DOWN TO EARTH EPISTEMOLOGY
By Milton Dawes
A great deal of our human problems arises not so much from what we know - but from what we know that isn't so.
Some of my abstractions re Epistemology (from my western perspective) at this time-place. I have not put quotes around many of the “ises” since many represent actual statements of some philosophers.
“We have seen that philosophy is concerned with that which is, in contrast with that which seems to be. Its aim is to reveal the reality which underlies appearances”. ( The Problems of Philosophy by John Grier Hibben, Ph.D. written in 1898, page 14)
“Metaphysics, then, is not something in a book, but something in a mind”… “No one can understand for another or judge for another. Such acts are one's own and only one's own. Explicit metaphysics is a personal attainment”. ( Insight A Study of Human Understanding by Bernard J.F. Lonergan, S.J. written in 1957, page 396). ……“the dynamic cognitional structure to be reached ……. is the personally appropriated structure of one's own experiencing, one's own intelligent inquiry and insights, one's own critical reflection and judging and deciding. (page xviii).
“If we try to disregard epistemology (“epistemology” in italics) consciously, we delude ourselves, as we cannot eliminate some (“some” in italics) epistemology as a foundation for our methods of evaluation, and , therefore, unconsciously retain some primitive epistemology which through inappropriate standards of evaluation, introduces semantic blockages. (Alfred Korzybski. Science and Sanity page 554). ”…….'.Not every individual knows or realizes the importance of, or seemingly consciously cares for, epistemology; yet everyone unconsciously has one and acts and lives by it. Each individual has his own special problems, the solution of which always claims the whole man, and no man is complete, unless he consciously realizes the permanent presence in his life of some standards of evaluation. Every one has thus some ( “some” in italics) epistemology. There is no way of parting with it, - nor with air, nor with water, - and live. the only problem is whether his standards of evaluation are polluted with primitive remains of bygone ages, in a variety of ways; or sanified by science and modern epistemology' . ( Alfred Korzybski. Science and Sanity page 554)
Traditionally those we call “philosophers” and metaphysicians were concerned with exploring, and answering questions related to abstractions they classified under the broad headings (very high order abstractions) “nature, mind, and God”. They also speculated regarding the interrelationships between these three abstracted divisions. They were not only concerned with answering questions related to the nature of that which is, (' reality' ) but they also sought answers for that which should be (values). They explored and discussed ideals and standards, on which to base reason, behavior, beauty and harmony. These concerns resulted in diverse areas of philosophical inquiry: Ontology, the study of the nature of being; cosmology, the study related to the origin of the universe; philosophical psychology, the study of mind; and the normative sciences - logic, ethics, aesthetics, related to the study of values.
Some of the specific questions asked can be represented as follows:
What is the nature of being?
What is the origin of the universe?
What is the purpose of the universe?
What is the origin and destiny of man.?
What is the nature of reality?
What is the nature of God, mind, nature?
What are the relationships between these three divisions of reality?
How can that which is, be encountered?
What is the nature of truth?
What are the ideals on which to base reason, truth, and falsehood?
What are the ideals on which to base right conduct?
What are the ideals on which to base the beautiful and the ugly?
In exploring these questions (never mind that many of the terms were not defined at the start “being”, and “reality ” for instance), philosophers and metaphysicians came up with answers, generating seemingly endless, and necessarily unavoidable discussions; some of which became the foundations for many schools of sometimes diametrically opposed views.
Among these many conflicting views related to nature , mind, God, values, and their interrelationships we find the following: monism (materialism, spritualism, dualism, solipsism, objectivism, determinism, indeterminism, polytheism, deism, theism, pantheism, monotheism, occasionalism, pluralism, parallelism, prmitivism, existentialism, agnosticism, atheism, utilitarianism, pragmatism, transcendentalism, to mention a few.
In defence of these many conflicting views, I would offer that this should not influence us to view philosophical and metaphysical explorations unfavourably. Philosophers and metaphysicians as unique humans, each making their particular contributions, adds to our fuller understanding of ourselves in universe. We need mainly to avoid identifying any conclusion reached as representing the whole or as being the final word.
From their explorations, speculative answers, and discussions, philosophers and metaphysicians (as self-reflexive time-binders) eventually began to ask themselves questions about their questions, and “epistemology” came into being.
“Epistemology” is the name for that branch of philosophy where philosophers discuss and propose ''theories of knowledge”. They ask such questions as: What is the source of knowledge? What is the nature of knowledge?
What is knowing?
What is truth?
What is happening when we are knowing?
What is known when that is happening?
What do we know when we know?
What is the relationship between the knower and the known?
What are the limits of knowledge?“ among others.
Again these probings gave rise to various schools of sometimes conflicting thoughts, among which we find the following: Idealism, empiricism, solipsism, rationalism, naive realism, critical realism, sensationalism, nominalism, conceptualism, positivism, criticism, experimentalism, phenomenalism, among others.
I wont attempt to elaborate on these various views on our knowings. I will however mention two that has been most useful in providing guidelines for a worldview, and standards for improving our critical evaluating skills. They consist of my abstractions from the writings of Bernard J.F.Lonergan S.J, professor of Dogmatic Theology. And the other involves my abstractions from the writings expressing Alfred Korzybski's Non-Aristotelain system and General-Semantics.
Bernard Lonergan in his book “Insights” “A Study of Human Understanding” takes a “transcendental approach” in addressing epistemological issues. “Transcendence” as used by Lonergan does not involve any mystical , mysterious, visionary or idealistic fantasies.. Lonergan's use of “transcendence” has to do with ” going beyond; raising further questions; a process of individual developing through stages of differentiated consciousness; taking a heuristic approach; a gradual acquisition and accumulation of insights( learning ); a notion of progress: the above being motivated by what he calls “an innate, unrestricted desire to know”
Before going further, I'll say a few words based on my abstracting from Lonergans's writings, about some terms used above. The “heuristic approach” has to do with using the little we know of a 'fuzzy' known, to direct and guide our search toward a fuller knowing. You could think of this as kind of reiterated experimental approach: You try something. It doesn't work. But by noticing somethings about how it doesn't work, you may get some clues as to how it might work, or what is needed to make it work. You use that information to guide your next try, and so on. Lonergan's metaphysics and epistemology are based on a heuristic approach. When one asks a question such as “what is the nature of knowledge” , it seems to me that the more useful approach has to be a heuristic one, since one doesn't specifically know what one is looking for.
“Unrestricted desire to know” has to do with a desire ( expressed in varying degrees in each individual)) for complete understanding; and it involves a demand for intelligent and critical handling of every question. We not only want to know. We want to know if what we know is so. And we want to know all that can be known. Evidence for this has to do with our propensity to ask further questions, and an inability to see the end of the questioning process. (We can experience some of this by remembering times when we were not satisfied with an explanation and remained puzzled. And the infant that asks why? why? why?……) Of course one must not forget what Lonergan calls “the flight from understanding”. Related to this he wrote “ … the flight from understanding …..appears to result simply from an incomplete development in the intelligent and reasonable use of one's own intelligence and reasonableness”. (page xi)
With regard to “differentiated consciousness”. 'Think' of a baby and its concerns, interests, contemplations, demands, reflection on its demands, self-criticism, and so on. Now 'think' of our concerns, interests, etc., as adults: Our conscious operations, our behaviors, are more differentiated than a baby's. A very vivid related image is one where a baby has tasted something sour or bitter. ( I might add that without a more differentiated consciousness such as the “consciousness of abstracting”, our ordinary differentiated consciousness can lead to great confusions, anxieties, conflicts, violence, wars, unsanity, insanity, and so on).
To return to Lonergan's epistemology as I understand it, I'll use some of his own words from time to time as they say it much better than I could.
On page 639 “Insights”. Lonergan wrote this in relation to his notion of transcendent knowledge. “Man's unrestricted desire to know is mated to a limited capacity to attain knowledge. From this paradox there follow both a fact and a requirement. The fact is that the range of possible questions is larger than the range of possible answers. The requirement is a critical survey of possible questions. For it is only through such a critical survey that man can provide himself with intelligent and reasonable grounds both for setting aside the questions that cannot be answered and for limiting his attention to the questions to which answers are possible. (With respect to this he writes in a lighter vein on page 643 “Because man's desire to know is unrestricted while his capacity to know is limited, one does not have to be a fool to ask more questions than a wise man can answer”).
Lonergan does not support the everyday notion that “knowing is nothing more than looking”. On page 634 he wrote: “For on that view the fact of error is somewhat disconcerting: either error consists in seeing what is not there or else it consists in not seeing what is there.( I like that) But if the first look is erroneous, the second third, fourth , or nth may err in the same or in some different fashion. Which is to be trusted? Is any to be trusted?. Does not certitude require the possibility of some super-look in which one can compare the object to be looked at and the object as seen? Would not the super-look be open to exactly the same difficulty?”
Lonergan's transcendental treatment of knowing involves a hierachical and self-reflexive process of “intelligent inquiry, and critical reflection”. This process can be further elaborated as follows. We sense, we perceive, we imagine, we wonder. We inquire, we have insights , we formulate. We come to some understanding. We reflect, we critically evaluate based on some chosen ideal or standard. We make judgments based on our chosen standards.. We come to a knowing. We ask further questions, and so on.
The process is considered hierachical based on the fact that what we perceive is what we inquire about. Our inquiries lead to some understanding. (For many humans, that “is” it. But for many others, especially those in scientific disciplines, that represents only a first stage of inquiry) They go beyond. They formulate, talk about what they understand. They reflect on what they understand - and ask is it so? They appeal to some, criteria, ideal, or standard. Their answer constitutes a judgment. They come to knowing - and continue to ask further questions. (I don't 'think' it is necessary to elaborate on the self-reflexiveness involved in the process as illustrated above).
The question now arises. What do we know when we arrive at a knowing? According to my understanding of Lonergan, what we know is nothing more than what we arrive at through the cognitional processes outlined above. We perform certain cognitional acts, and our knowing emerges from these acts. Our knowing depends on the data of consciousness, and the standards on which our judgments are based. We cannot get outside our nervous system, to know about our knowing. What we know is related to what “we” have designated as knowing. On this account what we know is not anything outside of us. We know of and about, but we don't know “it” whatever “it” happens to be. This may be a difficult notion to accept. But we could experience the validity of this scheme for ourselves, by asking ourselves this question - while exploring our own cognitional processes: “What do I know when I say I know someone, or something?” And keeping in 'mind' Lonergan's statement “Metaphysics, then, is not something in a book but something in a mind”.
Lonergan goes further; and this may even be more difficult to accept. He proposes that the above scheme cannot be revised. It cannot be revised simply on account of the fact that if someone says “This is not knowing” their refutation will be based on data, inquiry, reflection, judgment etc. and such a critic cannot engage in a process using data, inquiry, reflection, etc., to criticize and refute, a process described as being dependent on data , inquiry, reflection, etc. As Lonergan put it ” A reviser cannot appeal to data to deny data, to his new insights to deny insights, to his new formulation to deny formulation, to his reflective grasp to deny reflective grasp“. (Insight page 336) Or put another way, we cannot use our intelligence to denounce intelligence. This has little to do with whether one person is 'right' or 'wrong' Or whether conclusions are true or false. Please remember now that Lonergan is refering to the process, not the conclusions or results obtained.. (This process of knowing as outlined above, could be considered as a “relative invariant nervous system functioning” in general-semantics terms).
Lonergan's epistemology springs from his metaphysics. He describes this as “the detached and disinterested drive of the pure desire to know……”. and which finds expression in our intelligent inquiries, and critical reflections. And, he wrote “there is not, in human knowledge, any possible higher viewpoint that goes beyond that framework itself, and replaces intelligent inquiry and critical reflection by some surrogate;……” (Insights page 394)
Lonergan's epistemology includes appreciation of common sense, science, and the arts, as discovering in their different ways, patterns that help us understand our world. Our common sense, “an accumulation of related insights”; ” a self-correcting process of learning“, according to Lonergan, developed out of ” … the very spirit of inquiry that constitutes the scientific attitude. But in its native state it is untutored“. (page 175) The artist ”…..exercises his intelligence in discovering ever novel forms that unify and relate the contents and acts of aesthetic experience“. (page 184)
Lonergan's epistemology recognizes our knowledge as limited. He considers not just the known, but also the knower that comes to know him/herself through a recognition of the knowing processes in operation: We get to know ourselves as knowers through a conscious awareness of the interdependency and interrelatedness of our sensing, perceiving, imagining, inquiry, insight, understanding, formulating, critical reflecting, judgment, etc.
He calls this particular conscious awareness “explicit metaphysics” - a knowing about ourselves, ” primarily a process to self knowledge“; “and a sufficiently clear and precise grasp of the common source of our knowing”; an “appropriation of our rational self-consciousness”. A knowing not just of knowing, but a knowing of ourselves by experiencing that unity in us that goes from sensing, perceiving, etc., to judgment and knowing. This is in opposition to “latent metaphysics” where we have not experienced ourselves in our knowing processes. We claim we know. But by not appropriating ( not taking possession of, not having the experience of ) what we mean by knowing, our potentials for self-developing remain hidden from us. Not knowing about our knowing, we don't know ourselves.
On the possibility of grasping our own developing, Lonergan wrote this: “To grasp his own developing is for man to understand it, to extrapolate from his past through the present to the alternative ranges of the future….. More fundamentally, it is to grasp the principles that govern possible extrapolations; for while possibilities are many and difficult to determine, principles may be few and ascertainable”.
Lonergan believed in the notion of progress in our individual knowing and in ourselves. On page 234 he wrote “In the first place, there is such a thing as progress and its principle is liberty. There is progress, because practical intelligence grasps ideas in data, guides activity by the ideas, and reaches fuller and more accurate ideas through the situations produced by the activity. And on page xiv. ”….concrete situations give rise to insights which issue into policies and courses of action. Action transforms the existing situation to give rise to further insights, better policies, more effective courses of action”. ( Examples of the heuristic approach)
We could dismiss “epistemology” as just so much philosophical pie in the sky. And although the above abstractions does not represent all there is to Lonergan's epistemology; nor all of my abstractings from his writings; I 'think' it is enough for us to assume that at least one epistemology has much to offer that we can use to improve ourselves and better manage situations in our everyday living. Heuristics, differentiated consciousness, transcendence, progress, appreciation for common sense, the arts, and the method of science; an awareness of the limits of knowledge, critical reflection, the importance of developing sensitive awareness towards progress in knowing; asking ourselves the simple question “How do I know” - all can contribute to our continuing developing; all have a place in our everyday lives.
Let's now take a brief look ( My look: so you are looking at some of the results of my looking) at Korzybski's epistemology. This was abstracted from his book Science and Sanity (1933) But first a few more words from Lonergan.
“A method is a set of directives that serve to guide a process towards a result” (Insight page 396)
If our aim is towards, increase knowledge and understanding of ourselves in universe; continuing self-developing; maintaining satisfying relationships; acting more appropriately in our different environments; if our aim is towards increasing our critical evaluating skills; becoming more imaginative and creative; becoming better interpreters of what we hear, read, see, etc, if our aim is towards reducing stress in our lives, better management of our lives; and so on - I cannot think of a simpler or more practical epistemological system than Korzybski's general-semantics, as a set of directives to guide us towards those results.
General-semantics has been described by some as “Up to date epistemology”. To that I would also add : “relatively simple ( not necessarily easy) down to earth, personal, and practical epistemology”. What could be simpler than the following directives?
Whatever we ( as individuals) hear, see, touch , smell, etc., is not all that could be heard, seen, etc. not the only way to listen, look etc. Whatever we say, think, imagine, believe, understand, etc., is not all that could be said, imagined, understood etc. There are other things that could be said: other ways to say what we said, and so on..
Whatever we know is not all that can be known. But there are limits to what we can know. Since there are limits to what we can see, hear, feel, etc. We don't know what anything 'means'. We assign our own meanings to what we hear, see, believe, know, etc. Words do not have meanings. We give our own meanings to words. Whatever we know must not be considered elementalistically as absolute knowledge, but as a subject-object-subject relationship. The 'known' is not something 'out there', but an awareness of the results of interactions between “whatever is going on out there - and whatever has been going on, and is going on in us. (So we need to be attentive to what we are now thinking, feeling, doing etc., since our presents influence our futures).
Whatever we know can be structured in terms of structure, order, and relationships. Relationships between nervous system structurings and non-nervous system structurings. These relationships involve structural patterns of light waves, sound waves, molecular bombardment, the patterns and frequencies of neural firings, and so on. When we ignore the order of things, we are moving towards delusions, insanity, or at least a certain degree of uncomfortableness..( If we imagine the traffic light has turned green and acted on this before it had turned green…. If we shut the car door before moving our fingers out of the way….. Don't cross the bridge 'till you come to it, is a proverb old and of excellent wit - something I remembered from infant school days).
It is to our advantage to “date' our knowings. Things change. We change. Others change. “Think' of whatever is known, understood, believed etc., as “maps”. And remember that a map is not the territory it is a map of. That a map can also be perceived as a map of the map-maker. That the ideal map would contain a map of itself, and so on.
In formulating our knowings, we should for our sanity's sake, remember that the words we use to express our knowings are not the knowings, or the processes they are about; that the generalization is not the inference; that the inference is not the description; that the description, or label, is not the object; that the object is not the atomic or sub-atomic happenings, or whatever else may be going on.
If there are limits to our sensings; limits to our knowings; if our words are not the processs they are about; if we change; if things change - we improve our intelligence by indexing our knowings with a certain degree of uncertainty. it suits us to say-believe-act, that what we know, may be only probably so.
From the above one can abstract many parallels between Lonergan's epistemology, and Korzybski's epistemology. Although the terminologies are different, students of general-semantics may abstract from the above abstractions, common factors related to, time-binding, respect for the individual, directives for self-developing, the importance of self-reflexiveness, critical evaluating, respect for scientific method, and method in general, a sensitivity to order, a probabilistic attitude, a vision of the possibilities for progress, the individual as transcendent, and much more.
If the quality of our living, if what we do, and how we do what we do, depends on what we know or 'think' we know, then epistemolgy is not just for professional philosophers or metaphysicians. It is also for the 'philosopher' and 'metaphysician' in 'all' of us. We can don those epistemological caps by seeking to “appropriate our rational self-consciousness” by becoming more “conscious of our abstractings”. And we can start with the simple heuristic question “How do I know”.