A Historical Outline of the Philosophy of Knowledge Stephen Carruthers (Draft 27/11/12) Not to be reproduced without Author’s permission Comments to Stephen
.email@example.com Introduction This essay addresses the epistemological issue of how philosophers in different epochs have answered the question: What is the relationship between Man and his environment? How does one find validation of one’s belief system? Epistemology’s task is to develop a method for the justification of knowledge. Epistemology should demonstrate the manner in which assumed knowledge can be justified as valid knowledge (Carnap: Scheinprobleme in der Philosphie).
Magic and Animism In primitive human societies or peoples, such epistemological questions did not exist. In the earliest stage of human existence there was no religion. In paleolithic societies a magical relationship to nature pre-dominated to be succeeded by animism which endowed each object or animal with its own spirit. In paleolithic society, the motif in art was a direct representation of the object. In neolithic society it was ‘a stylised and idealized superworld to ordinary empirical reality’ (Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art). Man was not solitary but lived in a tribe or horde. The community was the source of validation. Law did not exist. The reality of a thought was validated by its effect (Freud: Totem and Taboo). In animism, spirits determined causality. Thought was omnipotent and expressed through magic and witchcraft. There was no science since it was unnecessary. Man, through the world-view of animism, could explain everything. In oneself and in each human there existed spirits. There was a direct relationship between experience and consequences: there is no rain, I am thirsty, the spirit is offended, I perform a rain dance, it still does not rain, I repeat the process until it rains or I die. It was an all-embracing view of the world. Thought is immediately transformed into action. Doubt is impossible since there is an answer for every question. Without an answer there can be no question. The name is the substance of an object. One must never utter the name of a dead person for that is an insult to his spirit. There are no hypotheses. The logic of language determines reality and there is only one word game. There is no cogito ergo sum but cogito ergo ago. 1
Speech and action, art and reality, the self and the environment are treated equally. Freud speaks of narcissism in the sense that the ego is projected onto the world (Totem and Taboo). The world is created in accordance with my thoughts. But my thoughts correspond with the thoughts of the community because there is no other possible form of thought or speech. It is for that reason that even the smallest violation of a taboo is punished with death. Someone who breaks a taboo brings the whole system into question since the action creates the possibility of a different worldview, a different language game, and a different reality. Thus there is a manifold validation of this world-view. It is comprehensive and immediate. Thought is still omnipotent and there is no doubt about its validity.
Religion Religion succeeds animism: first polytheism and then, with Judaism, monotheism. The hunter and gatherer society is slowly replaced by agriculture, nomadic society by the state based on hierarchical relationships with nobility, royalty, and law. The state is based on accumulation, organisation, dowry system, suppression of women, trade, and kinship. Writing is developed in the Canaanite, Aramaic, Minoan, and Egyptian scripts. The world becomes more complex. The comparison between races and peoples becomes possible (Herodotus: Histories). Information spreads and technology develops. Primitive warlike races conquer civilised societies (Minoa, Mycene, Jerusalem). Nature is tamed, with forests and animals wiped out, and is no longer ritualised. The rain-dance is replaced by water storage. Reality becomes the object of human discovery: in Freudian terms the stage where children discover the existence of objects independently of their parents. The gods assume their own existence independently of objects and humans. They become the subject of human art. They participate in history (Homer: The Iliad) but they are no longer omnipotent. By the same token, human thought is no longer omnipotent. The sun rises every day not because of human prayer but because of an observed regularity (astronomy). The variety of reality and destiny are no longer explicable by animism since it is dependent for its credibility on small, transparent societies where information is restricted and orderly and there is a lack of relativity. Science begins when an object becomes an object and reality requires an explanation. Thought cannot directly alter reality but through its elucidation reality provides proof of human superiority and reestablishes a relationship between man and the environment through a holistic world2
view. Water, fire, the elements, atoms provide common denominators: Thales (water), Anaximenes (air), Heraclitus (fire), Empedocles (earth, fire, air and water). Through variety there is unity. Religion seeks permanence in two forms, God and immortality (Bertrand Russell: A History of Western Philosophy). But between the expressed thought (everything is water) and the appearance of reality there is no intermediary. With monotheism (the Jewish God) or idealism (Plato’s Theory of Forms) this unity is represented on an abstract level. But the ego, the subjective, does not exist. The prophet speaks for the people because it has strayed from the right path. Art, philosophy, religion always relate to the whole but in contrast to animism the alteration of reality is a consequence no longer of thought but of the outcome. Pythagoras conceived contemplation as the ideal: thought contemplates reality. But thought is collective not individual and is superior to reality. It is idealistic. Three schools develop: the discovery of unity in matter (Miletus and the Atomists); in mathematics and the mind (Pythagoras, Plato, Christianity); and in language (Parmenides). Parmenides was the first philosopher of language and discovered logic He proceeded from language and deduced consequences for the world. When you think, you think of something: thought and speech require an object external to oneself. As a result change is impossible since what is said means something and this something exists and must always exist and have existed since the word or thought is and was always in existence: as in the name George Washington. Senses were treated as deceptive. They had never been treated as a reliable source of truth. This denial of the senses impeded the development of science based on the observation of reality. For the Greeks, the city was the principal community. The family was for reproduction. Equality no longer existed. There was a public and a private sphere. Language was relativised. The pre-Socratics and Sophists developed rhetoric as an elite form of thought. Relationships of production were human. Machines did not intermediate between humans and the production process but craft dominated. Doubt about the existence of things arose not from alienation but from the desire to discover a pattern. There was a community and a desire to discover this community in the natural order. Thought emanated from mankind and not the individual. The world did not exist through the self, the bourgeois (Berkeley), but also not through God (Spinoza). There existed a variety of worlds on a variety of levels. A variety of language games competed with each other. If a city did not appreciate your theory you could move to another. Life was not existential in the sense that there was no 3
attempt to resolve one’s alienation, which did not exist, through rationality. Dionysos, Bacchus and ecstasy existed. The rational world was not the only world. Socrates introduced a more sombre note. One died for one’s beliefs. Socrates was determined to remain true to his beliefs but not, as in the case of Thomas More, to his God. Socrates was concerned by his life in the hereafter but not on account of a fear of hell. There was not yet the Augustinian concept of two worlds co-existing in life. The Jewish religion already contained this separation. The self in Socratic thought is not yet the self of Puritanism or of Nietzsche but the self of the citizen. The human in Greek thought is omnipotent over nature through his rationality but he is not subject to megalomania (hubris) because he places this omnipotence on a level (intellectual) where it is not directly confronted with reality (science) since he has no need to do so (slave society). This led to an emphasis on abstract thought and the humanities.
Scientific Thought Megalomania develops when the human is alienated from reality (industrialisation) in the sense not only that he lives on the work of others (the state, production) but he is alienated in his relationships with others (atomisation, lack of community). There is no more feedback from his fellow man. Schopenhauer in this sense posits the will as omnipotent and in consequences determinative of reality. That is animism without community or fascism. The ambition of animism was to alter the world through thought and speech. This was transformed by science into the ambition to alter the world through regularities and causality in an overpowering, since it was not based on human relationships, theory of the will. As an example, the statement ‘I think all Jews are inferior’ is both a desire in the sense of animism that needs no confirmation in reality as it is a priori valid but also an attempt at scientific proof and an attempt to create a community (of non-Jews) where none existed (Weininger: Geschlecht und Charakter). Greek thought, with the exception of Plato, did not seek to master the world in its everyday detail. The task of epistemology does not consist in the creation of relationships between humans (Spinoza: The Ethics) or their confirmation (Wittgenstein: Philosophische Untersuchungen). The existence of the other (Sartre) was not the question but the existence of things (Dinge). It is a matter of shaping (gestaltung) not force. Science restricts the philosophical inquiry into the existence of things to the question of the possibility of their knowledge. However, science by reason of its rationality queries the validity of emotions that in the absence of 4
community stay uncommunicative and subjective. Psychology and psychoanalysis are an attempt to bring this domain back into the fold of scientific rationality but without any social structure. ‘I feel bad’: Freud would explain this statement through a rational linkage to the past; Christianity or Judaism would explain this statement in terms of a relationship with God; the Greeks would not consider this statement to be a question and thus required no answer. The explanation of why someone felt bad was in all likelihood connected to social reality. In primitive societies this factual statement would not give rise to inquiry but treatment: a collective solution to a collective problem, such as a violation of a taboo, but the isolated, individual
problem of the self does not yet exist. The argument then is that epistemology is always determined by human relationships. As over time alienation and separation characterised relationships, epistemology focused on the individual and the validation of reality became increasingly dependent on the individual without any link to other people. The lack of belief in God finally led to a correspondence between philosophical and human isolation and individualism (solipsism). In response, an attempt was made to discover a new communality in the domain that remained shared: language. The relationship to reality is found in language through logic. But this attempt, as in Marx’s attempt to discover in material conditions a renewed manifest solidarity, was not based on experience and was shown by history to be artificial: an attempt to salvage through philosophy something that could not be salvaged so long as humans did not share a common basis in their daily life. Wittgenstein realised this in his later language theory where he established that commonality in language is not to be found in unity in its logical structure (elementary sentences) but in its usage in specific language games whose family likeness with each other does not conceal any common denominator. Language does not tell anything other than it tells. As Wittgenstein said it is not possible to understand other people’s emotions through language in a meaningful sense. Historically one can speak of contradictory lines of thought. Up until the Enlightenment and the development of scientific reasoning, with the exception of Parmenides, the existence of things was not doubted, the table is there, but rather a pattern was sought through which unity could be discovered, the ideal table or the table reduced to its basic elements. The question of why the table is there is not posed in the sense of its mechanistic origins, what earlier occurrences produced this table, but rather, with the exception of the atomists, the non-scientific question of why is the 5
table there. The human was still at the centre of the universe, but at the same time, he was more dependent since his thoughts were not verifiable. The theories of Plato, Aristotle and Christian philosophers were not directly confronted with the reality of things in the sense of scientific theories, empiricism and later positivism, nor, with the exception of Parmenides, the reality of language as in the case of logical positivism. In this sense, the theories gained authority or plausibility principally through their emotional or societal resonance. This anthropocentristic philosophy explained the world starting from the self or from God (which is the same thing) and permitted freedom to develop an unreal theory the truth of which it could determine itself insofar as this theory corresponded to a common human perspective or needs. For this reason, these theories displayed a formidable rigidity since once accepted society developed in line with these theories or the theories reflected society. But science demanded proof of a theory not belief in it (Galileo, Kepler, and Newton). Free competition in the economy is carried over into science since there is no claim to truth outside the rules of science. Kant’s demonstration of the impossibility of proof of God’s existence brought this development to its logical conclusion. Mankind must proceed on the basis of material existence. Existence determines consciousness. The human has become an individual observer. It is no longer a question of whether a theory fits in with society or the community but simply whether it is provable or not. Everyone is equal before science. It is only a question of performance as in the economy. This focus on things and their origins not only led to human alienation from humans but their alienation from their environment. The community of scientific thought, as opposed to the city or Christian community or synagogue, is constituted by different individuals reaching the same conclusion through their observance of material reality or humans. Only one person can look down a microscope. But this combination of individual experiences leads to the question: how I can know that what I observe with my senses is the same as another observes? In Humean terms, how can I know that what I observe with my own senses (e.g. a cause or an effect) is true or not. This in turn leads to the dependence of the world’s existence on the self (Hume) or on God (Berkeley). Hume destroyed reason through his logic. Science’s claim to discover the relationships between things and humans was untenable. It was only a series of hypotheses. Romanticism was the result of a philosophy such as that of Rousseau situating the Humean tradition in the context of man’s alienation from man and reverting to a period when mankind had relations based on community 6
rather than reason: in other words, a denial of reality as explained by science and empirical philosophy. The attempt to discover this community through epistemology was abandoned. From then on the task was to alter reality to find this community or fraternité as in the French revolution. Kant later made this attempt with a priori knowledge, as his solution to Hume’s doubts over the validity of scientific knowledge, or Wittgenstein’s elementary sentences (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus).
Conclusion Epistemology is the attempt to create a relationship between man and things and between men. In pre-enlightenment philosophy this attempt was based on speculation without the possibility of its proof through science. But it was an attempt made when there was still, to a greater or lesser degree, a community. Post-enlightenment, empiricism posited the community of scientific thought as the definitive means of inquiry into this relationship. Romanticism abandoned epistemology for the Nietzschean will.