"I want to be an epistemologist," she told me as she waited for a friend, who was using the "facilities."
I was sitting at my usual table at the cafe, smoking a cigarette, downloading The Matrix: Reloaded on my laptop from KazaaLite and generally minding my own business. We had struck up a mild conversation that was borne out of my observation that she looked like she'd been put through the wringer lately. She had- six hours straight studying for a philosophy paper that was due the next day. I'd asked her how long she'd procrastinated the assignment to which she'd answered, "Two weeks." And that was when she'd felt compelled to tell me of her lifelong goal to be an epistemologist.
I had a passing familiarity with the term, though I wasn't 100% "up" on my philosophy jargon, so I did what I do best- I winged it. "To what end?" I asked her.
She blinked at me once, twice and answered, "So that I can understand the roots of knowledge, where it comes from and what there is out there to learn. To understand the process of learning."
That did the trick, the dictionary terminology had been spit back at me, almost verbatim. How utterly bland. How can philosophers be so grandly hailed when they are, by and large, do damnably blunt? Whatever happened to poetic license? I put my artistic indignation aside and focused on trying to set this young woman straight, in the span of a few minutes. I knew I wouldn't be able to do a complete job, since she would be leaving as soon as her friend got out of the john, but I could at least knock a sizeable hole in her armor. I looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, for effect, and asked, "When a brick falls on your head, what do you know?"
"Huh?" she said. "That a brick just fell on my head, I guess."
"Wrong," I replied. "You know one of two things, and both are somewhat conditional. First, and most likely, you would know nothing because you've been knocked unconscious. Second, and only if you're fairly lucky enough to stay conscious, you'll know that you're in an incredible amount of pain. Only after surveying the aftermath and your surroundings would you know that a brick had just created a massive lump on your noggin."
"Okay. So what's the point of asking me what I'd know, if you already knew?"
I smiled. "Precisely my point, dear," I said. "You see: knowledge is entirely subjective. And I'm not talking about how we view the world, that is to say "perspective", but pure knowledge. And what's more, is that knowledge does not come from within. It is a side-effect of stimulus. You have to be taught by someone else, see for yourself, have the facts presented to you in such a fashion that you have to bear witness to them outside of yourself."
"Sounds like perspective to me," she said dismissively. I privately supposed that she had learned her lessons well in school. "What I'm after is Knowledge, with a capital K. I once heard a professor say, 'The god of the philosophers is absolute knowledge.' That's what I'm after: absolute knowledge."
"....but..." I prompted.
She made a face. "It's so weird," she complained. "It's like it's two things at once: finite and infinite, at the same time."
"Hmm," I said. "For every one thing you learn, you find ten more things that you don't know. Yes. I can see the dillemma. But you got it all wrong. By that truism alone, we can infer that knowledge is infinite, always and forever, while we human beings are finite and can learn and know only so much."
"So what's the answer?" she asked.
I shrugged. "Stop trying to learn so much and, in doing so, learn more than you'd ever know as a mere epistemologist. To err is human, but to really throw things out of whack takes a specialist."
"That's not the original quote," she pointed out.
"Yes, I know," I said, "but it's sublimely more honest. Listen, if you want to be an epistemologist, to know knowledge, then you can not specialise. You have to spread your breadth of knowledge all over the place. If you look at the world from a strictly philosophical perspective then you are effectively cutting yourself off from other views, reinforcing your finite nature as a human being while in pursuit of the infinite boundaries of knowledge."
She paused for a moment. And then took a breath. "Shit. You're right."
I smiled, finishing the thought for her. "Knowledge is subjective. What you know of the world is quite different from what I know of the world. There are certain truths that sort of blur the lines of individual awareness and consciousness, but the fact is that reality is something shared rather than known. And, like a good miracle or two, knowledge is only good for the people who have it and is pretty much useless to those who don't have it. What do you know of being a farmer? Probably zilch, right?" She nodded. "And I'm sure that Farmer John knows virtually nil about Socrates' Apology, but that doesn't make him any less valid as a human being. Nor does it make him any less knowledgable about the world around him. The difference between you and him is simply your respective frames of reference."
She paused. "Did you study philosophy?" she asked.
"No," I answered. "At least, not classically. Never in a school. My specialty was network engineering, which I managed to botch very neatly and still got an A for my trouble. I checked out after the second semester."
"So what do you do now?"
I smiled. "I'm a bouncer at a strip club. Shocking, isn't it?"
"If it pays the bills, not really. But I think you missed your calling," she told me matter of factly.
"What? As a philosophy teacher?" She nodded. "And waste a perfectly good life by specializing? No, thank you. I'll stick to my armchair epistemology; too much other nifty shit to learn out there."