One of the great contributions Kant made to philosophy was the place he afforded the human mind: no longer was the knowing agent seen as the merely passive recipient of sense-data from which he inferred and deduced – the knowing agent was, from Kant onwards, the creator of the world of his experience. With Kant, we see the idea that through the concepts, the mind structures the phenomenal world. We, as it were, make the world out of the raw data of experience (this is taking the basic two-worlds interpretation of Kant – there is some dispute over whether this is how he actually saw his philosophy). We can never know the thing in itself because we have no experience of the thing in itself. Our experience is with the phenomenal world of appearances.
Hegel took this further. For Hegel, the mind doesn’t simply structure the the raw data of experience – thought constitutes nature itself. Roughly, Hegel holds that there the concepts of Kant don’t merely exist in the mind but have mind-independent existence. Reality is knowable in every way because reality is itself Thought. So, for example, a knowable thing, more or less, equals all the thoughts we can have about it. The real, for Hegel, is the rational, and vice versa – for something to be is for it to be known, and this is the identity of knowing and being. The common element with Hegel and Kant is that both more or less proceed from the individual, the ‘I’, to the world.
T.F. Torrance, in ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’ (primarily pages 108-116), takes a decidedly different route. He takes reality to be not rational but intelligible inherently – and he locates our ability to know it not in the active power of the individual mind but in our shared communication and experience of reality.
Torrance proceeds along this line: reality has intelligibility built in, as it were, into it, and we can know it because of the structures, reasons and necessities of things – these structures and reasons signify what they are, and as we allow our minds to fall under the power of these structures, we think in accordance with their natures. This, for Torrance, is truly scientific thinking – thinking after the nature or in accordance with the nature of a thing, and allowing our concepts and thoughts about it to be shaped by it as it discloses itself to us in our critical questioning.
Torrance takes a interesting line with just how we come to know the being of things, as he puts it – this is primarily through language (he quotes Heidegger’s famous saying about language being the house of being). Our experience of reality, of the intelligible structures of things, is the starting point for Torrance’s epistemology – from there, it is our sharing and our communication of that experience which he terms ‘objective’. He arrives at this because he thinks of this communication as part of our interpersonal and social existence – this is something Wittgenstein would have approved of. Our communication, our use of signs to communicate our experience of reality, is anchored in a ‘web of meaning’ – our use of signs, which is our use of language, is how being shows itself to us and thus how our web of meaning touches on reality.
This is ‘objective’ because, for Torrance, our very inter-personal relations within which our communication and sharing take place have an open-ended and transcendent structure built in to them – our shared experience points to something which is common to all people and so objective. Indeed, our personhood, for Torrance, has this open-endedness to it, because as he thinks of it, a person is only a person through relation to other persons – transcendence and objectivity is then built in to persons by virtue of the essential relational and communicative aspect of personhood.
Torrance’s approach can be roughly summarized as follows: against more modern conceptions of reality and personhood which arrive at reality through the I’, Torrance grounds the inherent intelligibility and objectivity of reality in our experience and in our social/communicative existences as relational beings. Our social existence thus serves itself as a sign which points to a transcendent and objective reality which is not of our making.