Before I describe the two important ways that "Quaker epistemology" differs from contemporary scientific epistemology, I need to give a bit of philosophical background.
One of the most important words philosophically during the 17th and 18th centuries was "experience." The empiricist philosophers, such as Locke and Hume, used this word when describing how all knowledge comes from "experience." Those who teach early modern philosophy now explain that the empiricist philosophers meant "sense experience," so that students do not mistake the word "experience" for our contemporary notion of "personal experience," or "life experience." Yet even Locke and Hume had a broader conception of experience than our contemporary "sense perception" version of empiricism (and science). Locke and Hume both allowed for "internal senses" as well as the "external" ones of sight, hearing, touch, etc. By "internal senses" they were simply referring to our ability to be aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, moods, etc. Through the development of empirical science, "experience" became narrowed to just "external" sense perception, gradually expanded technologically, but still "external."
So I argued in my presentation that it was the Quakers who were the true inheritors of the richer, broader, original notion of "experience." While mainstream philosophy and science dropped the notion of "internal senses," the Quakers developed this idea in their notion of the "inner light." While they respected science, and participated in it, its experience-based investigations into the natural world were not sufficient. The findings of science needed to be illuminated by the inner light in order to gain a proper understanding of its significance. (Isaac Penington wrote about this in a letter to the Royal Society of London, a scientific society, in 1668.)
Describing more fully how the early Quakers understood the "inner light" could turn into a separate essay unto itself (in fact, others have written on this topic, and I am working on this too in my academic writing at the moment), but for now I just want to note that the Quakers' taking seriously the inner light is an approach to knowledge very different from the scientific approach. Over time in scientific thinking, the "internal senses" became characterized as "subjective," and science was allied with "objectivity," and anything with "subjective" connotations got pushed out.
(But even this story is more complicated than it looks at first. The concept of objectivity has changed over time and only gradually did it get linked to scientific knowledge. There are excellent essays by Lorraine Daston, one co-authored with Peter Galison, that tell some of this history. While we now associate science with "objectivity," the concept is still in dispute. Some contemporary philosophers argue that the concept needs revision and clarification. Others, such as Lorraine Code, advocate "taking subjectivity into account" in science (I quote this phrase because it is the title of one of Code's essays, which can be found in an anthology entitled Feminist Epistemologies).)
In my presentation, I argued that the Quakers' taking seriously the inner light did not make them rationalists instead of empiricists, because some, such as Penington, were specifically suspicious of human rationality, in part because it could be used for devious and deceptive purposes. So he took great pains to distinguish the notion of the inner light from human rationality itself. Instead, I interpret the Quaker use of the notion of the inner light as showing that it was the Quakers who were the true inheritors of a richer empiricism, one that develops a notion of inner sense (even if that's not what the Quakers called it) even while following the development in science of our understanding and use of the external senses.
This point is disputable, of course, and was disputed quite eloquently and convincingly by one of my students during the question and answer period following my talk. (I was so pleased!) Another student chimed into this part of the discussion as well. The point that emerged was that this question hinges on whether the inner light is regarded as a source of knowledge, or a kind of sensory mode. If the former, then it is better to think of the Quakers as being rationalists of a sort; if the latter, then the "expanded empiricism" interpretation works better. Answering this question requires going back to the early writings and looking more closely at exactly how the writers characterized the inner light -- but from what I recall, I rather suspect that "both sides" would be able to find convincing quotations to support their positions.
In addition to carrying forth this richer interpretation of "experience" into the present day (see Eddington's Science and the Unseen World, 1929. Look at how he describes "experience"), Quakers also never separated epistemology from ethics, fact from value. The "inner light" can be regarded as a methodological principle underlying both the discernment of truth (epistemology; fact), and decisions about actions (ethics; value). Quakers stayed in touch with the relationship between knowledge and human interests, needs, and action in the world, never pretending that it was possible or desirable to establish a clear division between the two. And so this is the second major way that "Quaker epistemology" differs from contemporary scientific epistemology, which takes great pains to keep knowledge separated from ethics.
6 years ago