First Question for NoodleFood

 Posted by on 27 January 2006 at 12:59 pm  Uncategorized
Jan 272006

So here’s our first “Question for NoodleFood,” courtesy of Ergo:

I’m reading Plato’s Theaetetus now. And in the dialogue, Socrates askes, “What is knowledge? How does one define knowledge?” Then he goes around arguing against definitions like knowledge is perception or that knowlege is understanding.

My own thoughts on this were: in order to even ask the question, “what is knowledge”, shouldn’t one have the implicit understanding that one KNOWS what to ask?? Doesn’t that then lead us to an infinite regression? Knowing about what it would mean to know? And how does one know that? etc. etc.

What is the Objectivist definition of knowledge? Did Rand explicitly define knowlege or say what it is?

I’d look in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand for any detailed discussions of the nature of knowledge. Perhaps most on point is Ayn Rand’s comment in Chapter 4 of IOE that “the concept ‘knowledge’ is formed by retaining its distinguishing characteristics (a mental grasp of a fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation) and omitting the particular fact(s) involved.”

The central fact captured by the concept “knowledge” is that of awareness of reality, i.e. consciousness. As an axiomatic concept, “consciousness” cannot be further analyzed in terms of other concepts, as the problematic attempts to define it as “justified true belief.” It is also self-evident, not to mention unable to be denied without contradiction.

If I understand your infinite regress problem, your worry is that we cannot inquire about the nature of knowledge without at least some knowledge of the object of our inquiry. (In a more general form, that’s the problem raised in Plato’s Meno supposedly solved by the theory of recollection.) In fact, we must have a great deal of knowledge before we can even form the concept “knowledge,” let alone refine it to a sharp philosophical point. More generally, a great deal of awareness of reality must proceed any introspection of our mental processes, since we must have some content upon which to introspect.)

To put the point another way, we do not start our investigation of the nature of knowledge from the point of knowing nothing. In fact, we could not do so, since then we would be blindly groping in the dark. (Heck, we wouldn’t even be blindly groping, since we wouldn’t be conscious!) More precisely, we wouldn’t have the data required to even form the relevant concepts, that data being a range of instances of knowledge and contrasting instances of ignorance or error or doubt. So we have lots of knowledge before we ever consider what knowledge is. We are aware of the world, both perceptually and conceptually, from our earliest years, even though we haven’t yet introspected to form the concept “knowledge.” And even once we’ve formed the basic concept, we can come to better understand the nature of knowledge by further introspection. For example, from our earliest childhood, we might understand that bears and penguins and birds are all kinds of animals, meaning that our knowledge actually is hierarchical, without explicitly understanding yet that all knowledge is hierarchical. Then years later, we can reflect upon such actual hierarchies in order to come to the explicit conclusion that knowledge is hierarchical.

Ultimately, I think that your worry may boil down to something like: How can we validate the senses when we must rely upon the senses in the very attempt? How can we validate reason without relying upon reason? The answer is that we can’t — and that we need not do so. Any attempt to prove the validity of the senses does rely upon the validity of the senses, but so does any attempt to deny their validity too. The same applies to reason, in that the very demand to “prove” reason presupposes that reason is authoritative. The validity of reason and the senses are inescapable and self-evident facts — and that’s how we establish them. As Dr. Peikoff says in OPAR:

“Why should I accept reason?” means: “Why should I accept reality?” The answer is that existence exists, and only existence exists. Man’s choice is either to accept reason or to consign his consciousness and life to a void.

One cannot seek a proof that reason is reliable, because reason is the faculty of proof; one must accept and use reason in any attempt to prove anything. But, using reason, one can identify its relationship to the facts of reality and thereby validate the faculty.

Similarly, any investigation of the nature of knowledge will depend upon a wide range of fact that we already know. That’s not a problem though, since the skeptic who denies the possibility of knowledge can only do so on the basis of the great deal of knowledge that he already has. We simply cannot understand knowledge from the vantage point of total ignorance — and the demand that we do so is illegitimate. The concept “knowledge” works that way precisely because the axiomatic concept “consciousness” is at its core.

Admittedly, these are rather mind-bending issues. If you want some further details, I’d recommend the lengthy discussion of hierarchy in the first few lectures of Objectivism: State of the Art.

Further thoughts, Oh Gentle Readers?

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