On Knowledge, Certainty, and Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘Behind every great blog post lies a stupid Facebook comment discussion,’ and I think he was right about that. I got into a debate about the nature of certainty today with a Reformed presuppositionalist, and it inspired this post here.

I did a post some time ago lamenting how hard it seemed to have certainty about anything – this was during my reading of Wittgenstein’s ‘On Certainty’, which is a great work. How can we be certain in any ultimate sense about anything? A less-than-thorough reflection on that thought can lead to despair, and that’s pretty much where I ended up. I realize now that the mistake I made was assuming that all knowledge and all certainty had to be roughly the same: absolute, bedrock-certainty.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from T.F. Torrance, it’s this: that knowledge has to be sought after the nature of the thing under scrutiny or being inquired of. I’ve also learned this: that the personal nature of all human knowledge and inquiry has to be taken into account. If we’re concerned about actual human knowledge had by actual humans, we can’t talk about knowledge in the abstract (well, we can, and we do sometimes). The human as a personal, acting agent in the universe has to be taken into account.

Today at work I wrote down a brief list of all the different kinds of things we can know, or rather the different kinds of knowledge we can have. I wrote down, for example, historical knowledge, rational knowledge, propositional knowledge, personal knowledge, historical knowledge, narrative knowledge, empirical knowledge, tacit knowledge. There’s probably more, but that’s a good start. Now, these things can intermingle and overlap – for example, historical and narrative knowledge, or personal and tacit knowledge all often overlap.

As I see it, each of those different areas is ‘known’ in a different way, despite overlap. One’s knowledge of history is very different from one’s knowledge of a fact of chemistry, and one’s knowledge based on personal correspondence is very different from one’s knowledge of a logical proposition, and one’s knowledge of an a priori truth is very different from one’s tacit knowledge gotten in the context of creative agency. Now, if there are different ways of knowing different kinds of things, that means the different kinds of things – the different kinds of knowledge had –  are indeed different types of knowledge. If this is true, then that means that not only are there different ways of knowing different kinds of knowledge, it means that there are different kinds of certainty one can have about different kinds of knowledge.

Think of it this way: Bob says to Joe, the car is low on gas. Joe remembers filling up the car recently (Bob went out for a drag race earlier unbeknownst to Joe), and so he says, I’m pretty certain you’re wrong. This certainty is obviously not mathematical certainty. Joe is pretty sure that Bob is wrong. He’s even certain of it. He has certainty that Joe is wrong. He could in fact be wrong, but he certain that he is now. There’s also different kinds of knowledge – it would seem that the knowledge he has is an overlap of personal, propositional and historical.

This is merely to demonstrate a very narrow point: that there are different kinds of certainty. Joe’s certainty is common-sense, ordinary certainty, which is different, than, to use the example again, mathematical certainty.

My overall claim, then, is this: that there is not one universal kind of knowledge, and one universal kind of certainty, applicable in all times and places to all things. If there is knowledge, then it is knowledge had by some agent – and thus is not merely ‘knowledge’ in the abstract but knowledge in the active and personal.

As a postscript: I’ve found Polyani to be immensely stimulating in this area, as well as Torrance’s exposition of James Clerk Maxwell’s thought in light of Polyani’s tacit dimension of knowledge.

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Musings on Wittgenstein and Certainty

Reading through ‘On Certainty’ is interesting – because there are very few certain conclusions that Wittgenstein comes to.  It seems odd that an investigation into the nature of knowledge and how we know things doesn’t really offer any firm, certain conclusions. But perhaps, despite a non-systematic format and method, a few things can be gleaned that shed light on the problems of certainty.

‘In the course of our conversations Russell would often exclaim: “Logic’s hell!” – And this perfectly expresses the feeling we had when we were thinking about the problems of logic; that is to say, their immense difficulty, their hard and slippery texture.

I believe our main reason for feeling like this was the following fact: that every time some new linguistic phenomenon occurred to us, it could retrospectively show that our previous explanations were unworkable. (We felt that language could always make new, and impossible, demands; and this makes all explanation futile.)

But that is the difficulty Socrates gets into trying to give the definition of a concept. Again and again a use of a word emerges that seems not to be compatible with the concept that other uses have led us to form. We say: but that isn’t how it is! – it is like that though! and all we can do is keep repeating these antitheses.’ (‘Culture and Value’, p. 30e)

The problem emerges in the last paragraph: the fluid nature of language is a real barrier to examining things like certainty and logic. This is why Wittgenstein adopts a more ‘therapeutic’ method of investigation, working, wading and kneading through the issues and problems.  Perhaps no clear, concise answer appears – but can such an answer even be feasible given the limitations imposed on us by our language?