The Great Conversation:

By Gabriel Blanchard

They say a little learning
is a dangerous thing ...

Writing about knowledge is a tricky business: everything we either write or read has something to do with knowledge, but satisfactorily defining knowledge seems almost impossible—just as everything we see has something to do with light and yet looking directly at the sun is not a good idea. Nonetheless, and for various reasons, knowledge remains one of the perennial topics of the Great Conversation as conducted by philosophers, judges, scientists, historians, and theologians.

Defining what constitutes knowledge was, according to his most illustrious pupil, the chief interest of Socrates. Many of Plato‘s dialogues, especially earlier ones such as the Meno and the Protagoras, are concerned with how we learn and with what can be taught versus what cannot. The Theætatus deals entirely with the subject of knowledge, and it is from this that we get the traditional definition that knowledge is “justified true belief,” i.e. an opinion held by somebody about a topic, for reasons that are adequate for them to consider this not merely a guess but a fact, and which is also actually correct. We lack space here to explain Plato’s reasoning, but it is interesting that the long success this definition has enjoyed is rather ironic given its source: the Theætatus discusses this as well as two further definitions of knowledge, and finds all three unsatisfactory! Despite our modern association of Platonism with the radiance of the Forms and the confidence that recollection of them supposedly affords, Plato’s Academy had a long tradition of skepticism after his death.

Aristotle had more confidence in the human intellect, and composed a collection of works entirely devoted to understanding and investigating statements, arguments, and fallacies of all kinds. Known collectively as the Organon, which roughly translates as “the Toolbox,” these works were a standard text on logical analysis for the Islamic Golden Age, European Scholasticism, and the Renaissance.

The issue of certainty tends to be the wedge that separates knowledge proper from opinion. A desire for certainty was what prompted Descartes to embark on his program of radical doubt, outlined in his Discourse on the Method. In order to escape from doubts, Descartes took the bull by the horns and decided to try doubting everything he could, in order to discover what doubt could not unsettle, and proceed from there to . Since he was there doing the doubting, the first un-doubtable thing he arrived at was his own existence; hence, of course, the famous line Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” From there, he reconstructed his whole intellectual universe, or at any rate one to his own satisfaction. This was the beginning of foundationalism, an approach to epistemology (the philosophy of how we know things) that attempts to place something beyond doubt, which can then in turn serve as the foundation for all other knowledge. Descartes saw logical inference as the best choice—a specific form of foundationalism called rationalism. Many European thinkers followed in his footsteps, whether they adopted his exact doctrines or not. In the British Isles, however, empiricism was more favored, this being the theory that sense experience rather than reason is the basis of knowledge. (A little ironically, thanks to his grand and intricate system of thought, both rationalists and empiricists could argue they were following Aristotle, if they wanted to claim him as an illustrious predecessor.)

A sort of hybrid of rationalism and empiricism that deserves note is a school of thought—perhaps more accurately an attitude—that’s sometimes called scientism. The attitude in question is that the scientific method is the best or only means of obtaining knowledge, and that things the scientific method does not address cannot be known (or, in extreme versions, cannot even exist). Not many actual scientists would make such a silly claim; they know, literally by experiment, that their fields of knowledge are changing and growing all the time, and that long-established beliefs are often overturned by new discoveries. Nonetheless, a scientistic attitude to knowledge can be discerned in many circles and contexts.

Much learning doth make thee mad.

To the extent that the word means anything, postmodernism indicates a rejection of foundationalism as such, or at least a critique of it. This is often dismissively labeled “relativism,” and the label is called for in some cases; but the reality is, as usual, far more nuanced. In particular, a favorite topic of many postmodern thinkers is that of perspective—or, in more typical academic terms, subjectivity. We know from our earliest years that our view of physical objects is largely controlled by where we are standing: so too are our ideas, principles, experiences, and so forth largely controlled by “where” we are thinking “from,” so to speak. Many aspects of our lives, past and present (sex, age, prosperity, ethnicity, religion or lack thereof, etc.), affect what experiences we have, what facts we have at our disposal, and what arguments we tend to find credible—for a trite but significant example, think of the differences in upbringing between a child who has a library card and one who does not. All this does not mean knowledge or communication are impossible; rather, it means that it is a mistake to label any single perspective “objective,” because nobody is above the human condition. Objective truth is (on some postmodern views) not only impossible to obtain, but would not even be desirable if it were, because human beings are not objects but subjects—autonomous people with the capacity to think for ourselves and relate to one another, not computers. Expecting us to excise our personal and social selves in the service of intellect is in reality an impoverishment of intellect, not its safeguard.

Similar issues like context and framing can also be highly important to knowledge, or more precisely to how we obtain and communicate knowledge. An out-of-context fact can sometimes be more misleading than an error: for instance, if we know there was a King John of Ruritania in 1768, we might assume Ruritania must have been a monarchy, yet the missing context might be that King John led a revolt and installed himself as king in 1768, and was dethroned later that same year by citizens who restored Ruritania’s traditional democratic government. How information is presented, and how much information is presented, can have far-reaching effects on what we know and in what sense we know it.

We have hardly scratched the surface of knowledge as a subject, and must leave many key aspects of it (education, for example!) undiscussed. However, there is one more dimension of knowledge that has proven an extremely fertile field in Western thought: namely, the relationship between knowledge and faith. More specifically, insofar as the Western tradition has been mostly or largely Christian for the last dozen centuries or so, a closely interrelated web—or knot—of philosophical questions have arisen about the proper relationship between the assertions of the Christian faith and the things we do or can know independently of that faith. The doctrine of revelation (i.e., that God has disclosed certain truths to mankind which we did not know and could never have discovered on our own) puts us in a position of, in a sense, deciding what we know, in the sense that we must decide what authorities to trust.

Suggested reading:
Aristotle, Posterior Analytics
St. Augustine, On the Trinity
Proclus, Commentary on the First Book of Euclid’s “Elements”
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles
Baruch Spinoza, Ethics
John Locke, An Essay Concering Human Understanding
Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy
Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism


Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance author and the editor at large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also be interested in some of the other installments from our series on the Great Conversation, on topics like art, duty, law, love, and war.

Published on 11th August, 2022.

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