The Korean's Epistemology: Avoid Truisms, Take Some Risks

Here is another attempt at a running series that may or may not continue. This series will be about more general discussions about epistemology (i.e. study of knowledge,) and how the Korean prefers to approach learning about the world.

This installation of the series was sparked by a Wall Street Journal story about French parents that the Korean shared on his Facebook. An excerpt, just to make sense of the exchange that followed:
The French, I found, seem to have a whole different framework for raising kids. When I asked French parents how they disciplined their children, it took them a few beats just to understand what I meant. "Ah, you mean how do we educate them?" they asked. "Discipline," I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. Whereas "educating" (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.

One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait. It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old. Their parents don't pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep. It is also why French toddlers will sit happily at a restaurant. Rather than snacking all day like American children, they mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat. (French kids consistently have three meals a day and one snack around 4 p.m.)
Why French Parents Are Superior [Wall Street Journal]

Upon seeing this link, a reader commented:
It's called neglect and letting the babies cry it out method that has just been proven to be not so great for them and it might even lower their IQ's. What we need is a nice middle. Also, each kid is so different. I could take my first one to a restaurant no problem from when she was a baby, but the second one? She has a very active mind and body all it's own so hard to enjoy a nice sit down meal at a restaurant.
The Korean objects to this comment. But first, he would caution that this post is about epistemology, not about child-rearing or the French. The Korean's objection is about the intellectual approach to the topic of French child-rearing, not about the topic of French child-rearing itself.

The Korean's objection is this:  expressions like "nice middle" or "each kid is so different" do not move the ball forward. Those are truisms that describe everything and explain nothing. Every decision to be made in the world involves some type of balance-finding. Every individual unit -- be the unit a country, a car, a child, or whatever -- bears some kind of difference compared to another individual unit. These are obvious truisms that we already know. Re-asserting these propositions, without doing more, does not add to our knowledge of the world.

These are the questions that do move the ball forward -- where is that "nice middle"? What does the "nice middle" look like? How do we get to that point? If we must balance numerous competing values, exactly where should we strike that balance? What are the principles involved in striking that balance? As to "each individual X is different" -- how much do those differences matter? Are there any unifying themes or trends that connect those individuals? If we do connect those individuals based on those themes or trends, what lessons do we gain, and what things do we lose sight of? Do we lose too much by adopting an overarching theme, such that the overarching theme cannot be applied to those individuals from which the theme was inductively derived?

These are the questions that matter, because these are the questions whose answers truly advance human knowledge. To be sure, those answers may end up reaffirming the truism. For certain issues, for example, the the degree of differences found in individuals may overwhelm any attempt to derive a general rule. When a reader asks the Korean, "There is this one Korean guy I like. What can I do to attract him?", the Korean simply answers: "Do something that he likes." In that situation, the Korean believes that is the right answer -- as far as affairs of the heart goes, the variation among individuals is just too large to derive a general rule that is applicable to a particular individual without fail, even within a relatively defined group of individuals. (In this case, Korean men.) But this is not the same thing as the vacuous, "every person is different" wave-of-the-hand. Exploring a path to find a dead end is not the same thing as abdicating the journey altogether.

Take some intellectual risks! Don't be afraid to chase an idea down a rabbit hole, and form your own ideas and theories. Actually pursue those ideas and write essays, instead of fleetingly thinking of something and flinging the half-formed thought on another pile of Internet comments. Don't be afraid to have those ideas aired out and exposed to relentless criticisms. And when you encounter an idea that you dislike, do not dismiss it by retreating to the comfortable position behind those meaningless truisms. Charge forward, swing your intellectual weaponry, and engage your sparring partners by giving your answers to those questions that matter and telling why his answers to those questions are wrong. That's how we learn anything truly new.

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