‘Who Am I?’ [3]

 

You are a restless seeker, a Philosophy-Junkie. And you want to know all about ‘Know’. You want to know what ‘Knowledge’ means.

Not to worry. There is such a subject. And it is called Epistemology. You’ve come to the right department.

Epistemology is the scholarly study of ‘Knowing’ while firmly resident in the Know. It is knowing all about ‘Knowing’ and ‘Knowledge’. [Can you smell the Self-Loop?]

Empistemology [‘Know’] and Ontology [‘Be’] are the twin foundations of Philosophy. Any grand discourse on Philosophy without a clear investigated statement about these two stances is not worth the paper it is written on.


So you ask a Professor of Epistemology for the definition of the word ‘Knowledge’.

He might give you list [a safe response] but odds are that on that list is the phrase ‘Justified True Belief’ or something very close. [The original translated phrase from the Classical Greek is ‘True Belief with an Account’].

What’s so special about ‘Justified True Belief? It is the closest thing we have to an original definition for the word ‘Knowledge’. And it first emerges in the Theaetetus, in Plato’s Dialogues. Hence it is the ‘Classic’ definition.

The Theaetetus is where it all began. It is the source, the Mother-Lode for this subject called Epistemology.

And the Theaetetus, the founding source for the classic definition of ‘Knowledge’ is not about what ‘Knowledge’ is, but rather about what it is not. And why the word ‘Knowledge’ cannot be defined [read it].


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..

This is the limit of honest Epistemological insight.


Let’s work through an example to understand Socrates’ scathing dismissal of the various proposed definitions for ‘Knowledge’. 

I start with what I know in order to know something new. I speak American-English and I wish to learn Tibetan. I go to a teacher who speaks Tibetan and American-English. I don’t go to a teacher who speaks Tibetan and German, nor to a teacher who speaks American-English and Japanese.

We understand [and create] the new only in reference to the old, only in counterpoint to that which is not-new. Your most imaginative construction of distant galaxy and strange alien is little more than a rearrangement of decidedly familiar idea and image. [‘R2-D2’ not withstanding, a true alien must remain alien to your known world.]

New learning begins in an extension of what is already learnt. The unfamiliar originates in the conversant and the familiar. The Unknown begins in the Known.

I teach a child the meaning of the word ‘Cat’ by pointing to a picture of a cat. I do not read her the dictionary definition of Cat: ‘A species of carnivorous quadrupeds, of genus Felis.’


In order to use a Dictionary I must enter with a ‘Minimum-Knowledge of English’. And this ‘Minimum-Knowledge of English’ must itself be sourced outside the Dictionary.

I must already possess this ‘ Minimum-Knowledge of English’ before using a Dictionary and without it the Dictionary is of no use to me.

A Dictionary defines new and unfamiliar words in terms of old and familiar ones. [Literati say a Dictionary spirals down in terms of ‘simpler’ words. The simplest words in Language are ‘is’ and ‘not’ and men have been struggling to define them clearly for 2 millennia. So watch out.]


I search Webster’s for the meaning of the word ‘Metropolis’.

Metropolis: ‘The main city, often the capital, of a country, state or region’. But what is a City?

City: ‘A large important town’. But what is a Town?

Town: ‘A place enclosed or fenced in; a collection of houses enclosed within walls; a hamlet; a village’. But what is a Village?

Village: ‘A group of houses in the country, smaller than a town or city and larger than a hamlet’.

We have come full circle. This is all a Dictionary is meant to do. We can go no further. A Hamlet is defined in terms of ‘Village’; a Village in terms of ‘Hamlet’.

In order to use the Dictionary, I must enter with knowledge of what is a ‘Hamlet’ or a ‘Village’. If I do not, I will find myself in a permanent loop within the Dictionary with no exit.

If I am alert to that, I close the Dictionary and find a ‘Hamlet’, take a trip and visit  a ‘Village’.

If I am not alert to it, I keep turning the pages and look for new definitions without ever leaving the Dictionary. And enter the boudoir of the Self-Loop.


If you can understand this line you are reading you are already well into a state of advanced ‘Knowing’. Much more so when you seek for a definition of the word ‘Know’.

In Primal Forgetting, I build my entire vocabulary using words that define other words in a closed self-referential loop with no appreciation of the preemptive and prior ‘Minimum-Knowledge of English’ that I have brought with me.

I cannot find the meaning to the phrase ‘Minimum-Knowledge of English’, within the pages of the Dictionary to which, in order to use, I must bring this ‘Minimum-Knowledge’.

But what happens when I seek for the definition of ‘Minimum-Knowledge of English’ inside a Dictionary without being aware that I am already using this ‘Minimum-Knowledge of English’ when I seek it?

In Socratic speak: ‘To tell us to get hold of something we already have in order to know something we are already thinking of…’.

With Language. it is possible to work backwards. In other words, it is possible, with due care and diligence, to identify your beginning inventory of English, the ‘Minimum-Knowledge’ that you bring with you in order to use a Dictionary.

With ‘Knowledge’, it is impossible.


‘Knowing’ precedes Model, is prior to Alphabet, preemptive of Number. You cannot newly define it, for it precedes the concept of ‘Definition’. You cannot newly seek it, for it preempts the concept of ‘Seek’. You cannot newly prove it, for it is prior to the notion of ‘Proof’.

Yet, you can never know anything about Knowing without being in contradiction to the act of Knowing itself. ‘Knowing’ and ‘Not-Knowing’ is a distinction always and only made in a state of ‘Knowing’. If you can newly define the word ‘Know’, by that very fact, what you have defined is not the word ‘Know’.

If you can understand this line you are reading you are already well into a state of advanced ‘Knowing’. Much more so when you seek for a definition of the word ‘Know’.

Until I see that I live inside the Dictionary, defining each word using another word, earnestly expanding my vocabulary of erudite ignorance. I go from page to page chasing my tail with no hope of exit.

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.

Walt Whitman wrote: ‘A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child?…I do not know what it is anymore than he.’