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?’

‘Uh…’

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.

Epistemological Note

It seems odd to me that realism actually has opponents. Realism here is the idea that there is a reality independent of us or our perceptions – and that we can both experience and know reality-in-itself. The biggest opposing view, idealism (and by extension anti-realism), seems content to say that since all we experience is the content of our minds, we can’t know reality-in-itself. There’s obviously different kinds of idealism but that’s the basic gist. In the following paragraphs, Gilson provides some sharp commentary on the differences between realism/idealism:

‘We must always remember that the impossibilities in which idealism tries to entangle realism are the inventions of idealism. When it challenges us to compare the thing known with the thing in itself, it merely manifests the internal sickness which consumes it. For the realist there is no “noumenon” as the realist understands the term. Since knowledge presupposes the presence to the intellect of the thing itself, there is no reason to assume, behind the thing in thought, the presence of a mysterious and unknowable duplicate, which would be the thing of the thing in thought. Knowing is not apprehending a thing as it is in thought, but, in and thought, apprehending the thing as it is.

To be able to conclude that we must necessarily go from thought to things, and cannot proceed otherwise, it is not enough to assert that everything is given in thought. The fact is, we do proceed otherwise. The awakening of the intelligence coincides with the apprehension of things, which, as soon as they are perceived, are classified according to their most evident similarities. This fact, which has nothing to do with any theory, is something that theory has to take account of. Realism does precisely that, and in this respect is following common sense. That is why every form of realism is a philosophy of common sense.’

‘This is also why the realist never expects his knowledge to engender an object without which his knowledge would not exist. Like the idealist, he uses his power of reflection, but keeping it within the limits of a reality given from without. Therefore the starting point of his reflections has to be being, which in effect is for us the beginning of knowledge: res sunt . If we go deeper into the nature of the object given us, we direct ourselves towards one of the sciences, which will be completed by a metaphysical of nature. If we go deeper into the conditions under which the object is given us, we shall be turning towards a psychology, which will reach completion in a metaphysics of knowledge. The two methods are not only compatible, they are complementary, because they rest on the primitive unity of the subject and object in the act of knowledge, and any complete philosophy implies an awareness of their unity.

There is nothing, therefore, to stop the realist going, by way of reflective analysis, from the object as given in knowledge to the intellect and the knowing subject. Quite the contrary, this is the only way he has of assuring himself of the existence and nature of the knowing subject. Res sunt, ergo cognosco, ergo sum res cognoscens [Things exist, therefore I know, therefore I am a knowing subject]. What distinguishes the realist from the idealist is not that one refuses to undertake this analysis whereas the other is willing to, but that the realist refuses to take the final term of his analysis for a principle generating the thing being analyzed. Because the analysis of knowledge leads us to the conclusion “I think,” it does not follow that this “I think” is the first principle of knowledge. Because every representation is, in fact, a thought, it does not follow that it is only a thought, or that an “I think” conditions all my representations.’

– Etienne Gilson, (http://www.inters.org/Gilson-Realist-Handbook)

I wondered why anyone would take the route of idealism/creative anti-realism (ICR) for a long time. Then it occurred to me that maybe there are more anthropological reasons for taking that route. Hume is famous for saying that there is no self, just a bundle of perceptions. If there is no self, then one can’t really have knowledge – and it seems to be a short leap from there to saying that reality is simply perception or something along those lines. Even if there is reality ‘out there’ it wouldn’t matter.

But then I thought more. It seemed like all that was really getting off on the wrong foot – when we know something, we don’t know it in a detached, objective way. We couldn’t know anything in that way, because we can’t get outside ourselves to be objective and detached. I then read this little bit by Torrance, which I’ve posted here before:

‘If man is considered only as “thinking thing” poised upon himself over against the world out there, then the world can be brought within the knowledge of the detached subject only by way of observing phenomena, accounting for them through determining phenomenal connections, and reproducing them to rational representation. Thus the “world” is that which is constructed out of the states of man’s consciousness, not something with which he interacts as a personal agent: it is merely the subject of his objectivist and objectifying operations.’

‘But it is action, in which we personally behave in accordance with the nature of the things around us, that connects man and the world in a way that overcomes the detatched relation between man and nature.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 57)

That seemed to me to be about right. If we interact in a dynamic and relational way with the world around us, we break through the dualisms that lead to naive realism/IRC. That is, I neither cold observe the real world in a detached way (which is impossible and leads to some odd ideas) nor do I construct reality out of my own experience/perception/mental content. I interact with the world as a personal agent and by doing so am able to know the thing I interact with in itself.

Epistemological thoughts

A small argument for a relational epistemology: things have the ability to be known – if things didn’t have the ability to be known, we couldn’t know about them. We have the ability to know – without this, we couldn’t know. But one of these without the results in no knowledge – each must exist in relation with the other for there to be true knowledge. By coming into a relation with the object, we come to know the object directly – we know the thing in itself.

Call it relational realism. We know the thing in itself, have direct access to the object of our knowing, by being in a relation to/with it.

This is far from complete – but I think there is some potential here.

A Few Epistemological Thoughts

Common sense realism: reality exists independently of our experiencing or perceiving it, based partly on Thomas Reid’s Common Sense Philosophy:

http://www.iep.utm.edu/relig-ep/#SH3d

As well as a more Thomistic flavoured realism, notably articulated by Stanley Jaki and Etienne Gilson. More on this forthcoming.

Positing skepticism beyond necessity to arrive at a foundationalist-esque certaint is unwarranted (‘Skepticism is palpably senseless’, – Wittgenstein) – foundationalism of any kind seems to me to be quite dead, or at least dying:

“Foundationalism has been the reigning theory of theories in the West since the high Middle Ages. It can be traced back as far as Aristotle… Aquinas offers one classic version of foundationalism. There is, he said, a body of propositions which can become self-evident to us in our present earthly state. Properly conducted scientific inquiry consists in arriving at other propositions by way of reliable inference from these (demonstration). A few of these (for example, that God exists) can be inferred from propositions knowable to the natural light of reason …within the community of those working in philosophy of knowledge and philosophy of science foundationalism has suffered a series of deadly blows in the last 25 years. To many of those acquainted with the history of this development it now looks all but dead. So it looks to me. Of course, it is always possible that by a feat of prodigious imagination foundationalism can be revitalized. I consider that highly improbable…” (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, pp. 26-27).

This approach is then somewhat dismissive of lots of skeptical attacks – Descartes project, for example, would have little merit to someone holding this view.

Experience and reason work together, and do not compete. One without the other leads to nowhere – empiricism and rationalism are both, to quote a friend, illusory roads to nowhere. Idealism a la Kant is also subject to scorn.

Subjectivist hand-waving also falls flat here – pointing out that we are in fact unable to step outside ourselves to gain an “objective view” of things accomplishes little or nothing. We perceive the reality that exists independently of ourselves – else, what/how would we percieve?

https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/2012/07/30/stanley-jaki-on-science-einstein-wonder-realism-kant-and-theology/