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Limits to Knowledge

When I first dipped my toe in philosophical waters back in my youth, the holy grail was universal truth. I wanted to understand what was true for all times and all places. That naturally led me to mathematics. All of this took place over 50 years ago. My first teaching position was in Mathematics at a college (Smith College in Northampton, MA) with no computer. I knew enough about what was important, even back in the 1960s, that I saw this an a deficiency that needed correction.

The college did acquire a computer (an IBM 1130) with help from the US National Science Foundation. I was drawn from Mathematics to Computer Science. By the early 1970s, I wound up as the first Chair of Computer Science at York University. But the clean, pure, universal logic of computer algorithms just weren't enough. I bought into a socio-tech view of the world (see the Wikipedia article on Sociotechnical Systems). Success with the use of computers depends, critically, on the social context within which they are employed.

When I decided to move from professing to actually doing and advising, this context sensitivity increased. I became a consultant, with occasional lapses into management. The holy grail of universal truth faded into the background. The answers I needed were to be found in the context of the problems I confronted. Truth became context-sensitive. As I began to prepare for this course, I realized that I had moved from the Analytic view of the world to what is called the Continental view of the world. The terms are specific to world of philosophy, but the difference I experienced in my life is close to the difference between the universal truths of Analytic philosophy and the context sensitive truth of Continental philosophy.


What led me in this direction was a recognition that (most of) the important truths are sensitive to context. They're true for a specific time and place. Some limited generalizations may be possible, but great care must be taken to move from the specific to the general. From my perspective, far too many behavioral psychologists generalize from specific laboratory conditions (often involving students) to general claims about what makes us (everyone) tick. This can be particularly dangerous when considering any deep human concerns, … such as the meaning of life.

Existentialism is clearly on the “continental” side of the divide. It draws on the long history of phenomenology. And phenomenology starts where we must all start, with our lived experience in the life-world. I came to recognize this most strongly when thinking about the built environment. The abstract, modern theorists (“analytics”) gave us the massive, unlivable urban renewal projects of the post-war era. This came clear to me as I worked on urban planning in Toronto. Our best new urban design projects are grounded in context. They recognize the importance of the resulting lived experience.

For those who want to delve more deeply:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

For those who are interested in the connection to architecture and urban planning, there's an interesting newsletter coming from David Seamon in the Department of Architecture at the University of Kansas:

Disclaimer: David has published a couple of my articles about urban planning in Toronto. He also regularly published introductory and survey articles. And everything is freely available online.

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