THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
A BRIEF SUMMARY OF ISSUES
ANIL MITRA PHD, COPYRIGHT © May 2003
Document status: May 16, 2003
Maintain. No further action necessary for Journey in Being – essential content absorbed to Journey in Being
Appearances can be deceiving, reasoning to conclusions can be mistaken – what we believe to be true can be mistaken. What can I know, where does knowledge come from – how can I know that I know? To answer these questions it will be helpful to consider what is knowledge.
Epistemology is the theory of knowledge and its traditional subject matter is defined by the questions above: the nature, origin and limits of knowledge.
I refuse to label my discussion “human” on all grounds
“Human” could be said in an anthropomorphic and arrogant – all [significant] knowledge is human
… or stated in humility – I talk of knowledge that is merely human
… or merely factual – it is human knowledge with which I am acquainted and that is my topic…
Since the humble/arrogant interpretations stand in opposition and are not intrinsically relevant to the discussion is not necessary
I acknowledge animal knowledge as continuous with human knowledge and as possessed by humans [humans are animals even if special in various ways including – that which we are, that with which we are most familiar objectively, since that is what we are; and especially, since, apparently, we have first “person” insight only of ourselves; but not special, to me, as in better, superior…] … and so, human knowledge is animal knowledge… But beyond this, there is the question of knowledge in the abstract that must be addressed if we are concerned with not just human fact but with human future, possibility and potential [one reason that we live and do…]… and beyond that, concern with the nature of being…
The four traditional branches of philosophy are metaphysics – the nature of the world, ethics – the good and the right and their natures, and logic – the theory of relationships among truths.
The other branches contribute, in varying degree, to epistemology. Metaphysics is about the real nature of the world – what might it say about knowledge as an element of the world and logic, clearly, as the theory of relationships among truths has implications for epistemology. While ethics may be the basis of superficial statements about the value of epistemology, what deeper connection may there be between the subject matter of ethics and that of epistemology – and that of metaphysics? Joint reflection upon the issues of metaphysics and ethics raises the question: is the ultimate nature of the world one of facts or one of values? I.e. are the ultimate constituents of being devoid of value and valuation? It may seem absurd to associate mental qualities – without which there is no valuation – with the “elements” but what would be the “face” of such a quality at the microscopic level? The absurdity arises primarily when we bring our mind-as-we-know-it or valuation-as-we-know-it to the elementary considerations. I leave this as a question rather than an assertion but, for details see Metaphysics [and the secondary articles, On Mind and Metaphysics, Outline of the New Metaphysics, and The Fundamental Problem of Metaphysics and its Resolution.]
Epistemology contributes to all branches for each branch has a subject matter and the epistemological question arises – how does one know the truth of the claims made… and, since the claims usually have conceptual content, what is the nature of the claims, i.e., the concepts?
This question arises for epistemology itself and, thus, epistemology is reflexive and, so, various second order questions arise – what is knowledge, what is it to know something, what counts as evidence for the truth of an assertion, is knowledge possible or, when we claim to have knowledge are we really in possession of some counterfeit?
The question, and this is true of conceptual questions generally, involves what may be called “search in a multi-dimensional space of facts and ideas or concepts.” And, though it is at least useful, it is not enough, as has been traditionally assumed, to consider the various uses of the word “knowledge.” For example, note that the traditional uses of the words “space” and “time” give us no clue as to the modern understanding of these concepts. Further, before we even begin analysis, we come to the scene of the conceptual analysis already equipped with an idea of what knowledge is or may be – an idea or ideas that we have naturally formed as participants in the world. These ideas may be limited in their nature and implicit in their formulation but these, along with the uses of the word should be part of the data that is the start of the critical and constructive analysis. The ideas, innate and/or acquired are necessary before we can even begin to understand what is a use of the word; and without bringing them into the open our philosophical analysis would tend to be – as is common in modern analytic philosophy – merely a, perhaps sophisticated, apology for our received opinion. Learning is in two stages, critically understanding of the concept in light of its history; then, moving beyond into the multi-dimensional space… We should be prepared for – though not demand – “Copernican” revolutions in the concept – in this case, knowledge – just as we have witnessed over the five centuries revolutions in the location of the earth, the nature of space, time and matter, the origin of the species and the character of human nature.
Regarding the nature of knowledge, let us first proceed conventionally. A preliminary distinction that arises is knowledge by acquaintance vs. knowledge by description, the former being direct knowledge through perception and the latter being “second hand” by, e.g., report. A second distinction is fact vs. inference. Note that these distinctions do not imply oppositions but “synergies” – fact and inference have mutually supporting roles.
Another distinction is “knowing that” vs. “knowing how.” On reflection, knowing that is the kind of knowledge referred to in the previous paragraph – the traditional notion of knowledge, and it includes perceptual, descriptive and inferential modes. Knowing how does not require conscious representation or articulation [though these may be involved] and is, so, different – at this level of understanding – from knowing that. Knowing how reminds us that knowledge can be dispositional and is not merely occurrent; and on reflection, note that knowing also includes the dispositional mode as in I know that there are twelve months in the traditional year even when I am not thinking that thought. These distinctions are placed in context in Kinds of Knowledge: the distinction between acquaintance and description is elaborated, inferential knowledge is not limited to “description” but pictorial inference is seen to be possible and, precursor to verbal inference, and these kinds are placed within a more general kind, knowledge by immersion that also places but goes beyond knowing how.
As indicated above, one of the basic questions of epistemology concerns the nature of knowledge. Philosophers normally interpret this query as a conceptual question, i.e., as an issue about a certain conception or idea or notion called knowledge. The question raises a perplexing methodological issue, namely, how does one go about investigating such conceptual questions? It is frequently assumed, though the matter is controversial, that one can determine what knowledge is if one can understand what the word “knowledge” means, that is, what notion or concept the word “knowledge” expresses or embodies.
The Western tradition has focused on “knowing that” or propositional knowledge – whether by acquaintance or by description. Incidentally, this is why it is not adequate to think of a proposition as a sentence: clearly, there are propositions that are not sentences; and to say that such propositions may be recast as sentences is an assertion, whose validity we may not simply accept, regarding the adequacy of language.
We can now ask the question of the nature of [propositional] knowledge in the following way that goes closer to the heart of the issue – in the sense that we are not asking what is the kind of knowledge but what is knowledge itself. When I say that I have knowledge what is it that I possess: a belief, a sentence, a statement, a proposition, a propositional attitude, or intensional state? In other words, if I say that I know that p, what counts as a substitution instance of p? In so far as abstract vs. actual entities are allowed, e.g. propositions, the question is related to the problem of universals. Finally, there is agreement in the tradition from Aristotle until today that it a necessary condition to know that p is that p must be true. Further, what is the role of certainty in knowing that p or in truth?
In order to be open to a “Copernican” revolution, we should be prepared to and may need to give up these most hallowed notions… or, rather, the hallowed interpretations of notions, e.g. of truth as correspondence, as coherence, as verifiable, as pragmatic [details in On Inference.] This is one of the problems of any rigid compartmentalization of knowledge – into the disciplines, philosophy into metaphysics, epistemology… epistemology into theory of truth, of inference… of course advance is one of the benefits of compartmentalization as is tractability but these are benefits of compartmentalization and not of its rigid application. The problems of “holism” are manifest including the idea of being adrift at sea – the multi-dimensional multi-categorial space beyond the comfortable world…
Are my references to a Copernican revolution empty? See Kinds of Knowledge and:
Fundamental theory: metaphysics = knowledge of the universe. Epistemology is at once important: “how do you know.” Immediate response: but what is knowledge [concept: knowledge that, apprehended truth, critical and constructive cumulation of knowing, certain knowledge; measure: justified, true belief] and this is fundamental for on this rests the possibility of metaphysics. History – a tension between concept and test. We have a concept but not a fundamental concept: what is knowledge doing, was it there before humankind, before life, even in an lifeless universe? Knowledge functions as an adaptive relation between individual [species…] and environment [which is not fixed: universe]. This includes but is not restricted to the academic cumulation and pushes the concept of knowledge to knowledge-in-being [source of the ultimate / journey / in being] vs. coded, formalized, cumulated knowledge [source of power]. The possibility of metaphysics is limited by a powerful but limited paradigm of knowledge. Breaking the shackles gives the possibility of metaphysics and of ultimate being. But… comes the objection, you can call what you are doing “guessing” or “likely” or “belief”… but it is not knowledge. Interpretation: the objection comes from an old paradigm of knowledge based in an old [e.g. deterministic] worldview; on view of the metaphysics of presence, there is no absolutely certain knowledge [strictly, synthetic knowledge; though there is truth e.g. that there is no absolutely certain synthetic knowledge]. For the necessity of the metaphysics of presence, see Metaphysics [and the following to be absorbed into Metaphysics: Outline of the New Metaphysics, On Mind and Metaphysics and The Fundamental Problem of Metaphysics and Its Resolution]
In summary, we have seen the following kinds: occurrent vs. dispositional, acquaintance vs. description, inference vs. direct, the possibility of uncertain knowledge [but I can be certain that something is likely even if I am certain or unsure that I am certain], knowing that vs. knowing how. Knowing that is propositional knowledge – the classical idea. All kinds are bound together in knowledge by immersion as in Kinds of Knowledge. Additional “kinds” – innate vs. acquired, a priori vs. a posteriori – occur in the next section. The a priori and a posteriori distinction for propositions is related to the following: necessary versus contingent, analytic versus synthetic, tautological versus significant, and logical versus factual.
The origin of knowledge may be discussed in relation to development which gives rise to the possibility of innate knowledge over and above learned or acquired knowledge. Is there innate knowledge? Opponents of the possibility of innate knowledge point to the Piaget sequence of conceptual learning but do not point out that the exposure of a rock to the learning process will not result in learning. I think I will write a myth about the strange case of peter stone who had been dormant for eons when he was found by the Stone family, taken in, fed [always dribbled – slow developer], was sent to school and university [never said anything, left test papers blank – alternatively accounted for by his having gained admission on account of his family’s wealth vs. his Buddha-like disposition and intelligence…]
How is knowledge acquired? The opposing camps are empiricism vs. rationalism – it is curious that one has to be one or the other. One hardly has to make a case for empiricism today even though the most famous empiricist constructions are regarded, even by empiricists in the time of the ascendance of science, as having failed. I will not discuss rationalism – the idea that the ultimate source of knowledge is in reason, but the possibility that some knowledge is rationalistic. The simplest idea is Kant’s, that even though knowledge is of the world, mind brings its own forms to the understanding – again, the simplest need for those forms of understanding is the fact that a rock does not learn anything despite exposure and experience; and beyond forms, there is the possibility of inherent knowledge of fact as in know how – the infant’s lips immediately recognize the nipple… There are various forms of empiricism, empiricism as the idea that experience is the source of all information and second, radical empiricism, in which experience is the source of the forms of knowledge including possible ideas – the forms of knowledge are the forms of perception and its combinations and recombinations – but how are the combinations done? Anyway, suffice it to say, in recent parlance, that I am in the relatively small nature and nurture camp and not the larger nature or nurture division… and that the mechanisms of empiricism and of rationalism in their factual and radical forms all contribute – how mundane.
 Recall Bertrand Russell’s observation on G. E. Moore whom he knew intimately, as quoted by Bryan Magee in his 1997 Book Confessions of a Philosopher “Moore’s whole approach to philosophy was based on the unshakable belief that everything that had been said to him before the age of six must be true.”