Etienne Gilson on Metaphysics

‘The question then arises: Should the repeated failures of metaphysics be ascribed to metaphysics itself, or to metaphysicians? It is a legitimate question, and one that can be answered in the light of philosophical experience. For indeed that experience itself exhibits a remarkable unity. If our previous analyses are correct, they all point to the same conclusion, that metaphysical adventures are doomed to fail when their authors substitute the fundamental concepts of any particular science for those of metaphysics. Theology, logic, physics, biology, psychology, sociology, economics, are fully competent to solve their own problems by their own methods; on the other hand, however, and this must be our fourth conclusion: as metaphysics aims at transcending all particular knowledge, no particular science is competent either to solve metaphysical problems, or to judge their metaphysical solutions.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience,’p. 249)

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.

Another Quick Knowledge Note

Almost without fail, when I’m asked about something, even something about which I have at least a little knowledge, my mind goes blank.

‘What did Descartes think about the mind and body?’


I then proceed to fumble through a few very poorly formed sentences trying to answer the question. I usually then spend about five minutes in a deep angst about my inability to retain information (I’m very, very absentminded and learn best when given a lot of time in which to immerse myself in the subject) before coherent responses begin to fill my head. Usually about an hour later, I could give a speech about the subject. So it seems like, at least for me personally, that knowledge needs a kind of momentum to emerge in a coherent form. Is there a name for this phenomenon?

Musing on God and Being

All our knowledge is had through the created order, or nature. We are created, things are created, the world is created. God is uncreated – our categories of thought can’t apply to Him, and as far as I can tell the classical version of the analogy of being fails for that reason. God, being uncreated, exists (if that’s even the proper word) in a completely different way than anything from which we experience or gain knowledge from. Our knowledge of God, then, is dependent on God and God only.

Note on Perception, the Mind, Metaphysics, and Objects

I look at something, say, the table my feet rest on. I perceive the table. Is this purely a mental event (idealism)? Or is my perception that of a mind-independent object (realism)? If it were the latter, there would still be mental activity, obviously, even though the object itself is not mental. However, is the mind predisposed to reality or a blank slate of sorts? Chomsky did some interesting work in the linguistic arena that suggested that there is a universal sort of grammar hardwired into us. Perhaps this carries over into general perception? Perhaps we have (a la Kant) categories with which we impose order on the world of experience.

But suppose I were to suggest that it’s the world that imposes it’s categories onto us. T.F. Torrance goes into great detail on this subject, generally in relation to theology, but it applies to metaphysics as well. God is a reality independent of our thought or perception of Him, and based on His self-revelation we ‘generate’ concepts that are worthy of Him. We have to ‘unlearn’ (apophaticism) our preconceived ideas and allow the force of His reality to impress His own categories and concepts on our mind.

Could this apply to our knowledge of the external world as well? That as we come into relation to the being of objects, reality itself impressions its own concepts upon us? The worlds being forces itself on us as we attempt to penetrate into the nature of reality, forcing us to abandon our categories as we inquire more deeply.

Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure it makes sense to speak of all that without conceding that the mind is predisposed to reality (the fit of the intellect to reality, to use the medieval phrase. This isn’t to say that our mental operations create the reality we perceive (et esse percepti, I think is the phrase) but rather that our mental categories make sense of the world of sensory experience. Perhaps our categories can be abandoned or reshaped in the light of true being.