and that the Russian ties to General Flynn is fake news. And so vocabulary we'd used to understand our joint exercise of reason is now part of that exercise and changing and being changed by that exercise.

And so, we may understand ourselves and the work or reasoning together only in retrospect, because the tools we use to make the parts of our practice explicit for endorsement or evaluation themselves become part of the practice and are changed by it. This is both good and bad news. The bad news is that our task of understanding ourselves and having a complete grasp of best theoretical practices is always incomplete and open to abuse by our very terms. But the good news is that those changes made by and to our critical vocabulary occur because we care for reason and wish to live up to its dictates. Even the most egregious fallacy is yet an attempt to lay claim to reason's legitimacy.