Can We Know?

Warning: this post is very philosophical.

Immanuel Kant is one of the most interesting philosophers to read because he is so incredibly hard to understand. Before he wrote in the late 18th century, philosophers were trying to figure out what was knowable. The Rationalists, following the French Philosopher, Rene Descartes, argued that we had innate ideas in our heads and that was what we could know. Descartes famously expressed it this way, “I think, therefore I am.”

But the Empiricists, following Bacon, Locke, and Hume denied innate ideas. They argued that no idea could ever enter our head unless it came first through the senses.

Kant wanted to resolve the impasse, at least partly because he was worried about the sciences losing their way and at least partly because he was worried about religion being overthrown by materialist philosophy.

His solution is elegant. He argued that we do have ideas in our minds, such as time and space, that no amount of experience could ever put there. In fact, they precede experience. We can’t even have an experience without time and space being a part of it.

But these ideas are dormant until experience arouses them. So experience is just as necessary as thought, and thought is actually radically limited in its power.

Because time and space precede thought, we can never understand time and space. But we can also never really know the particular thing we know through our senses either (which is the only way we can consciously know things) because we can only know them through our senses as our senses operate and in the context of time and space.

He developed some terms for this situation which are kind of fun.The thing that we perceive is the phenomemon. The thing in itself he called the ding-an-sich, which cleverly means “the thing in itself.” In other words, the thing that is and exists independently of us, whether or not we perceive it. He argued that we can never know the ding-an-sich, but we could perceive it with our senses.

This is a really huge idea, one of those things that manifests itself in the nerdiest corners of everyday existence after it works its way throug people’s minds. What Kant is arguing is that the universe outside of our minds is real, and therefore it is a valid object of study. However, we can only know about it; we can never know the universe itself.

Since Kant wrote that, German education, more specifically Prussian, has become the dominant intellectual force of the modern world. The American school system finds its model in the schools of 19th century Germany, and these schools were, at the least, strongly influenced by Kant’s thinking.

The higher criticism, for example, is a direct development of Kant’s so-called Critical Theory.

While I admire Kant, I think his influence on the way literature is taught is problematic. In some ways, it was positive, because he influenced Coleridge and Shelling in England and Germany, and both had some valuable insights into the creative process. But when his influence reaches the classroom, all the transcendent value is washed out of it and it seems to reduce itself to knowing about instead of knowing.

In the typical literary class, at least one that is dominated by the text book, a group of students sit outside a text the way a photographer sits outside a wedding. They observe it, record some high points, learn some technical language, and produce an artifact. But they don’t, typically, enter into the ceremony of reading.

The text itself is unknowable.

I think I know why, and this is what prompted me to write this blog even though I absolutely should be working on editing documents for LTW II right now. Forgive me Leah and Camille – I will get back to work.

I think the reason is because Kant and most moderns think of knowledge as something scientific, almost material. When you know the qualities of a thing, you know the thing. When you can act on or with a thing, then you know it. That’s the Pragmatism of Dewey or James.

But this is not the case. Knowledge is first and foremost a formal relationship between things.

Kant and many of these philosophers break down every sort of knowledge because of this mistake, which is cyclically related to language. Let me explain.

When I think a thought, I always think about something. In other words, my thought always has a subject.

In addition, every thought I think always thinks something about the subject. We call that the predicate, which comes from the Latin “predicare” which means “to say about.”

Every thought, therefore, has a subject and predicate. This is the form of thought.

Now consider things that exist. Everything that exists is something. It is a subject. But nothing can exist without something being true of it. Every existing thing has a predicate, even if the only thing “predicable” of a thing is that it exists.

Therefore, you can see ratios and proportions in thinking and being. As thinking is done in subjects and predicates, so existing is done in subjects and predicates. Thinking is relating predicates to subjects. Existing is relating predicates to subjects.

Thinking and being are both about relationships. And thinking and being are related to each other.

The relationships are all formal, not material. The material substance of an object can never enter my soul. But its formal substance certainly can.

That is the fundamental problem with the Enlightenment, with Modernism, with Post-Modernism, and with conventional education.

In the earlier cases they tried to build a theory of knowledge that was rooted in physics (Descartes, Bacon, Hume, Locke, and Kant all tried this in varying degrees), but the first four failed utterly to develop a tenable theory of knowing and Kant’s theory reduced knowledge to something more limited than necessary).

In post-modernism, the attitude seems to be that since the Enlightenment couldn’t give us a way to know things with their radically limited tools, nothing is knowable, so we won’t worry about it, since the many meta-narratives of the Enlightenment were found wanting, we are obliged to enter into a meta-meta-narrative that rejects meta-narratives.

My hypothesis is simple: the error is fundamental in all these schools of thought. They all reject what the Latins called Form, what the Greeks call an eidon or idea or logos. They are all so anxious to move away from Logos that they make knowing impossible.

Everything has its own inner logos. The Enlightenment started out looking for these logoi using the tools either of reason or of experience. It didn’t work, so Postmodernism denies the existence of logoi at all. All is convention, constructed in the human mind. There is no logos in the mind that matches the logos in the cosmos, that can perceive and know it. So knowledge is impossible.

However, the doctrine of a logos, an essence, a nature, an idea, is not mere Platonism. It is what makes knowledge possible. It is what makes us able to know things we can’t see, such as justice, freedom, and truth. Without it, justice, freedom, and truth can’t exist in human souls or society. They are reduced to words that have a strange power to manipulate others and move their souls, but that have no existence in reality.

Let me try again. My hypothesis is simple: Knowledge is first formal, then personal, and in all things relational. My soul can absorb the glass that holds the wine just as surely as my body can absorb the wine itself. It cannot absorb it physically, but it can absorb its form.

Not perfectly, by any means. But truly.

Until our world accepts this principle, our civilization will continue to disintegrate and unravel. All that is good in our age and everything worthwhile in our schools is a remnant of the time when people lived in this knowable world. All that is dangerous and unstable, all the forces of disintegration in the modern soul and society arise from this rejection of the logos.

Whatever else Kant achieved, it seems to me that he could never resolve the issue he was facing simply because he did not understand or embrace the formality of knowledge.

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One Response

  1. Andrew,

    Have you read anything by Thomas Reid (1710-1796)? If not, I highly recommend his “Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man.” Reid belongs to a different school of epistemology than Descartes / Kant / Locke / Hume / et. al. who are all “Methodists” (which in epistemology means that they begin by offering the justification for knowledge and then secondarily evaluate what beliefs meet those justifications and are then knowledge). Reid argues the reverse position, what is known as “Particularism”—which means that he begins with things that are known and from those he develops justification (through induction). Basically, Reid examines certain “first principles” which cannot—not—be known; principles that cannot be reasoned to, but can only be reasoned from. This, to me, is the fatal flaw in Descartes and those who follow his approach—if we took their epistemology seriously, their language would be incomprehensible. But it is only because we assume certain first principles from the very beginning (and count them as knowledge) that Descartes and Kant can even begin their task. Hence, they will always be in an infinite regress.

    I have found Reid’s approach to epistemology far more reasonable and defensible than the likes of Descartes. Many of the modern “Reformed Epistemologists” (Walterstorff, Plantinga, etc.) take Reid’s approach as well. Sorry if you know this already, but I just thought I would pass it along just in case.

    Oh, and Reid is far more comprehensible to “read” than Kant, but, hey, who isn’t!

    Trent Leach

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