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Friday, October 10, A.D. 2008
The Necessity of Knowledge

In my studies, I have come to the conclusion that false intellectual modesty has been disastrous for Western civilization. For when a society no longer believes that it is possible to arrive at truth—or that there is no truth—men are reduced to the level of irrational animals. Without the ability or the will to consult reason, force alone decides. Ignorant power rules through violence in the absence of science. In this unhappy state, we witness the transformation of human society into a savanna of beasts, where, as Thucydides states, the strong do as they may, and the weak suffer as they must.

Allow me to do a bit of violence myself in insufficiently surveying where such intellectual “humility” has surfaced in the West. This is a mere post, not a research paper; so, cut me some slack.

It seems to me that the possibility of denying truth or men’s ability to attain it waited until the advent of philosophical thinking in ancient Greece—it appeared alongside its opposing complement of affirming the existence of truth and the intelligibility of the world. Before this critical reflexion began, it seems like the Greeks were as any other pre-philosophical people. They experienced and reflected upon the world mythically. Having benefited from (or having been cursed by, depending on your point of view) critical analysis, we would call such a state primitive, naive, and superstitious. From the Homeric Greeks to the ancient Slavs, Celts, and Germanic peoples to the cultic civilizations of the East even unto the modern barbarians of the Americas, Africa, and the Pacific islands of the last centuries, we see a similar mythical world view. I think that this is the natural state of man—a pagan who understands the world symbolically in, by, and as expression of divine and human action.

I do not mean that pre-philosophical peoples have no understanding of what philosophy entails, such as the good, virtue, values in general, the beautiful, existence, knowledge, spiritual concerns, and the like. What I mean is best shown in an analogy with language. All human beings have language (insofar as they are raised and they live in a human community). All languages have a grammar. Hence, all mature, social human beings utilize grammar and have a working knowledge of it. Yet, as far as I know, no human group reflected systematically upon grammar until the Greeks. Every person has a working knowledge of a subject and a verb, but only human beings who have followed in the ancient Greeks’ steps of systematic and analytical thinking can explain the parts of language. An argument can be made for the appearance something akin to Greek philosophy in ancient Hinduism, but Indian philosophy and its progeny never broke free from its mythos. The Greek discovery—the birth of philosophy—occurs in stepping back from something intimately known and employed in life and in examining it rationally. Inspections, distinctions, conditionals, and other abstractions constitute this new form of analysis. The anti-rationalist may argue that this is the original sin of Western man, and from the Greeks, the infection has spread throughout the entire world in modernity. For such a philosophical enemy of philosophy may suspect that we are not up to the task of disfiguring and disassembling ourselves; that we have compromised natural wisdom and wholeness in the search for reality’s hidden secrets. We have heard many such prophets over the millennia, and they can easily point to the troubles that philosophy has brought into the world. For them, it is the forbidden fruit that does not even deliver knowledge but rather weakens us into a worse state of ignorance than before. It should be no surprise that the anti-rationalist frequently makes his jeremiad from the temple.

We see the development of philosophy in certain Greek cities leading up to the classical era. Early natural philosophers like Thales and Anaximenes attempted to find an underlying material element to everything. Anaximander proposed an early mechanistic theory to explain nature. Later pre-Socratic natural philosophers like Leucippus, Democritus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras developed atomism and more refined mechanistic theories. Heraclitus developed logic and taught that logos is the formative principle of the world, while the Pythagoreans and Eleatics advanced mathematics and sought the underlying reality of the world beyond materialist metaphysics—with them, the quest for being as such entered human awareness.

Other early Greek philosophers began to explore the distinction between nature and convention. What is true must be what is according to nature, and yet different cities hold different and contradictory beliefs and customs, where all cannot be correct. Xenophanes, for instance, is famous for attacking men’s anthropomorphizing of the gods:

But mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form.

The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair.

Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds.

Later on, the rise of the sophists throughout Greece pushed this relentless exposing of convention to the point of relativism. As Protagoras reportedly stated, “Man is the measure of all things; of the things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.”

The sophists made philosophy the enemy of the city in the eyes of concerned citizens. They undermined the city’s religion, value system, and way of life. They educated the sons of the wealthy and instilled values in them quite opposed to the education in honor and civic valor that the tradition prescribed. Politicians and poets attacked philosophy as a Trojan horse that, if accepted, would ruin the city. Aristophanes—comedian, conservative, and defender of the city—frequently mocks the so-called wise in his plays. I myself am not aware of how the city’s religious cults reacted to philosophers in general and to sophists in particular, but I assume that they were not welcoming to this new class of wise men.

The dangerous questions initiated by the philosophical critique of tradition and the suspicion that what was held to be true by the ancestors may not really be true according to nature reveals the fragile relationship between philosophy and the city, as Plato, Aristotle, and their intellectual prodigy note. Leo Strauss wrote his entire life about this relationship, and the dispute reverberates across history. Yet, this type of questioning also raises our particular set of problems to the level of human awareness. Is there something to know, and are men able to know it? If one man can know something, is it possible for him to share that knowledge—is knowledge communicable? Or, is knowledge simply the mental state of one man with his experiences and judgments, without any reference to something beyond that mental state? Most early philosophers strove for knowledge that transcends custom, but the sophists largely dismissed that possibility. Certainly, some sophists attacked the possibility of knowledge according to nature due to its difficulty and perplexities. Human beings are often mistaken; why should we think that we are right when so many others who were wrong thought the same? Other sophists preached relativism for immoral reasons. If you are a wealthy young man with ambitions, why should you allow piety and social customs to hold you back; for these are mere human constructs? The sophists were there to counsel you to look beyond good and evil—for a fee, of course.

Every educated person in the West today should have to study the classics thoroughly. Such study is invaluable, as the Greeks and the Romans appear to have encountered all of our modern philosophical, social, religious, and political problems, debates, and solutions. We ignore them at our peril.

Well, the Socratic moment occurred as sophists were traipsing across Greece. Socrates was a type of sophist himself, but he never charged his interlocutors or disciples money for spending time with him. Like the sophists, he went around to people and undermined their confidence in the own opinions. Like the sophists, he spread skepticism and doubt about conventional belief. He did not, however, give up on the pursuit of wisdom. Just because the truth is hard, just because nature loves to hide, as Heraclitus stated, we are not thereby excused from pursuing the examined life. Socrates taught intellectual humility—he frequently admitted that he knew nothing—but he did not disparage knowledge or reason’s ability to obtain it.

Though following in the footsteps of his philosophical predecessors, Socrates, philosophy’s midwife, delivered unto the world the birth of all subsequent science. Among his students was Plato, and among Plato’s students was Aristotle. Later schools and movements sometimes hearkened back to the pre-Socratics but always and inevitably through the Socratic filter of Plato and Aristotle. I cannot overstate their importance, in substance or in history. Given our time’s unthinking belief in progress, we subconscious Hegelians might assume that twenty-three centuries would have vastly improved human understanding of man’s basic questions. I think that this is false. Even given the worthy successors of Plato and Aristotle, such as Plotinus, Thomas Aquinas, and Immanuel Kant, I do not think that they eclipsed Plato and Aristotle but rather that they explored certain problems better.

In their works, Plato and Aristotle defend philosophy from the accusations of the tradition and from the bad reputation of the sophists. They affirm the intelligibility of the world and the ability of the mind to know the world, and they grant a level of awareness to traditional and common opinion while also showing how such conventional opinion points to but falls woefully short of truth. Socratic wisdom demolishes human intellectual conceit without rendering the philosophical quest itself hopeless and vain.

I have spilt much ink (or spent bytes) on ancient Greece because I think that the debate can be seen in its totality. There is traditional wisdom (in law, in the poets, in the religion, and in the customs of the people) threatened by philosophy, which claims superior or exclusive access to truth. Then, there is a mutated philosophy that metastasizes into a relativism destructive of tradition, philosophy, and itself. As I stated above, this situation occurs again and again throughout history. As this new Greek culture inculturated the Mediterranean world and beyond, the same disputes arose. The Jews first tackled the conflict between Athens and Jerusalem, an argument that has affected all thinking Abrahamic peoples since. Indeed, Christian theology would not have been possible without Hellenic philosophy—no one would have been moved to question cultic teachings without such cross-pollination. Themes such as theodicy and purpose lay nascent in Homer, Hesiod, and the Hebrew scriptures, but philosophical thinking and its tools unleashed the potential of sacred texts. Despoiling the Egyptians of their treasures, Church fathers such as Justin, Clement, Origin, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa took what they saw as valuable in pagan philosophy and used it in theology. However, others such as Tertullian, Augustine in his later years, and hordes of ascetics in the desert deplored human reason’s attempts at knowledge as useless or destructive vanity. When the followers of Muhammad began to read the Greeks, there were waves of controversy in the dar al-Islam, the fruits of which subsequently reentered the Greco-Roman-Christian tradition in the high middle ages as Western Christians began to read the works of Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes, and Al-Ghazali. Again, the tensions between tradition and science, faith and reason, revelation and philosophy created a storm of intellectual activity in the scholastic world. Latin Averroists, traditional Platonists, new knowledge synthesizers like Thomas, and old fashioned ratioskeptics fought for the mind of the West in disputes that significantly altered Western Christendom ever after.

Hatching from these historical disputes, nominalism entered the world on behalf of Christian humility and piety. English Franciscans like William of Ockham no longer found realist arguments—that there were such things as forms, essence, or natures—convincing. I’ll address the birth of nominalism again, as I think that it is, historically speaking, the most significant intellectual development since classical times. Yet, it is clear that piety was an important influence if not a sufficient cause of nominalism. For William and like-minded thinkers thought that forms or essences restricted the omnipotence of God. Thus began the revolution of the West seven hundred years ago. I would boldly argue that all of modernity, qua modernity, traces back to this development.

From Socrates to the coming of nominalism, the West did not lose faith in its ability to know. The Academy after Plato was a center of philosophical skepticism, and skeptics such as Pyrrho played the Socratic gadfly among philosophers. Alone, skepticism would have been like toxic bleach, but enough other philosophical currents flowed in Hellenistic times that skepticism’s influence was diluted. In such a state, it provided a service of intellectual hygiene in philosophy. The traditionalists kept their old ways, the priests kept their rites, and the poets kept their wisdom. Rabinnical Jews hostile to philosophy felt secure in the Law, while Christians adverse to Athens found sure footing on Christ and his gospel. Even the early nominalists thought that human knowledge was possible. William and his associates developed an advanced logical and epistemological model to safeguard human knowledge, and they were devout followers of the trustworthiness of sacred scripture. Yet, in denying essences and the human ability to know them, William set the stage for the overturning of all knowledge. He is the distant patriarch of Luther, Calvin, Hume, pietism, Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Protestant fundamentalists, and the much less respectable postmodern twits.

You can see how Calvinism rose out of nominalism; in Averroist language, the Reformation was the theological image of nominalist philosophy. As Luther said, reason is a whore and unable to attain knowledge. Our fall from grace destroyed the divine faculty of reason so greatly that we must depend on revelation for religious guidance. Sola scriptura then is a desperate grab for some steady post when the rest of the world crumbles after nominalism. Yet, why should one believe religion at all? If we cannot trust our mind’s ability in some matters, why should we trust its fideism in holy books? The Enlightenment was the response to this dilemma. With nominalism’s having rendered metaphysics impossible, or so they thought, philosophy’s task would consist in understanding physics, or at least how nature appears to us. Even if such knowledge does not arrive at a true understanding of the world, at least it can be useful in technology. We need not intellectually affirm or truly understand the existence of selves or substances in order to deliver a missile through a fortress wall. Intellectual pursuit, then, comes to aim after general laws—tendencies and relationships of actions that follow other actions. The “why” of earlier philosophers is replaced by the “how” of modern researchers. Contemplation of the whole and of the greater—the theoria of the ancients—is forgotten as the practical mastery of nature comes to drive the West’s intellectual development. We still live in this age.

The modern period of philosophy is admirable and impressive; Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Newton, Locke, Spinoza, Hume, Berkeley, Leibniz, Kant, and others are quite insightful and, at times, breathtakingly brilliant. Yet, with the partial exceptions of Descartes, Berkeley, and Leibniz, they more or less follow and yet thereby try to get beyond nominalism. If you throw out revelation and still want access to knowledge, how is such possible? Their epistemological models, explorations of empiricism and its limits, and attempts to unravel the implied knots provide an impressive edifice. Nonetheless, I suspect that such is a mighty castle built upon a cloud of unreason. Not only do I think that nominalism itself is unsupportable, but I also think that their efforts to get around it fail. For these thinkers generally do not critically start at the foundations but rather accept that they can have access to tools that their own principles remove from them.

Hume is an easy example. In An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Hume argues that all of our mental content comes from the senses, either of external things or emotions felt. When sensed, these impressions are vivid, but as time goes by, they fade into ideas. As ideas, they are so weak that the mind freely manipulates them into various combinations to give us our entire mental content. What, then, about essences—or definitional abstractions? What about our understanding of causality? He states that custom, ingrained in us throughout life, molds our mental landscape. We have no understanding of causality; we simply notice that certain actions always follow other actions. We have no understanding of a horse as such; rather, we have empirical information of different particular things that we call horses because they resemble each other. Reinforced experience makes such knowledge steadier and readier because it is based upon more impressions.

Hume is fun to read because he makes explicit arguments, uses clear language, and never asks you to rise beyond everyday thinking. However, his epistemology cannot address several problems. First, he notes that the principles of mathematics are simply known, but he does not explain how his system makes such possible. Indeed, he spends a considerable amount of time refuting the idea that the human mind has access to any knowledge that comes not through the senses, but he refutes himself and does not explain how such knowledge fails to undermine his theory. Likewise, his memorable argument about the missing shade of blue undercuts his own case, and he just passes it off as a peripheral matter. In the example of the missing shade of blue, Hume notes that people who have always been blind have no understanding of color, which helps his argument that all mental content must come from impressions. Yet, he admits that a man who has been shown a sequence of blue shades that he had never before seen would be able to imagine a particular shade missing from the sequence. Even if you could argue that our minds can separate blue and white qualities from those various shades and then recombine them in different ways to get the missing shade of blue, Hume would still have a problem. For Hume’s theory does not seem to allow for that sort of abstraction—color is so basic that we would have had to see each particular shade for it to be in our mental content. Were we able to dissemble the shades into constituent color parts that we had never seen before demands noetic powers that Hume denies us. We evidently can make unicorns by matching up disparate ideas in our memory, but no real abstraction takes place in such action. Abstraction, for Hume, is simply the fading of an idea so that its vagueness allows it to substitute for other faded ideas that it resembles. Such is not what would have to occur to analyze a shade of blue.

Moreover, Hume’s dismissal of universals relies on his principle of resemblance. Like all nominalists, he argues that the mind groups objects that resemble one another and calls them somewhat arbitrarily by the same name—hence, the nomina of nominalism. However, how can things resemble one another without in fact being the same in some respect? This is the retort to nominalism, and it is a problem that they cannot overcome. They fall to the level of image-thinking, as Plato writes, and make intellectual judgments based upon unreflective crude sense perception. How is it that X is a horse, Y is a horse, and Z is a horse, if there is no such thing as “horse.” For nominalists, “horse” is simply a mental placeholder in the mind of the person who groups together sets convenient to group. Yet, they cannot justify why such placeholders readily present themselves to the mind. Resemblance begs the question, “Resembling in what way?” At some point, a list of characteristics will be given, and such a list will be applicable to X, Y, and Z. If the nominalist protests that each horse’s characteristics merely resemble the characteristics of each other horse, then, we ask the same question at a new level. This process cannot go on interminably; things resemble each other because they share something. Our minds intellect that shared something somehow, and we group and categorize accordingly.

The most momentous philosophical revolution in thousands of years occurred without good reasoning. I find this improbable and shocking, and yet, it is so. I suspected that I would finally find a good argument for nominalism, rather than simply a thoughtlessly inherited opinion, in reading William himself. Yet, it is as if he could not see the basic, truly foundational problem. Once you keep the nominalist from getting away with resemblance on the cheap, his entire system’s raison d’être ceases to be.

Why should we care about some pedantic dispute from the middle ages, or why should the intellectual path of Western civilization bother our attention today? Well, to begin with, it is a matter of truth. Practically, as well, this matter of truth has had momentous civilizational consequences. The nihilism of the modern world, the crisis in the human sciences that Husserl articulated generations ago, the rampant relativism in the West today and the emasculating, soul crushing meaningless and despair that it engenders—these are signs of a disease that has slowly spread throughout the world. The pious might claim that such is the result of the West’s rejection of God, but it was the Western rejection of reason, ironically out of religious devotion, that led people to heathenism. For nominalism at its core denies the intelligibility of the world and the ability of man to know it. As mentioned above, the first nominalists and their philosophical successors attempted to salvage aspects of the world’s knowability and of the human mind’s powers. Yet, they were all insufficient to the task; once you make a part of the world necessarily unintelligible, you render the whole unintelligible. For a particular man might be ignorant of many things and still claim knowledge of other things. However, if you state that the world as such is unintelligible in certain aspects, you begin a destructive process of misology. For the claim that some part of the world is intelligible while another part is not is a claim about the world as a whole. For that claim to stand, it undoes the unintelligibility of the part about which it claims to know (that it is unknowable). An instability is thus built into nominalism, and it is simply human rationality at work when such a system self-destructs—its logical conclusion is an impossibility.

It is helpful to remember that many early opponents of philosophy were trying to protect what they thought to be good—the ways of their gods and fathers. In dismissing reason, though, they opened themselves up to a mighty river wherein they have no oars—and irrational religiosity is a difficult stream to navigate without drowning. Nominalism was a medieval variation of this stance. Christian logicians threw away their respect for human reason to know things because it was for them impious to affirm that the mind of man knows the mind of God or that the objects of man could be the objects of God. In their attempt to respect God, however, by debasing man, they have rendered man less than human. God creates man with mind, and that mind, though infinitely inferior to God, is meant to function as an image of the divine mind. The human mind working at its proper best understands the logos of the world, first seen among the pagans by Heraclitus and furthermore proclaimed by the prophets. To stop short of affirming the absolute intelligibility of the world and of our ability to know it is to kill reasoning. Man, robbed of reason, is a beast. Thus, it should be no surprise when we see what such a mindless beast does.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, October 10, Anno Domini 2008
Philosophy | EpistemologyMetaphysicsComments
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