Theories of Knowledge … in Parallel Outline 1 Revisited

0. An old friend, or rather a friend, hardly old but of long standing, responded to my December 30, 2013, post, “Theories of Knowledge and Theories of Linguistic Representation in Parallel Outline 1,” with an elegant, “Huh?” That suggested to me that that post and others past or yet to come might not be as clear as I would wish to those who have not wasted spent much of their adult lives in the study of academic philosophy. In the present post I wish to take a couple of steps towards making the things said in the original post a bit more approachable.

1. First, there really was a philosopher, the Gorgias mentioned in the December 30 post, who advanced the thesis which I identified as ontological nihilism, that:

Nothing exists.

I’ll quickly note that, just as anthropology is the theory or science of human beings as human and biology is the theory or science of living beings as living, so ontology is that of beings, just as beings.

There could have been a philosopher, Gorgias himself, perhaps, in a crankier mood, who advanced the more rigorous thesis of ontological nihilism, that not only is it the case that nothing exists, it is also the case that:

It is not possible for anything to exist.

I don’t know that Gorgias or anyone else has really been a sincere ontological nihilist. Certainly most of us would adhere to the opposite thesis, which I identified as ontological realism, that:

Something exists.

I suppose that someone of a very cautious temperament might prefer to hold that:

It is possible for something to exist.

2. Ontological nihilism and ontological realism are as fundamental as doctrines can be. There are, however, other doctrines nearly as fundamental, for example, the thesis or theory of ontological pluralism, that:

There are at least two things (or, more broadly, there are many things).

And I suppose again that our person of the very cautious temperament might prefer to hold that:

It is possible for there to be at least two things (or, more broadly, for there to be many things).

I worry that the following observation might lead to yet another “Huh?” But I still think I should point out that not all thinkers accept the thesis of ontological pluralism, including some, though not all, prominent mystics. They adhere instead to the doctrine of ontological monism, that:

There is at least one being and there are not at least two beings.

That is:

There is but one being.

or:

It is possible for there to be at least one being and it is not possible for there to be at least two beings.

3. Enough. Let’s move on to the fundamental theories of knowledge brought up in the post. There is, on the one hand, the thesis which I identified as epistemism, from a Greek word for “knowledge.” This is the thesis either that:

It is possible for there to be a knowledge of some existent.

or that:

There actually is a knowledge of some existent.

The opposed thesis, that of skepticism, is that of either:

It is not possible for there to be a knowledge of any existent.

or:

There actually is no knowledge of any existent.

Now, as I said in the original post, the theories of epistemism and skepticism just defined are their most basic versions and the versions broadest in application. There are others less basic and more restricted in application. One example of epistemism which all will recognize is that of theological epistemism, the thesis that:

It is possible for there to be a knowledge of the divine.

or that:

There actually is a knowledge of the divine.

The opposed thesis, that of theological skepticism, is that of either:

It is not possible for there to be a knowledge of the divine.

or:

There actually is no knowledge of the divine.

Another set of examples: almost all university biology professors believe and teach that, not only is it possible for us to know at least some things about the evolution of our pre-human ancestors, but we actually do know at least some things about their evolution. On the other hand, there are some people, some of whom are theological epistemists, who believe either that we do not or that we cannot have such knowledge of our distant ancestors.

4. Oh, about that business of “linguistic representation”: I understand the linguistic representation of something to be nothing other than communication about that something by means of language. You might find it an interesting exercise to go through the several theories of knowledge given above and simply substitute in them the words “linguistic representation” for the word “knowledge.” That, in a nutshell, is what I have done.

A last thought: one thing I could have done is broadened my concern here and have simply dealt with “representation” instead of restricting myself to “linguistic representation.” There are, after all, means of representation or communication other than those of language, for example, gestures or pictures. But I didn’t and I can live with that; a picture is not always worth a thousand words.

About Rchard E. Hennessey

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14 Responses to Theories of Knowledge … in Parallel Outline 1 Revisited

  1. guymax says:

    I suspect that Gorgias was expressing a more subtle truth than that ‘Nothing exists’, and meant what Buddhists mean when they say ‘Nothing really exists’. This is not ontological nihilism. It is the claim that things do not exist in the way we usually think they do, and, importantly, that what is real (original, authentic etc.) would transcend the distinction between existence and non-existence. Otherwise Gorgias’ remark would be incomprehensible. This is an interpretation, of course, but it seems a more generous one than nihilism. Just a thought.

  2. I don’t think that Gorgias’ remark is incomprehensible if interpreted as a statement of the thesis of ontological nihilism pure and simple. Rather, it is starkly comprehensible and starkly false. What needs to be understood is why he would assert it. It seems to me that it is best understood as an ironic reply to Parmenides.

    Now, on the other hand, what I cannot quite find comprehensible is the statement, “Nothing really exists,” if it is meant to assert something distinct from that which the statement, “Nothing exists,” asserts. My thought, just a thought, is that the statement, “Something really exists,” represents the same assertion, though made more emphatically, as the statement, “Something exists.” So too their contradictions.

    To go all Aristotelian (and Shakespearean) on you, I don’t believe that there is a way to “transcend the distinction between existence and non-existence.” As the Stagirite would put it: Any being must either be or not be, in any one respect and at any one time. (As the Bard would put it: “To be or not to be, that is the question….”)

  3. guymax says:

    Fair enough. You’re entitled to reject Buddhism, of course. But it cannot be for logical reasons. The statement ‘nothing really exists’ is an expression of the relativity of existence, the non-absoluteness of existence. There is no way to falsify it. The statement ‘something really exists’, on the other hand, is falsifiable, in theory at least, and has been (some would say) falsified by Bradley and Nagarjuna, with Kant and Hegel in full support. (The word’ ‘really’ would be crucial, indicating independent or fundamental existence. Nobody denies relative existence).

    I didn’t mean to argue, only to say that there is an interpretation by which Gorgias was not a fool.

  4. Let me start by saying that I don’t see us as arguing, but discussing, that I don’t believe that Gorgias was a fool, quite the contrary, and that it is not my aim to reject Buddhism, though I will let the chips fall where they may.

    Next, I read you as understanding that the statement, “Nothing really exists,” is equivalent to the statement, “Nothing is independently existent,” and that the statement, “Something really exists,” is equivalent to the statement, “Something is independently existent.” I don’t share that understanding; it does not seem to me to be evident that to be really existent is to be independently existent.

    There is also a middle way here, the thesis that at least some existent or existents is or are independent and that at least some existent or existents is or are dependent.

    I read you as also understanding that the statement, “Nothing really exists,” is equivalent to the statement, “Nothing is absolutely existent,” and that the statement, “Something really exists,” is equivalent to the statement, “Something is absolutely existent.” Now I’m not sure of how to understand “absolutely,” except as equivalent to, say, “without limitation.” But then, it does not seem to me to be evident that to be really existent is to be existent without limitation.

    There is again a middle way here, the thesis that at least some existent or existents exists or exist without limitation and that at least some existent or existents exists or exist with limitation.

    We both agree, it seems, that the bald statement, “Nothing exists,” if taken as baldly as I took it and as I take Gorgias to have intended it to be taken, though with tongue in cheek, is false.

  5. guymax says:

    I appreciate the care with which you’re coming at this. It’s all too easy for this sort of topic to disappear under a muddle of words.

    Oddly enough, the view I’m expressing in known as the Middle Way view. So I’d prefer to say that the claim that something ‘really’ exists is not a middle way view but some sort of realism. .

    If you say that to exist does not require independent or absolute existence then relative existence would qualify as true existence, and you’d obviously be right to say many things exist. The problem is that true or independent existence is a paradoxical notion. It may be the central problem of philosophy, how to explain existence non-paradoxically. For instance, there is the ‘problem of attributes’, which is the problem of what remains of an object once we strip it of its attributes. Logic seems to suggest that there must be something that has these attributes, and yet whatever it is that has them cannot itself have attributes, and therefore does not seem to be there at all.

    The crucial question is whether any phenomenon has an ‘essence’ or substantial basis that exists apart from its appearances. No such essence can be found. Francis Bradley gives an argument against absolute existence in his metaphysical essay ‘Appearance and Reality’. ‘Reality’ here would be beyond existence/non-existence, while appearances would be just that,. Nagarjuna makes the argument more formally in his ‘Fundamental Wisdom’.. Nicolas de Cusa makes the same point when he says that the Ultimate lies ‘beyond the coincidence of contradictories’. Kant abnd Hegel say the same. I suspect that Gorgias was making the same point. The idea pre-dates him, since the Upanishads say that when we see the voidness of one phenomenon we’ll see the voidness of them all.

    I’m not trying to prove anything, just saying that there is a view by which whatever seems to us to exist does not do so in the way we usually think it does, but only as relative phenomena, and that analysis and experience confirms this. Thus physics cannot prove that anything is truly real, and logic cannot make sense of a fundamental phenomenon coming into existence from non-existence. .

    I suppose all this depends on what we mean by ‘existence’. Maybe this needs a definition here. Usually existence is considered to require the prior existence of space-time, and the existence of space-time is questioned even by physicists. It seems to me that Big Bang theory makes the most sense when we do not suppose that anything really come into existence.

    Great topic to discuss, but I fear that it’s probably too big for a comments section.

  6. You’re right about the size of the topic, so, letting any replies to the other points you offer go until the opportune moment arises, I’ll just say two things in response to about your remarks about existence.

    First, quite briefly, I’m a little unsure about there being any possibility of defining “existence” or anything else, like “being,” so fundamental.

    Second, not quite as briefly, to assume that an existent as such needs to be a spatio-temporal existent is to beg a very significant question, as is assuming that an existent as such needs to be an independent existent. On the other hand, to assume that an existent as such cannot be a spatio-temporal existent is to beg an equally significant question, as is assuming that an existent as such cannot be an independent existent.

  7. guymax says:

    I’m happy to use any definition that works, but it seems to me that what people often mean when they say that something ‘exists’ is that it is extended in space and time. But then, most people would probably say that mental phenomena exist. So I expect most people would say that by their definition mental and corporeal phenomena exist. The existent universe would be psychophysical.

    But we rarely ask ourselves what we really mean by ‘exist’, and when we do we find that our unreflective ideas about existence, space and time, motion and change and so forth, do not make much sense and are often paradoxical. This is the reason why metaphysics is so weird, that it does not endorse any of our usual ideas about these things.

    I’m not sure how to read your middle para. Are you saying that we cannot define ‘existence’? Or that nothing is fundamental?

  8. First, I’m sorry for the delay, but I’ve been caught up in some of life’s businesses.

    I’m quite comfortable with the thesis that at least some existents are extended in space and time. But the thesis that all existents are extended in space and time requires demonstration; it is hardly self-evident. I also think it evident that mental phenomena exist and that they are not extended in space, though they are in time. But I am hardly at the starting point in reflections related to mind and, more generally, psyche.

    Re my middle paragraph: I am saying that there is something basic or fundamental, be it existence, being, or something closely related, that cannot be defined. That is, it seems to me that something like the Aristotelian conception of demonstrative science is called for, according to which there cannot be an infinite regress of definitions resolved into prior definitions; any such series needs ultimately to be based in things undefined. Definition is then analogous to demonstration: there cannot be an infinite regress of demonstrations resolved into prior demonstrations; any such series needs ultimately to be based in things undemonstrated. Again, however, I am hardly at the starting point in reflections related to demonstration.

    You will have said to yourself that that conception of definition and demonstration is similar to a certain conception of causality according to which there cannot be an infinite regress of causes resolved into prior causes; any such series needs ultimately to be based in things, or perhaps something, uncaused. Here, once again, I am hardly at the starting point in my reflections.

  9. guymax says:

    Yes, I’d agree completely with your point about the need to end to the regress of explanations and thus the need for an undefined term. I’m not a mathematician but have the idea that all formal systems need to contain at least one such term. To me it seems an important point. Where this idea goes wrong in epistemology, I think, would be in equating knowledge with linguistic representation. For genuine knowledge we would have to go beyond linguistic representation. I think Aristotle had it right when he said that true knowledge is identical with its object. It seems to me that these problems of origins (of things or knowledge) can only be solved by reference to identity. Then a term may be undefined but not unknown.

    I’d also agree that for logical reasons not everything can be demonstrated. It would not follow, though, that not everything can be known. That is, Gorgias may have been speaking from knowledge.

  10. I hope you understand that I agree with you when you say, “Where this idea goes wrong in epistemology, I think, would be in equating knowledge with linguistic representation.” One of the points I am trying to make in my series of posts is that there are parallel (or similar, but not identical) theories of knowledge and representation.

    I think Aristotle had it wrong “when he said that true knowledge is identical with its object.” I’ll use an example to make my point: my knowledge of my computer is not my computer or even a computer. Being more careful, however, and illustrating another of the points I have trying to make, we need to distinguish between two propositions, among many related propositions, the one a “universal affirmative” proposition and the other a “particular affirmative” proposition. The “universal affirmative” proposition is the proposition that:

    For any existent x and for any existent y, if x is a knowledge of y then x is identical with y.

    or, severely abbreviated:

    (Ax)(Ay)(Kxy -> Ixy)

    The “particular affirmative” proposition is the proposition that:

    Some existent x and some existent y are such that x is a knowledge of y and x is identical with y.
    or, severely abbreviated:

    (Ex)(Ey)(Kxy & Ixy)

    One can with perfect consistency deny the former and affirm the latter, as in fact Aquinas does, holding, as he does, following Aristotle, that the divine being, but the divine being alone, is identical with its knowledge of itself.

  11. guymax says:

    Aristotle’s conclusion takes into account that all knowledge is theory-laden, relative, contingent and provisional (eg. your knowledge of your PC) unless it is knowledge by identity. Then it would be Knowledge with an upper-case ‘K’. I think we can agree with both Aristotle and Aquinas on this, as long as we do not assume a Divine being separate from ourselves. Aquinas cannot know anything about such a being unless he shares an identity with it. He can deduce his view, but a deduction would not be ‘true’ knowledge.

    Pardon me. I thought you were suggesting that we could replace ‘knowledge’ with ‘linguistic representation’,

  12. 1. While I hesitate over the “theory-laden” and the “relative,” I think evident that Aristotle saw at least some, though not all, knowledge of such things as my PC as “contingent and provisional.” I say “at least some” because it is clear that he would say that my knowledge that my PC is running is contingent, because it is contingent upon the contingent fact that it is running.

    I say “though not all” because it is clear that he held that we are capable of having, e.g., the following non-contingent demonstrative knowledge:

    All entities subject to change are temporal entities.
    All physical entities are entities subject to change.
    Therefore, all physical entities are temporal entities.

    In the statement quoted in the January 14th post, “Theories of Knowledge and Theories of (Linguistic) Representation in Parallel Outline 2,” however, Aristotle adhered to the unqualified, that is, universal statement, that:

    Actual knowledge is identical with its object.

    That would be true then of both contingent and necessary knowledge.

    But at this point I am not ready to get myself involved in digging further into Aristotle’s epistemology, though one day I will.

    2. Assuming, at least for the sake of argument, that at least demonstrative or apodictic knowledge needs to be knowledge with identity, it would indeed follow that either we don’t have a genuine demonstrative or apodictic knowledge of the divine, even that it exists, because we are not identical with the divine, or that we do have a genuine demonstrative or apodictic knowledge of the divine and are therefore identical with the divine. Perhaps the response that Aristotle or Aquinas would offer would be that, strictly speaking, we don’t have a genuine demonstrative or apodictic knowledge of the divine, though we do have a genuine demonstrative or apodictic knowledge of non-divine beings, that, e.g., they are dependent upon an uncaused cause. I see that as a tough needle to thread. But, again, at this point I am not ready to get myself involved in digging into Aquinas’s natural theology, though one day I will.

  13. guymax says:

    Okay. Just shooting the breeze. .

  14. I’ve enjoyed it. Thanks.

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