What is Knowledge?

I The Fundamental Paradox of Knowledge-

    This question being raised here encompasses an entire range of issues concerning the nature and scope of human knowledge— it’s creation, it’s retention or storage, its transmission, and its relation to “the world” as we might suppose it to exist, in some sense, independently of or separate from knowledge. But what is it that we are, in the final analysis, talking about here? What is knowledge? The very asking of this question puts us in a situation not unlike that of St. Augustine, in his Confessions, when he asked what time is. So long as nobody asked him what time was, Augustine explained, he knew what it was. But as soon as he was asked, he didn’t.  

    Paradoxes such as this are not uncommon. But the paradox itself takes on added dimensions when we ask this question of knowledge, because we cannot answer this question without in at least some sense begging the question. This is because any answer we might offer in answer to this question will necessarily be a statement of what we know (or think we know) about knowledge. But what we mean when we say we know (about anything) was the question in the first place.  Thus, in saying what we know about knowing, however much we might deceive ourselves in to thinking otherwise, we’re ultimately sidestepping the fundamental question of what it means to know. This is because knowing is at the very heart of human existence itself. Indeed, we might even go so far as to say that having knowledge, gaining knowledge, speaking of that knowledge, and acting upon that knowledge, is the very essence of human existence. Indeed, we are conscious only to the extent that we know (or at least think we know) something (if only the fact that we are ourselves questioning whether or not we truly know anything). Hence, to quite literally speak of knowledge “objectively,” from a perspective outside that of knowledge itself, would be to speak of consciousness from a vantage point outside of consciousness. This, nobody can do. Knowledge not only makes our world, it is our world— the only world we can possibly know, as French philosopher Léon Brunschvicg (1869-1944) once pointed out. .

    Nonetheless, even though we know full well that we cannot ourselves speak of either knowledge, or of the world which we aspire to know, from outside the realm of human knowledge and existence, we can very well imagine the existence of some entity, deity, or “intelligence” that is quite capable of doing this very thing. What is more, we can further imagine that this entity, intelligence, or divine Being imparting to mankind, in some extraordinary or mystical way, certain absolute or immutable truths. .The Story of Moses and the Burning Bush, in which the “hand” God Almighty literally wrote the Law on stone tablets is perhaps not only the best known, but most extreme example of this. But it is by no means the only one. The story of the Golden Plates and the Book of Mormon is but other among many. But in all of these cases,
it is similarly claimed that what we ourselves cannot do for ourselves is mystically and mysteriously done for us by a higher intelligence (one further claimed to be our Creator in the examples already cited, but not in all cases). Where they differ markedly from each other is in the supposed means of that communication, and not surprisingly, the precise nature of the actual message communicated.

    Such is the approach taken by all of those who believe in a “divinely inspired” or revealed truth, even though few if any see their own faith in quite the terms I have set forth here. Notice also, that this general approach is not limed merely to believers of the world’s three main revealed religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). It also applies to much Eastern religion and Eastern thought, “new age” thought in it’s various forms (many of which speak of revealed truth in terms of “energy”), and even those who think great art and music to be divinely inspired. While this latter may sound incredulous to some people, it was firmly believed by the Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952). Furthermore, it has been reported that John Philip Sousa believed his own March, Stars and Stripes Forever, to have been divinely inspired. Supposedly, it occurred to him as he sailed home from a vacation in Europe after learning of his manager's death. When he reached shore, he is reported to have said that he wrote "down the measures that my brain-band had been playing for me, and not a note of it has ever been changed.".

    The assumption of a super sensible, super natural reality or God which or Who communicates with mankind, directly or indirectly, is but one among many approaches to the entire question of the ultimate meaning (and thereby, the ultimate certainty and reliability) of human knowledge. Another approach is to conjure an image of human knowledge, and all mankind itself, as but one of a larger system of nature— nature in the sense of an underlying reality of some sort— usually of a physical sort, but not always. That is to say, this approach, instead of imagining a transcendental reality of sort, which encompasses and governs the world of human cognition, imagines just the opposite: any underlying natural realm of which we humans are ourselves constructed. Such for example are chemical molecules, neurons, electrical impulses, and so forth. As humans, even though we are a part of this reality, we know it only indirectly, usually by means of a whole variety of what are loosely called scientific methods. These are exemplified by the kinds of experiments one does in undergraduate college and even high school physics, chemistry, and biology labs. In labs such as these, students learn, for example, that sound is ultimately the vibration of air molecules of a certain range of frequencies, and that light is caused by particles caused photons— with the peculiar property of behaving also like waves, and having zero rest mass. In biology labs, students learn that the human body is composed of mainly water, but also various “organic” compounds of hydrogen and carbon, also called hydrocarbons.

    Those who follow this second approach (who are sometimes  called materialists— although sometimes not quite correctly so) generally hold that humans are capable of knowing a reality beyond themselves because we are in fact a part of that reality, or that it is this underlying natural reality which makes our existence. Since we are a part of it, there is no reason to assume any sort of  “mind body dichotomy.” As science tells us, what we call “mind” is in actually nothing more or less that billions of brain neurons firing, acting in response to stimuli of the various senses. Indeed, certain senses are more reliable than others. Objects which we can see can also be touched. But odors smelled cannot be corroborated by other senses; to a certain degree, sound can. That is, if we heard a mechanical bearing squeal, leading us to suspect the bearing is dry, we can confirm this by noting that the bearing is getting hot, or visually verifying that it is in need of grease, or perhaps worn and in need of replacement..  

    It is within this realm that distinction objective versus subjective most naturally arises— the “subjective” being the way human beings see the world, devoid of all scientific understanding, and the “objective” being the way the world supposedly “truly is” independent of human emotion, perceptual distortion, and perspectival  angles, as revealed to mankind through science. While the former camp might make use of this distinction as well (in reference to someone overcome with emotion in a given situation, for example), but it will be of secondary importance to them. Of far greater importance to this camp will be the distinction between the physical and the spiritual— that which we know independently of any sort of transcendental reflection r enlightenment, and that which we know through “expanded consciousness” or mystical insight of some sort.  But both of these camps share the common characteristic of postulating the existence a reality beyond that of everyday common awareness. And in both cases, that reality can only be inferred through indirect inference (e.g., we still hear only sounds, not sound waves. It is our mind’s understanding indirectly, not our ears directly, which tell us of the existence of sound waves). The main difference between these two camps, or schools of thought if one prefers, is that in one case, the postulated reality underlies ordinary experience, the other transcends.

    But is it not possible for someone to reject both of these approaches— to say that both of the camps described thus far are merely inventing fictions, albeit in the one case emotionally reassuring fictions, and in the other case useful ones, but in both cases fictions nonetheless? Indeed there are. And these folks, again, fall into two broad camps. The one says in the final analysis, we each person “makes” his or her own reality, through a number pure and simple acts of free will. If I see a painting, for example, and think it’s beautiful, then as far as I am concerned, it truly is beautiful. What someone else may think is of little or no consequence in this regard. If I allow myself to be persuaded by someone else that the painting I like is something less than beautiful, and therefore have my enjoyment of it diminished, I really have nobody to blame for that but myself. As far as I am concerned, my own judgment is not only as good as anybody else’s, it is ( as I ought to very well realize) superior, because it is the only one that really matters to me. What matter is whether or not I enjoy the painting, and that enjoyment depends entirely upon my assessment of it.

    The other camp finds this approach a bit too willy nilly for their tastes. They believe standards can be set for distinguishing good and bad art; and they further believe this can be done without resorting to either an underlying nature, or to a transcendental reality. And it does this by taking what we might call, generally speaking a pragmatic approach. That is to say, man is constantly interacting with his environment, and in so doing, he finds that some efforts produce desired results, some do not. In the realm of art (since this was the example arbitrarily chosen above), one looks at all the paints which one finds pleasing, and all of those which do not. Usually, one is able to discern certain features which characterize the pleasing ones, which are generally in the less pleasing ones. Eventually, once one has experienced enough good and bad art, one is able to discern the essential features of good art. Likewise in all of the sciences. In the biological sciences, members of this camp observes differences of various sorts among living things. Some of these features are crucial or essential, whereas others are of far lesser significance, or “accidental.” Living things which have no ability to change their environment and stay fixed are called, appropriately enough, plants, and those which can move more or less freely about are called animals. These are essential characteristics of living things. Notice, these essential properties or essences are postulated without recourse to any supposed underlying nature, not any transcendental reality. But by the same token, they are not entirely arbitrary and whimsical either. A person of the one camp may very well claim that a certain piece of music pleases him, while another, with a certain degree of musical training,  can just as well point out that the piece is harmonically static, rhythmically uninteresting, and so forth. But notice, both can be correct in what they say. The one person can be quite honest in saying that he or she likes a given piece of music, while the other can be quite correct in saying that the same piece is a very badly written piece of music. The fact that some music critic says a given piece is badly written is immaterial to the person who enjoys it; the fact that someone enjoys it is immaterial to the critic’s analysis. Note also that neither the music critic nor the person who enjoys  the music the critic denounces need not make any appeal to underlying natures nor to transcendental realities. Other music lovers and critics, of course, not belonging to either of these two camps, may very well wish to do this. One may say that the given piece does or doesn’t appeal to certain “base primitive instincts;” another may say that the piece is inspired by some sort of evil spirit. The person who likes the music will probably just laugh at these assertions, whereas the first music critic will just as likely say that these do not affect his analysis one way or another.

    The forgoing has delineated four possible general types of response to the afore mentioned paradox of knowledge, whereby we discovered that we cannot truly say what knowledge is without begging the question because as mortal, finite human, we are not able, ourselves, to venture outside the domain of knowledge— that anything we say about what knowledge is would be a statement of our knowledge of what knowledge, which begs the original question. Two of the responses we delineated try to overcome this limitation, two accept it. Of the two that attempt to overcome it, one looks upward to a transcendental reality, claiming that the knowledge we actually do possess (or at least, the knowledge which the wisest of us, or perhaps the most faithful of us, actually do possess)  is somehow reflective of the greater or higher reality. The other looks downward, as it were, to an underlying nature, claiming that knowledge, properly so called, presents a sort of image, or is otherwise reflective of, that underlying nature. The second two possible responses both more or less reject the first two as self delusional fictions. But of the second group of two camps, the one says that knowledge is little more than the sum total opinions of the knower, whereas the second camp says that it is the result of a sort of trial and error process— of practical interactions with ones environment, at times producing desired, and other times undesired, results. That is to say, the later claims that there are essences, whereas the other denies that there`` are any such “real” essences.   

    At this point it would worth assigning names to these position. And conveniently, Richard McKeon in his essay, “Philosophical Semantics and Philosophic Inquiry has already done this for us. The first set or family of two position McKeon called ontic interpretations. And among the ontic interpretations, because they see reality as multi-leveled: the level of ordinary experience, or phenomena, and the layer beyond phenomena which is used to explain, or give an accounting of, the phenomenal level. The interpretation which postulates a higher, transcendental realm to account for the phenomenal realm is called the ontological interpretation, whereas the one that postulated the underlying nature is called the entitative  interpretation. The second group or family of positions we discussed are called the phenomenal interpretation, because they see reality as confined to the phenomenal realm, with no need whatsoever to postulate either an underlying nature or a transcendental realm to explain it. Of this family, the camp which imposes a certain degree of order upon the phenomenal realm by postulating phenomenal essences, based on interaction with ones environment, have an essentialistic interpretation. The camp which denies essences, claiming instead that all knowledge is but the opinion of the knowing subject, subscribes to an existentialistic interpretation. McKeon himself always claimed that these positions were among “semantic choices,” and that no one position could be rightly judged correct or incorrect relative to the others. McKeon, to the best of my knowledge, never quite explicitly explained why that was, but on the basis of our own analysis the answer should be fairly obvious: namely that ones “interpretation” (in McKeon’s special use of the term here) concerns the very nature of knowledge of knowledge itself, and nobody is capable of transcending knowledge to make such a determination. This is why, for example, the debate between the religious folk who call themselves Creationists, and those who hold to a theory of evolution, is never ending. That is to say, this is a “family feud,” of sorts, between the two ontic interpretations. Members of the entitative camp might very well say that empirical evidence point unmistakably to the theory of evolution, whereas members of the ontological camp say that Scripture just as conclusively proves the theory of evolution to be false. That is to say, neither side can really prove the other false in a manner such that the other side would be incapable of denying it within the framework of their own interpretation. Each rejects the interpretation, i.e., the conceptual framework, of the other. The one side simply accuses the other of a lack of scientific understanding and sophistication, which in turn accuses their accusers of lacking faith and the guiding spirit of the Divine. These two camps will be united only in their common rejection of the phenomenalists, of both the essentialistic and existialistic varieties, although the Creationists will probably find the existentialistic position slightly more odious than the essentialist. . .

...to be continued
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