The Problem Of Knowledge

Topica, Number 1, September 2001

by dgboland 2000

The point of departure for much of modern thought is something that has been called the problem of knowledge. It begins, with Descartes, as a search for certitude from a position, or lack of a position, regarding absolute truth but is never really able to end in anything but an illusory dogmatism or a skeptical phenomenalism. There is something strangely circular about it. Early these twin consequences took the form of Rationalism and Empiricism, most logically developed by Spinoza and Hume. Kant's attempt at an answer to the problem is essentially a half way sign: "Go back. You are going the wrong way". Instead of trying to investigate being or reality as something beyond the act of knowledge (the transcendent) we should realise (pardon the pun) that the answer lies in a deeper look into ourselves, into the fundamental a priori conditions of our knowledge (the transcendental). Kant's answer, however, could not satisfy our appetite for a real meal.

After his transformation of the question, we have the twin dead ends of Idealism and Positivism. And that is where we are stuck. Contemporary philosophy, to a large degree, consists in returning to Descartes to see how we might resolve the problem (e.g. Phenomenonology) or in resorting again to Kant to find some inspiration for a final resolution. There have been, of course, various exotic attempts at re-inventing reality, as in Existentialism, or at rebuilding the road to an old dead end, as in Analytical Philosophy. Heidegger and Wittgenstein, the "giants" of contemporary philosophy, have made valiant attempts to make some sense of the problem, with valuable particular insights, but basically have provided no definitive answer. For they, too, take as their point of departure "the problem of knowledge".

Now the problem of knowledge assumes that real being is something we look for within the world of our knowledge. That is to say, it proceeds from the "fact" that being or the real is a part, or an aspect, of knowledge. Thus, there is knowledge, and within this, if it exists, there is knowledge of reality. So the problem seems to be how are we to determine when the object known is real or not? But, metaphorically speaking, this is to adopt a quite unnatural position; it is a plain case of standing on one's head. The clear and simple truth is that being is not a form of knowing, but knowing is a form of being. If our knowledge is not founded on reality, it has nothing to stand on. No reality to know, no knowledge at all.

The modern philosopher assumes that knowledge is "given", and that reality is not. How, then, can he say that knowledge is at all. The sophistry is congenital to the formulation of the problem. You cannot start with knowledge; you must begin with being. Reality is "given" before we know what knowledge is. There is, of course, as we find on examination, a most intimate relationship between knowledge and being, fundamentally taken. But what is more to the point here, there are various senses in which we use the word "being". They are related to one another and one is indeed equated with the being of our knowledge in its perfection, namely, in our judgement. But this is a secondary sense of our word for being. It is an effect of being in its original sense, yet by a seemingly strange inversion it is more extensive than being, as it exists in the real. Perhaps, that is where we get the idea that the world of being is part of the world of our knowledge.

For, in the judgement, both being and truth are said also of the union of predicates to subjects that do not signify anything real at all. Thus, to take a classical example, when we say that blindness is a lack of sight in an animal naturally capable of sight, the statement is true. Blindness is, and truly exists, in that sense. But it does not exist in the primitive and positive sense of reality. Thus, St. Thomas notes a correspondence between being in the original and fundamental sense and in the second sense of the being that signifies the union of a predicate with a subject. But he notes a lack of correspondence in the case of privations and other non-beings taken as being for the sake of talking about them. Dependently upon our understanding of being in the first place, we treat negations, privations and purely logical relations as "beings". That way, indeed, we can fill ourselves with all sorts of "speculations" and "theories" and reduce reality as known to a small corner of our minds. It might be worth noting that the mathematical imagination is prone to this sort of invention of objects.

Hence, we must distinguish between ontological truth and logical truth. The distinction is quite clearly made by Aristotle but seems to have been completely forgotten in modern times. The problems associated with the relation between knowledge and being are rooted rather in the lack of understanding of the notion of being than in anything to do with knowledge. It clearly involves an inversion of priorities. The world of "being", taken in all the amplitude it has in our dialectical conversations, is assumed to be what we first know. The world of being, which we first come to know after we come to be, is as it were a secondary consideration.

The first object of all knowledge, including philosophy and science, is fundamentally the real world that we live in and sense and understand. Nothing is more obvious. It would be a strange philosophy, and science, that attempted to begin by studying some other world. Indeed, we note right at the start that not all things live, sense and understand like us. So even life comes after our understanding of being as such. Quantitatively speaking, the world of minerals and non-living matter dwarfs that of the living. Similarly, for the animal world, hardly noticeable in the almost infinite range of reality. Yet, clearly knowledge does not enter the picture until we experience the beings that we call animals.

What do we know about knowledge? That it is a feature of animal life, and consequently of ours, because we too are beings with senses. How do we grasp its special being or essence? It is only by comparison with things without knowledge. St. Thomas puts it beautifully. Knowers are distinguished from non-knowers in this; whereas non-knowers have their own form only, knowers are able to have the forms also of other things. They are beings of a higher nature that can assimilate what belongs to others, not merely in the material way living things already do but in a higher fashion still. A good understanding of the distinctive character of this marvelous form of being can be gathered from the analysis given by Dr. A. M. Woodbury, S.M., Ph.D., S.T.D. in the extract quoted elsewhere in this issue of Universitas.

It will be noted that the investigation of knowledge comes quite late in the study of things natural. Aristotle had a lot to say about the world before he got to his Psychology. This objective order of procedure is important because our understanding of knowledge depends greatly upon a correct grasp of the nature of things below animals. We also need to acquire a fine sense of the differences between things so as to avoid making the elementary scientific error of reductionism. One-dimensional thinking seems to be the occupational hazard of the scientist when educated in a philosophy that takes the field of the logical truth of the proposition for the whole truth of thing (veritas rei).

Thus it is that we do not delay our study of reality by attempts to locate and justify the place of reality among the objects of knowledge. We naturally proceed with our feet upon the ground and advance step by step. This is not to say that we do not begin our study without immersing ourselves in the world of the being of judgement and logical truth. For we do recommend that the students begin their intellectual career with Logic, which is precisely concerned only with being in this secondary sense. But what we emphasis here is the instrumental and preparatory nature of Logic as a philosophical and scientific study.

Nor does it mean that we eschew the use of merely logical beings and truths in all parts of philosophy and science (especially mathematical science) as secondary and instrumental means to the better understanding of the reality the object of the science. Here we have to be careful not to confuse the orders of ontological and logical truths and the subordination of the latter to the former. It is a problem in modern science precisely because of the philosophical presuppositions in our general education. Nonetheless, I believe it is not so much a problem for the scientists "in the field", for they generally have a keen sense of reality. It rather affects those who philosophise about science and its methods, and teachers and popularisers of science who tend to be influenced by them.

Nor do we avoid the issue of "the problem of knowledge". But it is left till we have to defend the reality of our primary objects of knowledge in Metaphysics. Doubts about the reality of the first object of our knowledge have never been thought, for such a thought is frankly unthinkable, as Aristotle amply demonstrates. Nonetheless such doubts can be expressed, and have been so expressed by minds of no mean stature. It behooves us, then, to address their difficulties as Aristotle fully and fairly did in his day. Naturally enough, there are new difficulties to address today. But the demonstrations to meet these objections are necessarily arguments "ad impossibile". That is to say they are arguments that proceed on the hypothesis that we do not or cannot know things as they really are, but show the contradiction involved in any such statement. Judgement is suspended, as the modern critic demands, by the hypothesis, but the impossible results. One may be able to stand on one's head, to make a point, but one cannot walk on it. The problem of knowledge should be given the serious treatment it deserves, but not at the very beginning. Philosophy begins in wonder about the real world in which we find ourselves, not in puzzlement about our capacity to know anything at all about that world.

Some Thomists, it seems, are embarrassed by the traditional thomistic stand on the critical question. They smart at the accusation of being nave, uncritical, dogmatic, in the matter. But they can only feel this way if they too have been deceived into identifying being with the being of the proposition, and the whole of truth with logical truth. Without the important distinctions made by Aristotle and St. Thomas regarding being and truth in this regard it is easy to see how one might even find in them some basis for going along with the modern approach, as the Transcendental Thomists do. But the uncritical dogmatism is on the part of those who take their intellectual point of departure from the being of knowledge, which in us is derived and secondary, rather than on the part of those who take it from the knowledge of being, which is original and primary.

by dgboland 2000


Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted September 2001. It was published in Topica, No. 1 (2001).
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