Philosophy And The Ways Of Knowing

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Reply Sat 18 Oct, 2008 07:45 pm
Philosophy And The Ways Of Knowing

These are notes from my school-book.

[CENTER]The Varieties of Knowledge[/CENTER]

When Euclid tells us that "If two straight lines cut one another, the vertical or opposite angles will be equal" ( Proposition 15, Book I of The Elements ), we feel ourselves in the presence of knowledge. And we are sure that Sir Isaac Newton's remarks ( conclusion of Book I, Part I of his Optics ), made in the seventeenth century, represent the truth for astronomical experiment as that age saw it: "Long Telescopes may cause objects to appear brighter and larger than short ones can do, but they cannot be so formed as to take away that confusion of the rays which arises from the tremors of the atmosphere. The only remedy is a most serene and quiet air, such as may perhaps be found on the tops of highest mountains above the grosser clouds."
And what is true of the mathematical propositions of Euclid and the physical propositions of Newton, we feel holds for other sciences as well. For instance, we accept as authoritative this statement from Darwin's Origin of Species:

We will now turn to climbing plants. These can be arranged in a long series, from those which simply twine round a support, to those which I have called leaf-climbers, and to those provided with tendrils. In these two latter classes the stems have generally but not always, lost the power of twining, though they retain the power of revolving, which the tendrils also possess. The gradations from leaf-climbers to tendril-bearers are wonderfully close, and certain plants may be indifferently placed in either class...
We are prepared to believe Adam Smith when, in The Wealth of Nations, he speaks of the division of labor within society in this way:
The great increase of the quantity of work which, in consequence of the division of labour, the same number of people are capable of performing, is owing to three different circumstances; first, to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labour, and enable one man to do the work of many . . .
Other statements, although they do not pretend to be scientific, also make some claim on our belief. When the Prophet Isaiah quotes the word of God: "Zion shall be redeemed with judgment and her converts with righteousness. And the destruction of the transgressors and of the sinners shall be together, and they that foresake the Lord shall be consumed," there is a species of truth to be considered. And when Shakespeare's Brutus asserts:
'tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend...
something both significant and true has been uttered concerning the nature of mankind.
We sense at once that there is something simliar in these statements of Newton, Darwin, and Adam Smith although the first is speaking of telescopes, the second of plants, and the third of human labor. The similarity is that they are all three "descriptive" statements, and that what they describe would be observable by the human senses of sight, touch, etc. , and observable to anyone who directed his attention to telescopes, climbing plants, or workers in a factory. Such statements can be called "empirical."

For a moment we are even prepared to believe that the statement from Euclid is like the other three. It too seems descriptive. But what does it describe? Surely nothing perceptible to the senses. The intersection of straight lines, yes; but when we remember that, for Euclid, "A line is length without breadth." But a line totally without breadth is imperceptible to sight! And then we understand that the diagrams which always accompany Euclid's text are all falsifications. They all contain lines with breadth; they are not, therefore, really Euclidean lines at all, but lines through which the eyes suggest to the mind what a Euclidean line really is. Euclid's "points without magnitude" and "lines without breadth" are not objects of sense perception but concepts, and the statements about them are not "empirical" but "rationalistic."

With the passage from Isaiah there is real difficulty. How, for example, are we to interpret the sentence "and they that forsake the Lord shall be consumed"? The reference to God is unmistakable, but God is not empirically observable. Nor is it the case that to such a statement the mind gives assent automatically as it does once it understands the meaning of the proposition from Euclid. In fact, there is a real question as to what Isaiah really means, and until that meaning is made clear , the question of the truth of the proposition (and hence its claim to be considered knowledge) is in doubt. But this unclarity seems to be a native property of religious statements. Religious prophecy, "descriptions" of the acts of God, the statements in which faith are cloaked, are more often that not metaphorical and suggestive rather than literal and precise. And, far from being a stumbling block to religion, this is the very meat upon which the genuinely religious feed. There are those who live by the words of Isaiah who have never heard of Euclid or Isaac Newton. Does this mean that there is another form of knowledge, neither empirical nor rationalistic, which we could perhaps call "intuitive," and which is the source of our access to "religious truth"?
Shakespeare's assertion also presents certain problems as a claim to "knowledge". Of course we know that poetry is not science, and we should never dream of subjecting Brutus' reflection upon human experience and human nature to the same standards of rigorous conformity to what is observable by the senses which we would demand of Darwin or Adam Smith. Shakespeare's statement is made by a created character in a constructed play. It is presented to the imagination by the playwright; it makes a claim upon our emotions, but it is not an invitation to a process of scientific verification. Yet there is something in it which invites us to accpetance or rejection. We feel it either to be true or false to human nature. We are tempted to measure it against our own knowledge of the world. And the same is true of the "statements" made by poetic dramas as a whole. Othello does make some assertion about the tragedy of sexual jealousy. Macbeth asserts something about the consequences of immoderate ambition. Lear asserts something deep about the ultimate working out of blindness in high places. In this way poetry also presents the truth, and its formulations also can make some claim to the title of knowledge.
So far there is no reason to find a serious conflict between the enterprises of Euclid, Newton, Darwin, Adam Smith, Isaiah, and Shakespeare. If there is a variety of areas of experience, there is no reason why each should not be approached in its own way. And if the term "knowledge" be granted a broad enough meaning, then it might be able to cover the results of mathematics and physics, natural and social science, poetry and religion. Unfortunately, this kind of peaceful coexistence has not been possible. Mathematicians and natural scientists have quarreled over the nature of the first principles of logic. In the seventeenth century, the great critic Boileau said of the rationalistic meditations of Descartes that "they had cut the throat of poetry." And the warfare between the natural sciences and religion has been a constant feature of Western culture.

The first difficulty arises when there is a dispute as to which methods of knowing have rightful domain over a certain realm of experience. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, held that there is much truth about divine things which is attainable by reason, although he admitted that there are some articles of the Christian faith which cannot be understood by reason and must, therefore, be proposed to man as an object of faith. And he said, at any rate, that there are no truths of reason which are in opposition to the truth of Christian faith. But just five hundred years later, David Hume, in a devastating attack on the human belief in miracles, argued that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, and that, since experience has established these laws, to believe in miracles would be irrational, for it would subvert every principle of the human understanding. So long as faith and reason are acknowledged as seperate sources of belief, valid for religion and science respectively, there is no conflict. But when religion disputes with science for a claim to "reasonableness," trouble ensues.

The second difficulty arises when the pluralism of areas of experience is superceded by a frantic search for a single infallible method. Consider the case of philosophy. I have said that philosophy is a reflection on experience. But a reflection of what kind? Does it claim to describe the most significant of human experiences? Then it must be like the ventures of Newton, Darwin, and Adam Smith. But in that case how can it be distinguished from science? Does it attempt to establish the most basic truths of the reasoning process itself? But in that case how can it be distinguished from the mathematical work of Euclid? Does it attempt to lay down the prescriptions by which a man ought to live? But in that case how can it be distinguished from the moral passion of an Isaiah? Does it present to the imagination a major world view in which emotion plays an important role? But in that case how can it be distinguished from the poetry of a Goethe or a Dante?

There are some indeed, who like to think of philosophy as akin in its method to natural science; some who like to think of it as mathematics; some who think it is the handmaiden of religion; and still others who think of it as a kind of reasonable poetry. But whichever alternative is chosen is justified by some appeal to the validity and dignity of a certain kind of knowledge. Much dispute about philosophy is really a dispute about proofs, procedures, and techniques. And it reflects an age-old quest--the search for that way of knowing which shall give us reliable knowledge about the things that matter most.

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