Socrates And Kant: ‘The Most Vicious Of Circles’

 

Socrates asks Theaetetus, the meaning of the word ‘Knowledge’. Theaetetus proceeds to list the known disciplines, Geometry and Cobblery, the Sciences, et al.

Socrates stops him short: ‘But the question Theaetetus, was not what are the objects of knowledge..or sorts of knowledge..but the thing itself, knowledge, is,..do you fancy it is a small matter to discover the nature of knowledge? Is it not..the hardest?

After a lengthy and labored discussion of various definitions, ‘Justified True Belief’ is proposed, the one felt least presumptive of those explored.

Socrates himself does not propose an answer, staying instead with the negation. He offers Theaetetus his celebrated analogy of the barren midwife who can only help another give birth. Socrates continues:

Doesn’t it strike you as shameless to explain what knowing is like, when we don’t know what knowledge is?

The truth is, Theaetetus, that for some time past there has been a vicious taint in our discussion. Times out of numbers we have said ‘we know’, ‘we do not know’, ‘we have knowledge’, ‘we have no knowledge’, as if we could understand each other while we still know nothing about knowledge…

All that we have brought to birth..today about knowledge..our midwives skill pronounces to be mere wind eggs and not worth the rearing..

To tell us to get hold of something we already have in order to know something we are already thinking of suggests a state of the most absolute darkness..the most vicious of circles will be nothing compared to this injunction..

Having the good sense not to fancy you know what you do not know, for that and no more is all that my art can effect..’

‘Having the good sense not to fancy you know what you do not know’: this is the limit of honest Epistemological insight.

The Good Professors could not come to terms with Socrates’ negation, this descent into infinite regress. So they declared victory and retreated.

But they needed some legitimizing link to Plato’s Dialogues in order to attest classical origins. So they took with them this ‘Least Presumptive’ definition of Knowledge and started a new Subject called Epistemology.

The study of Knowing while firmly resident in the Know. The absurdity had been winked away. It was back to business as usual.

Why was it so important to force a definition on the word ‘Know’? What’s wrong with ‘Business as Usual’?  

If you can’t claim to know what ‘Know’ means, you have a great deal of annoying explanations to give. And this can get very tiresome. As when you teach subjects claiming ‘Knowledge’.

Subjects like Philosophy and Religion; Science and History; Logic and Law. If you are not sure what ‘Know’ and ‘Not-Know’ mean, how do you plan to hold forth on: ‘True and False’? Or: Real and Unreal. Or the meaning of the words: ‘Meaning’ and ‘Word’.

Did you make sense of this morning’s Newspaper? Have you really understood a single word on this Page? Including this very sentence about understanding a single word on this Page?

It is known by him who knows it not..’ Say’s the Kena Upanishad. Or as Lao Tzu put it: ‘The more you know, the less you understand


Immanuel Kant [1724-1804] Bucknell University Gallery

Immanuel Kant’s work which largely defined the domain of Academic Philosophy for 200 years had much to do with ‘Knowing’.

Kant tried to identify the ‘First Principles of Knowing’ itself, reaching back to Aristotle’s Principle of [Non] Contradiction and Categories [ Cause, Necessity, Contingency, etc ]. Along with ‘Space’ and ‘Time’, the ground conditions of Sensibility, they made up the Kantian Grid.

You cannot but view the World through these fundamental constructions, said Kant. They are organic contact lenses, hard-wired processors, the immutable framework within which must arise all Knowing and Understanding.

But what about these conditions themselves? How does one see one’s own organic contact lenses? How does one ‘Know the Knowing’?

Unlike most philosophers, Kant was vividly alert to the Self-Loop although he never took his own understanding of it to its necessary, implosive limit.

From Kant’s: ‘Critique of Pure Reason’:

If deduction of these conceptions is necessary, it must always be Transcendent. All attempts at an empirical deduction in regard to pure and a priori conceptions are in vain, and can only be done by one who does not understand the altogether peculiar nature of these conceptions.’

If you don’t see the significance of that qualification you will elaborate learnedly on the nature of Kant’s organic lenses while wearing them securely atop your nose.

And find yourself willy-nilly in the center of the vortex that is the Self-Loop. Which is exactly where Universities are today.


As always, all ‘First Principles’ including these, mount on a prior assumption of an ‘Independent and Separated ‘Self”. That does not take away from the depth of Kant’s insight.

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