Attempting to Situate Myself…Hold On

I find myself torn between two warring epistemologies: social constructivism/relativism and realism. On the one hand, I am deeply sympathetic to the idea that we construct our own versions of social truths; in fact, most of my research on epideictic rhetoric depends on that fact. If we truly do “make morality,” as I argue society is largely in the process of doing, I can’t very well argue that morality just “is.” Yet, on some level, I do believe that. One of the questions that I posit to my students when this topic comes up is one of scale: are things wrong because society thinks they are wrong, or because there is something in the act itself that is just plain wrong? As with most dichotomies, I find this lacking. Can’t it be something in between?

More even than this issue is the issue I have with the nihilists, especially Nietzsche. In addition to having a completely unspellable name, I can’t reconcile myself to the complete lack of materiality that he seems to suggest. I can’t make myself accept that the world is fundamentally unknowable, that no matter what I am talking about, I am lying, that there is no truth, etc. However, I love Foucault. I think that the way Foucault looks at society makes perfect sense, and that there is a lot of value in seeing the connections and interplay of power in any given situation.

So, where does that put me? Maybe in the camp of the Thomists. In his article “Facing Being,” Callum Scott lays out a sort of compromise between the Kantian school of metaphysics and that of the realists. Scott points out that in order to value the sciences in any way, philosophy has to figure out a way to work within the material world. Otherwise, the two cannot talk to each other. Scientists as preeminent as Stephen Hawking have said as much (Scott 1), and who am I to argue with Stephen Hawking? The tension between science and philosophy (which is just the rhetoric of the privileged class, as Dr. Moberly would say) seems to be consistent with my own sympathies. I love science, am fascinated by it, and believe in its ability to uncover truth. However, Nietzsche is on record saying that there is no such thing as truth, just lies that we all agree upon as socially acceptable lies. Scott attempts to reconcile this tension by turning to St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas views truth as existing where the observer and the observed are most in harmony, when the “thing in itself” is closest to being understood (Scott 354). If we aren’t to go “full Hume” on this issue and decide that materiality is an illusion, I think this is the only epistemology that makes sense.

Even Dr. House has trouble fully living up to a Nietzschean worldview.

In fact, I wonder what Foucault’s epistemology is. Would he agree with Nietzsche and Dr. House that everybody lies? Or would he see his own work as attempting to uncover the truth of the power structures he is attempting to observe? I’ll admit that postmodernism/post structuralism is still a complete mystery to me, and maybe my epistemology doesn’t lean that way because I just don’t understand it well enough. Or maybe I’m simply a naive idealist. Whatever the case, I have to believe that there is truth, that it is knowable, and that, though we can never fully grasp it ourselves, we can approach it more and more perfectly (obviously taking detours along the way). Does this epistemology have a place in Rhetorical Studies? I hope so!


Scott, Callum D. “Facing Being: The Significance Of Thomist Ontological Epistemology To Realism In Post-Kantian Philosophy.” South African Journal Of Philosophy 33.3 (2014): 347-364. Religion and Philosophy Collection. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

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