In a certain way, writing this title and essay pains me: I first fell in love with philosophy in an undergraduate course titled “epistemology”. It was a difficult course to take in my sophomore year. We spent the first half of it reading Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, on which we had to write an essay answering the question, “How does Kant say synthetic a priori judgments are possible?” Myself and several other students spent many hours puzzling over this question. I recall the moment I put it all together, and, using a classroom whiteboard, frenetically drew out a diagram as a means for trying to explain it. I turned around to befuddled looks. Fortunately, another student—with a better mind for drawing diagrams—converted my mess into something neatly organized.
The second half of the course was spent not only in refuting Kant’s theory, but in demonstrating the Thomistic approach to the question of human understanding. This latter part of the course was much more edifying. But it was the process of puzzling out the Kantian schema that the habit of philosophical inquiry hooked itself into my soul, never to let go.
The “Problem” of Epistemology
In that Thomistic portion of the course, we were assigned to read—in addition to the works of Aquinas—a wonderful book by Louis-Marie Régis, with the unfortunate title of Epistemology. In the preface to this richly-poetic work of philosophy, Régis has this to say about his titular concern:
The history of philosophy is often compared to a great cemetery in which tombstones succeed each other in awful continuity and with their Hic jacet [here lies], write the many chapters of a sad encyclopedia—an encyclopedia of man’s repeated but always insufficient efforts to attain truth. Instead of this pessimistic simile, I prefer that of a maternity ward wherein the intellect, always in gestation, is periodically delivered of a theory which to all which to all outer appearances is newborn, but whose internal structure reveals a heredity that makes it contemporaneous with the very origins of philosophical speculation. That is why the history of philosophy is much more a history of birth and rebirth than one of death—a genealogy more than a necrology. Our intellect needs time in which to progress, and time, bearer of old age and death to material life, becomes an agent of rejuvenation to the life of the mind.
The problem that we are now about to tackle is a brilliant confirmation of the thesis just stated. Officially, its birth is dated 1637, at the printing shop of Jean Maire in Leyden; its father is René Descartes, who gave it the name Discourse on Method and assigned it a very definite vocation—to teach man “to reason well and to seek for truth in the sciences.” Unofficially, our problem is much older than the published date of its birth would lead us to suspect, and the baptismal name given it by Descartes is only one of the many terms applied to it by thinkers of all ages. We might even say its name is Legion and that the history of its pseudonyms would furnish material for a large volume. Not only is its name legion, but so are the guises under which it appears; its art of camouflage, of being visible or invisible, of revealing itself or escaping notice, would fill the wiliest chameleon with envy.Louis-Marie Régis 1958: Epistemology, 3-4.
Indeed, the problem Descartes seized did not begin with Descartes. The problem was known to him only because of Montaigne, the Parisian Ockhamists, and the Jesuits at La Flèche: the problem knowledge. As Régis goes on to detail in later pages, the context of skepticism grounded both Descartes’ Discourse and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. So, too, the modern thinkers made consensus a driver of truth and disunity a demonstration of falsehood. Finally, each struggles with apparently contradictory accounts being given in one and the same mind: as sense and intellect may seem to contravene one another.
The “epistemological problem” truly is a problem. But, as stated, it long antedates Descartes. Moreover, the moderns fundamentally misstate the nature of the problem from the very beginning. It is not a problem of certainty or clarity. It is not a problem of “transcendence”, that is, of the mind reaching the extra-mental world. Nor is it a problem of consensus. Rather, it is a problem of impediments to resolution—most of which impediments, today, were built by the moderns themselves.
The Problem of “Epistemology”
What is a “problem”? It is something to be solved. A solution, applied to a problem, removes the problem. Can we remove the problems of knowing? Is there a solution which will dissolve our difficulties? Or do these difficulties—myriad in name and guise—spring up from our very nature as human beings?
Science always springs from the inquiry made by human minds. It has, therefore, an artificial character to it: we model its structure, its procedures, its conclusions. But even when we create sciences of man-made objects—even objects that exist only by the activity of human minds, pure objects we might say—these sciences are fulfilled only by making known intelligible realities independent of our thought. We attain knowledge by resolving our understanding to these realities. A science, to be fruitful as knowledge, must have some resolution to nature; even if it is specifically the nature of the human intellect capable of producing artificial things and objects.
Thus, at the foundation of every science is its “subject”, the intelligible rationale within which all its objects are investigated and to which they must be resolved. There must, in consequence, be lines of demarcation at which point something begins and something ends. The science of philosophical physics, or “natural philosophy” as many call it, concerns itself with the subject matter of mobile being, ens mobile: being insofar as it is capable of motion. The science of biology concerns itself with mobile being insofar as it is alive, i.e., insofar as it has an active potency of motion from within itself. The science of metaphysics concerns itself with being insofar as it is being, that is, in the widest possible extension with an eye specifically towards the principles whereby beings exist.
What is the subject for the science of epistemology? Knowledge, one might say, or the processes of human knowing. But where do these processes begin and end? Is knowledge a something in the mind? Are we concerned with knowledge as an accident residing in an individual human substance? But even as such an accident, it is—we may posit and not here defend—intrinsically and necessarily intentional: ordered towards making known its object, that is. We might say, therefore, that the accident of knowledge is always a relative accident. Knowledge is what it is by the relation which the concept provenates in order to make known its object. But which relations constitute knowledge? Only intellectual ones? Or do we know anything, in fact, without perceptual relations also? Do we need to include sense relations? Or the physical relations which enable sensation to occur?
Put in other words, there is no point of demarcation for a “science” of “knowledge”. Any theory of “epistemology” intrinsically and explicitly includes doctrines of “ontology”—and vice versa. I would challenge everyone to think about this term, “epistemology”, and whether it misleads us.
Perhaps I will follow this up with further posts in the future. In the meantime, I would suggest the word “noetic” as an alternative suitable in most cases where one would use the term “epistemology” to discuss the doctrines concerning knowledge.
Anyone interested in this point should also read John Deely’s Intentionality and Semiotics (where he mentions this point several places, as can be found in the index).