Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Problem of 'The Problem of Knowledge'

   The problem of knowledge is often characterized as asking how is it that we can know anything, or something with certainty, or that something exists, &c.  This problem generates a lot of frustration both in the form of paradoxes such as the Gettier Problem, and ridiculous situations such as someone pointing to an object and saying "how do you know that's really there?".  As queer as these situations may be, there is always a sense in which they are valid for us to entertain, yet we usually dismiss them and "go on with our lives".  How is it that this 'problem' we recognize does not dog us in everything we do?  How are we still confident in our daily lives?  To answer these tangents simply: the the problem of knowledge is better grasped by us in an implicit manner than is it in an explicit manner.
   What does grasping the question better implicitly rather than explicitly mean?  To put it one way, if we explicitly take the problem of knowledge to be something that should cripple us in our daily lives, then our ability to just go on with our lives is a direct refutation of that formulation, and reveals an implicit understanding of the problem.
   When young, students of Philosophy come to expect the flippant response one finds when they raise the question of knowledge to a general audience, and have been satisfied to also then be flippant about the public. However, that the problem of knowledge actually is no problem for those who propound it should provide us with direction in evaluating the problem (rather than aggravating it as Epistemology professors I have known do).
   Descartes is taken as a forefather of the problem of knowledge, yet Descartes does not side with the problem against knowledge. However, much earlier than Descartes, Plato asked about knowledge in his work Theaetetus, and this masterpiece can be very helpful to us today in reforming our approach the question of knowledge. Unfortunately, I often encounter this dialogue interpreted so that it is infected by our more contemporary understanding of the problem of knowledge.
   In the dialogue, Socrates is discussing what knowledge is and the first answer that his interlocutor Theaetetus (a youth with a resemblance to Socrates) gives is that knowing is 'perceiving'. (I use perceiving here in a loose sense.) In many ways this answer is comparable to the Cogito of Descartes, though with a different emphasis.
   Apart from "I think, I am", an understanding of Descartes Cogito shows that there is quite a bit that we cannot doubt. We can doubt that there 'really' are objects, but we cannot doubt that it seems that there are objects; we cannot doubt any of our cognitions qua cognitions, though we can doubt the content. Theaetetus' answer is like this, but where Descartes reaches this point with reference to his capacity to doubt, Theaetetus instead begins with something like the Cogito. Descartes proceeds to try to find his way back to an assurance in real things, while Theaetetus and Socrates inquiry leads them instead to finding the problem of knowledge to be how we can account for error. It is this question of how we can be in error that more rightfully should be called the problem of knowledge.
   It is easy to point out, as many have, that if we are to have a problem of knowledge then there must already be knowledge, and an understanding of it, such that there can be a problem; having a problem of knowledge minimally implies knowledge of the problem. This is where the problem of knowledge as the question of how we can be in error is much more interesting than the more skeptical question which depends upon an understanding of knowledge that already assumes its existence to be dubious.
   This new problem of knowledge supposes that we also know what it is like to be in error. In the Theaetetus, it is recognized that we take some people to be wiser than others, and that if knowledge is 'perception', then everyone would be equally wise since they would equally have 'perception'. Out of this a theory of 'judgment' is articulated out of which comes a new way in which we see that we get it wrong: sometimes we take something we perceive to be something that it later turns out not to be. We may see Theaetetus in the distance and judge him to be Socrates - how does this happen? Now models are presented in relation to how we might make this particular error - the famous tabula rasa and the aviary and a model based on court room arguments (incorrectly equated with justified true belief); all of these fail to satisfy the argument.
   The importance of the method on display in the Theaetetus is that the argument proceeds from something known which is then compared to the understanding of knowledge. The lack in the starting point is measured against what is trying to be obtained, and the pursuit follows between two points that are known in order to try to fill in the gaps. It will be impossible to formulate a general theory for how we are wrong in any particular way, but it is possible for us to articulate different kinds of error (e.g., mistaken identity), and the general sources of these errors in relation to some mistake of procedure. There is also a question about what the structure of any error is like - a metaphysical orientation to the question.
   Concerning how we err metaphysically, Heidegger shows explicitly something that Kant shows implicitly: that our average way of being has a tendency to cover up our authentic possibilities. Put in a Kantian mode, our theoretical approach to knowledge is fundamentally unsuited for grasping the practical - being guided by a purely theoretical method covers up the practical and hinders us in advancing in practical concerns. For Heidegger there is nothing bad about averageness, just as for Kant there is nothing bad about theoretical reason, but these things can become sources of error for us through obfuscation; this makes for an important addition to what is said in the Theaetetus.

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