The Epistemology of Hunting



How exactly does one become a better hunter? Knowledge and experience, obviously. But while credible knowledge on the subject is readily available from a variety of sources, the greater question is how to make it useful in practice. While we like to assume that knowledge is powerful in itself, that’s rarely the case. In most fields, you need a certain basic level of understanding to make use of more specialized kinds of knowledge. Likewise, you need a certain amount of experience to make full sense of another’s experience.

Much like Freud’s tripartite theory of the individual psyche, there are three fundamental factors at play whenever you are hunting. First and foremost, there is you: the hunter, the person walking around the forest or sitting in a tree stand. Second is the version of you who is a better hunter than the current you. The thing about this person is that they don’t exist yet. Third is your quarry. If you hunt on public land or under the conditions defined as “fair chase,” then it is almost guaranteed that your quarry is better at evading you than you are at finding it. What this means for you—the current you, that is—is that in a perfect world, your quarry and the very best version of you as a hunter are nearly one and the same thing. The goal therefore is to become closer to the better you—the very best version of you that current you can imagine.

However, there’s a problem with this.

The problem is that the very best version of you is limited by what you currently know about hunting. Your idea of the better hunter is not the best possible hunter, but the best possible hunter as imagined by you right now. And the best version of you is nowhere near as good as the animal you’re hunting. So how exactly do you become a better hunter? How do you enable yourself to imagine ever better versions of you?

The answer is, I think, in mistakes—both your mistakes and the mistakes of your quarry (let’s just call this luck for now). Mistakes, depending on how badly you want to become better at what you do, will either work for or against you. Learning from your mistakes is difficult enough, but by far the hardest thing in today’s world is making enough time to make mistakes. In hunting, mistakes are wonderful because they let you know exactly where you didn’t have or failed to apply knowledge. When you can successfully apply knowledge to an endeavor, it becomes stored as experience. Thus an experienced hunter is one whose knowledge has been tested in the crucible of experience. It’s that simple. Knowledge can come from within, such as when you learn from a mistake; or it can come from without, such as when a more experienced hunter gives it to you. But unless you verify it in the world, it is only potentially useful.

To sum up: A person new to hunting is not a good hunter because they cannot imagine what a better version of hunting looks like. But in five years, that same hunter (hopefully) will have turned mistake into knowledge. And with that knowledge, they’ll have made even better mistakes, mistakes more advanced than any novice could make, which in turn becomes the new theses of an ever-refining dialectic of experience. To free the unicorn from the mind’s stable, one simply has to imagine unfastening the latch.

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