Knowing Knowing and Known

In his work On the Soul, Aristotle points out that knowledge of powers depends on the knowledge of activities, and knowledge of activities depends on knowledge of the objects of the activities:

It is necessary for the student of these forms of soul first to find a definition of each, expressive of what it is, and then to investigate its derivative properties, &c. But if we are to express what each is, viz. what the thinking power is, or the perceptive, or the nutritive, we must go farther back and first give an account of thinking or perceiving, for in the order of investigation the question of what an agent does precedes the question, what enables it to do what it does. If this is correct, we must on the same ground go yet another step farther back and have some clear view of the objects of each; thus we must start with these objects, e.g. with food, with what is perceptible, or with what is intelligible.

A little thought will establish that this is entirely necessary. In order to have a general knowledge of the power or the activity, however, it will be sufficient to have a general knowledge of the object. But given that human knowledge proceeds from the general to the specific, it would be reasonable to believe that a detailed knowledge of the power or activity might require a somewhat equally detailed knowledge of the object.

We can see how this would happen by thinking about the example of eating and food. A general idea of both eating and food might be this: eating is taking in other bodies and using them for growth and for energy for other living activities, and food is what can be taken in and used in this way.

Both the idea of eating and the idea of food here are fairly general, and due to their generality they leave open various questions. For example, why is not possible to live off air? Air is a body, and in physics it is in some sense convertible with energy, so it would not seem unreasonable if it could provide the matter and energy that we need in order to grow and to live in other ways.

The general account does not of course assert that this is a possibility, but neither does it deny the possibility. So if someone thinks that the general account tells them all that needs to be known about eating and food, they will not be unlikely to conclude that living off air should be a possibility. If someone drew this conclusion it would be an example of impatience with respect to truth. The example is not very realistic, of course, even if there are a few people who actually draw this conclusion, but this lack of realism is not because of some flaw in the idea of the knowledge of activities depending on the knowledge of objects, but just because most people already accept that air is not a kind of food, even if they do not know why it is not. So they already have a somewhat more detailed knowledge of the object, and therefore also of the activity.

Something similar will result with other powers of the soul, and with powers in general. In the case of knowledge in particular, a general knowledge of knowing will depend on a general knowledge of the known or knowable, and a detailed knowledge of knowing will depend on a detailed knowledge of the known or knowable. And just as in the example above, a general knowledge does not necessarily lead someone into error, but it can leave open questions, and one who is impatient for truth might draw detailed conclusions too soon. In this case, a likely result would be that someone confuses the mode of knowledge and the mode of the known, although this would not be the only way to fall into error.

Sean Collins discusses the history of science and its relationship with philosophy:

In my post of March 6, I noted that we must distinguish between what science has been and what it ought to be, or what it is naturally ordained to be. It is therefore a mistake to take any current or past state of science and construe that as universal without any argument. It is a mistake, for example, to suppose that the Galilean paradigm of physics as “written in mathematical terms” is a universal truth, merely on the ground that physics has been that way for some time, and indeed with some fair degree of success. Or, again, I shall argue, it is a mistake to infer that science consists essentially, and by its permanent universal nature, in reasoning from artificial “paradigms,” even if the recent history of science suggests that.

But from this one might be inclined to draw either of two diametrically opposite inferences. One would be to suppose that history and science have nothing to do with each other, otherwise than accidentally. We should therefore try to find out what science is really supposed to be, and let it be that. But the opposite conclusion seems perhaps equally justifiable: namely that science is essentially historical, so that stages in its progress are precisely stages, and therefore ought not to be confused with the universal character of science itself.

Which is the right conclusion? Should we think that science and history have any real connection? To make the question suitably concrete, we should first recognize that this is really a question about humanity. It is humanity we are wondering about when we ask whether our knowledge has any essential relation with history. It is about the being called “man” himself that we must finally ask whether there is something essentially historical.

But then we can see, perhaps, that this is no small question, and it would scarcely do it justice to propose an answer to it in a few short paragraphs. For now, I will let it suffice to have asked the question. But I would also like to take note of some significant historical facts which suggest a direction in which to seek an answer. And after that I will propose what I think is an absolutely fundamental and critical principle on the way to finding an answer.

The signs I have in mind are these. Some 2500 years ago, Aristotle wrote his Organon, which laid out the delineations of “science.” Aristotle argued that science, in the strictest sense, must be knowledge from universal causes, that these causes must be expressed in self-evident principles, and that the principles must derive from the essences of things as expressed in their definitions. Historically, that view seemed to hold a very firm sway for a very long time, until something strange happened: there was a revolt. Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes were primary agents of the revolt. The revolt was in large measure a backlash against entrenched stagnation, against which irrepressible spirits finally grew indignant. From that moment on, intellectual culture became bifurcated into “science” and “philosophy,” and that bifurcation remains to this day.

Those who remain in the camp of the “philosophers” often stake their claims on the basis of the original claims of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. They resist the intrusions of science on the alleged ground that only philosophy proceeds in a truly universal mode, seeking definitions by “genus and difference,” aiming at truly universal causes, and proposing its theses with complete certitude. Those, on the other hand, who decide to be “scientists” stake their claims on the basis of what they take to be reality itself. They notice the truly astonishing degree to which physical reality has a structure, a structure which reaches down deeply into the materiality of things. They see, all too well, that the discovery and appreciation of that structure absolutely demands a mode of thought which is not that of conventional philosophy. And they cannot, moreover, help but notice that conventional philosophers have often tended to either be completely ignorant of that structure, or worse yet, to not care about it, or to deny that it matters, or to deny that it really exists at all.

To describe this by a succinct approximation, we might say that the philosophical mindset tries to reason from characteristics of the mind: from its yearning for what transcends the murkiness of matter. The scientific mindset, by contrast, seeks to reason from the characteristics of physical reality, even possibly at the expense of the aspirations of human reason towards what is immaterial.

While one might agree that it does not “do justice” to the question in the sense of discussing it adequately, we can see from what has been said that one cannot fully separate science from history. If we ask, “what is the nature of science,” we are asking about the nature of human knowing. In order to answer this, we require knowledge of knowing. But since knowing knowing in a detailed way depends on knowing the known in a detailed way, the question of whether history is essentially involved in knowing knowing depends on whether knowing the known in a detailed way is an essentially historical process.

Human beings and especially the life of an individual human being are very small parts of reality. One consequence is that the single lifetime of an individual is not enough to come to a detailed knowledge of the physical world without an essential dependence on the work of others, which dependence implies a historical process. The “astonishing degree to which physical reality has a structure” is something that necessarily takes many human lifetimes to come to know, and is the collective work of the human race, not the work of an individual.

Speaking of Aristotle’s attitude towards matter in science, Collins says:

Aristotle, as I have noted, saw that materiality is a true principle of natural being. Henceforth, it was no longer necessary to shun matter, as the Platonists had, as if it were repugnant to philosophical endeavors. One could reason about the natural, physical world, and one could reason about it as physical.

Yet we are — no doubt inevitably — slow to grasp the implications of materiality. Even about this very historical fact, many of us tend to think in a quasi-Platonic way. And what I am about to assert will no doubt astonish some readers: even Aristotle himself continued to think in a somewhat Platonic way, despite his recognition of the principle of materiality. But anyone who is acquainted with the history of thought shouldn’t be entirely surprised at my assertion. It is common — ordinary, in fact — for great thinkers, who find themselves at the dawn of a new and fuller vision of the order of things, to have one foot remaining in the older vision, not entirely able to see the implications of their own new intuitions. If one assumes that thought ought to evolve, as opposed to merely changing in revolutionary fits, one should find this even perhaps a little reassuring.

So what do I mean when I say that Aristotle thinks in a semi-Platonic way? Briefly, I mean that, even despite himself in a way, he continues to seek the accounts, the logoi, of things in a way that would place them more in the order of the purely intellectual than the physical. For example, he seeks to understand what time is in a way that makes virtually no appeal to such physical evidence as we have nowadays through physical experimentation. (Of course! How could he make appeal to something that didn’t exist yet?) He supposes, rather inevitably, that simply thinking about time and motion from the relatively deficient point of view of something called  “common experience” will give him something like a sufficient account of what he is trying to understand. And in the end, his vision of an eternal first motion as the source of time, a motion perfectly circular and unchanging, deriving from the causality of a First Mover who could not directly be the source of any contingent effects — this is a vision which now, from the point of view of contemporary science as well as Christian theology, rightly strikes us as not yet a mature vision in its understanding of the role of matter in the order of the cosmos.

This, to be sure, is not a criticism of Aristotle, as if to suggest that he should have thought something else; rather, it is merely an observation of how human thought inevitably takes time to  develop. Nor do I mean to suggest that what Aristotle saw was of negligible account. It belongs precisely to what I am calling the order of concretion to begin with the relatively abstract in our understanding of material things, and this is because matter is ordered to form more than vice versa. This can be illustrated in the design of artifacts, for in them also there is always a material and a formal element. Thus, for example, barring special circumstances, one does not ordinarily design a building by first looking at what materials to use; rather one considers what form and function they are to serve, and then one chooses materials accordingly. Though there are circumstantial exceptions to this principle, it remains a principle; and it is clear enough that a systematic disregard of it would make our thought chaotic.

Thus one can see that there is a philosophical justification for doing what Aristotle did. We might describe this justification in another way as well: it derives from the fact that the human mind must bear some proportion to the reality it is to know. For having understood something of the difference between the order of intellect and the order of physical being, we still suppose, rightly, that there must be a proportion between them. Yet this rather abstract statement leaves much in doubt. How is the human mind to fulfill its destiny to know physical reality? I shall trust my readers to be able to understand that the answer to that question could not look the same in the 4th century BC as it looks now….

It is possible that Collins is too generous to Aristotle here, perhaps for the sake of his readers and for the sake of his own intellectual tradition, in the sense that to some extent, it seems likely that some of Aristotle’s conclusions are “impatient” in the way we have discussed earlier. Nonetheless his basic assertion is correct. Knowing the nature of knowledge in detail requires more knowledge of the knowable thing than Aristotle could have had at the time. As Collins says, this is “merely an observation of how human thought inevitably takes time to develop.” And even if there is some intellectual impatience there, there is perhaps no more such impatience than is generally found in those who seek to understand reality.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s