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.

What were you thinking, Mr. Coleridge?

I’m driving up to PA today for the Orthodox Classical Home Schooling Conference at Antiochian Village. Along the way I’m going to listen to some Louis Markos tapes from the Teaching Company in which he describes, in an introductory way, literary theory “From Plato to Post-Modernism.” I’m particularly interested in his lectures on Kant and Hegel for two reasons:

  1. When Coleridge was trying to describe the creative process he encountered a problem not unlike the one I’m dealing with right now. The Augustan age, the age of the Enlightenment, left him dissatisfied with the language and terms they gave him. They were too mechanical and immediate. As a result, he looked to Kant, Shelling, and Hegel for language to describe the organic and transcendent side of the imagination. I run into this problem, not so much because the language of description isn’t available, but because the language of harmony isn’t there. In other words, we are expected to approach things from a naturalistic materialistic set of assumptions when we do science. If literature aspires to recognition beyond the domain of personal feelings it feels a need to use scientific language. Even worse, so does teaching. So analogy, parabolic thought, common intuitions, the inner life of traditions, etc. are all “thrown under the bus” as it were. Which marks the end of literary and pedagogical theories as creative forces.
  2. Because Kant, Schelling, and Hegel are, in my view, essential forces on the way to totalitarianism in Europe, so I need to understand what Coleridge was doing with them. Was he adopting their views? Or was he using their language and ideas to lift his own thoughts to a higher level of harmony than they had attained previously while avoiding those elements that laid the groundwork for an expanded tyranny.

I don’t think I’ll have much time for blogging over the next few days, but when I get a chance I’ll try to report on what I discover. Of course, to receive the refined, reflected on, edited, careful report, you’ll need to come to the CiRCE conference this summer and engage in the discussion!

If you are wondering, yes, I do recommend the Markos set for people teaching or studying or, better yet, loving literature. I would also recommend reading the old Encyclopedia Britannica article on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. If you are up for it, his Biographia Litteraria is quite interesting, but don’t anticipate an orderly discussion. He has shorter essays, like his Art of Poesy that are, if only becuase they are shorter, easier to read.