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:
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:
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.
There is but one being.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.