CHAPTER II

 

ON KNOWING KNOWLEDGE

 

 

What could be more knowable than knowledge? In logic it would seem that knowledge should not be a problem for itself. And yet, this is far from being the case. Knowledge, as an object of knowing, is complex, obscure and difficult to know. The same is true also of the brain and mind. In fact, they may be among the most difficult things to comprehend. The history of philosophy bears witness to this situation. The fundamental questions concerning knowledge and its origin remain open. The lack of definitive answers to these questions has not hindered the general development of knowledge. Whether we know how we know and have an adequate understanding of the knowledge construct or not, we can study the outside world and ourselves quite effectively. Whether knowledge can progress indefinitely without significant progress of the knowledge of knowledge is another question, which has no easy answer.

Whatever may be the answer to the above question, the fact that knowledge can progress without full understanding of itself is in itself highly significant and relevant for our discussion. It tells us two things. Firstly, to know something and to know how we know it are not only two different questions, but two different mental acts as well. Secondly, to know something, even in a rigorous and critical way as in science, it is not necessary to know how we know. Moreover, it is not essential to know the nature of the agency which produces knowledge. This case seems to be a particular instance of a general situation. We breathe, walk and use our hands without fully comprehending the mechanisms of these acts — and are not unduly disturbed by our ignorance. But breathing and walking are physical, not mental acts. Thinking is in a different category. However, thinking too is a product of evolution just as are physical acts. The analogy of the situation of our knowledge of these different acts may be a manifestation of a law of evolution creating hierarchies of levels of operations and degrees of autonomy at each level, so as to allow organisms to economize energy and behave in a most efficient manner.

Whatever may be the justification of our ignorance of the nature of knowing, this counter-intuitive situation is exacerbated by the fact that the product of the acts of knowing, the knowledge construct, does not form a uniform, well-defined, definitive entity. As far as it is possible to tell, the knowledge construct is the fastest evolving element of the human environment. It is not surprising that knowledge of the knowledge construct is, at best, partial and necessarily nondefinitive. Understandably, philosophers prefer to concentrate their attention not on the product, but on the process of knowing, which seems to be or, at least, is assumed to be unchanging through generations. Philosophy has to speak in universal terms or it is not philosophy. With respect to human knowing, philosophers have to make generalizing assumptions in order to come up with some general conclusions. These generalizations are based on such profoundly held convictions that they are rarely, if ever, mentioned. For the sake of the arguments, which will be discussed in this book, let us state the assumptions clearly.

The first assumption is obvious: by definition all humans are rational animals, therefore all humans think and have some knowledge. With the exception of certain borderline cases, such as an encephalous individual, this assumption appears to be true. The second presupposition goes further. It concerns not the mere fact of knowing, but the mode of knowing. Namely, it is assumed that there is only one mode of knowledge and that all humans know in basically the same manner. In contrast to the first, the second assumption is much less certain. Intuitive, mystical and other modes of knowledge which, perhaps incorrectly, are called extrasensory perceptions, cannot simply be dismissed as not consistent with the ordinary way of knowing. As far as the thesis of the species-wide uniformity of the mode of knowledge is concerned, we are in a different situation. In the present state of knowledge we can neither prove nor disprove it. It has, therefore, to remain a presupposition. Problems which Chomsky encountered with his thesis of the existence of universal linguistic structures are the best illustration of this situation.

There are good reasons why the assumptions of the species-wide uniformity of knowledge are usually accepted without much further discussion. They can be divided into two groups, namely, moral and pragmatic. Let us state first the moral reasons, which are quite substantial: the rejection of the thesis of the species-wide uniformity of knowledge would make it possible to introduce the idea of differences, not only in the mode of knowing, but also in the underlying faculties of knowing. From there it is only one step to the affirmation of racial inequalities with all its drastic consequences, an affirmation which philosophers are generally loath to make.

The pragmatic motive is quite obvious. The assumption of the uniformity of knowledge satisfies the principle of Occam’s razor and simplifies the rather formidable task of analyzing the process of knowing. It is useful, for it allows us to make general propositions about knowledge and attach to them objective meaning, thus, escaping the nominalist predicament. Though it may sound finicky, let us mention a third presupposition which may seem quite banal at first glance but upon reflection becomes rather intriguing. When we study knowledge we assume that knowledge is knowable, which to certain extent is obvious. The difficult part of this assumption concerns the degree of knowability of knowledge. The truly interesting and baffling question concerns the limits of knowability of knowledge. Do they exist or not, and if they exist where or what are they, and is it possible to know them adequately?

Even with all the assumptions on hand we are faced with a plethora of theories of knowledge and with interminable philosophical discussions. After 25 centuries of assiduous reflection on the nature of knowledge, we do not seem to be any closer to formulating a definitive theory of knowledge than were our philosophical forefathers in ancient Greece. The question is whether this is a significant fact or not. Is this situation due to the very nature of knowledge, or to the way philosophers go about trying to know knowledge or to both? The answer is not at all clear. Although the definitive explanation of knowledge is not at hand, this does not mean that progress has not been made in this area. While this may not be apparent from philosophical texts, the knowledge of knowledge depends to a significant extent on the general level of knowledge. It is a reflexive, second-order type of knowledge, presupposing a first-order knowledge of the external world as well as a degree of intellectual sophistication and the satisfaction of basic existential needs. The dependence of the knowledge of knowledge on other types of knowledge merits expression in the form of a law. All other factors being equal:

 

Law III: "The knowledge of knowledge is a function of a general development of knowledge."

 

Since the brain is the organ of knowledge, the knowledge of the brain is, of course, of major importance for the knowledge of knowledge. The problem is that the human brain is the most complex part of the human organism and, as far as we can tell, the most complex object in the universe. It is also the part of the human body most difficult to know and the least known. Only recently have we acquired means of studying the living brain in action. We still lack a comprehensive theory of the brain which would be considered adequate and generally accepted by specialists in the field. Nevertheless, advances in brain research are quite dramatic and of direct significance to the study of knowledge. The same is true of progress in other areas, from microphysics to linguistics. Although the Holy Grail of the definitive explanation of the nature of knowledge is as elusive as ever, the problematic of knowledge expands continuously under the impact of the general development of knowledge. Contrary to what may be intuitively assumed, the more we know in general and the more we know about the phenomenon of knowledge the more — not fewer — questions can and have to be asked about knowledge. Let us express this important fact in the following form:

 

Law IV: "The size and complexity of the problematic of knowledge is proportional to the general level of knowledge."

 

The principal factor responsible for the development of knowledge in modern times is science. In view of the evermore rapid progress of cognition, the reflection about the nature of knowledge centers, quite understandably, on the nature of science and its development. The result is the growth of the problematic of epistemology as illustrated by the development of evolutionary epistemology. It is worth pointing out in this respect that science contributes to epistemological reflection in two principal ways, namely, as a continuously growing object to analyze, and as providing insights helpful in the study of the phenomenon of knowledge. One of these insights developed since World War II is the General Systems Theory. It helps us perceive the human phenomenon, whether individual, society or humanity, as a system in a hierarchy of systems. In this perspective, knowledge appears as an element of a system which is the human being, and as an element of a system of systems. Thus, human knowledge is seen in a much broader and more meaningful context than in the philosophical studies from Plato to Analytic Philosophy.

Thinking does not occur in an existential void. All the mystical and out-of-the-body experiences notwithstanding, rational thought is not an act of a disincarnate intellect. The intellect, in order to think, requires a well-functioning brain, which, in turn, needs a sufficiently functioning body. The body is always situated, inserted in a determined existential situation which conditions thinking. The conditioning applies also to problems; they, too, do not happen out of nowhere and do not exist in an empty space, unrelated to human concrete and conditioned existence. To understand the problems which agitate a society in a given period, the way they are perceived and the answers provided, it is necessary to view them in their intellectual and material context. This is why we intend to approach the problem of the knower-knowledge relationship through a discussion of the contemporary situation of humanity. The above problem and the present situation of humankind are bound in a feed (feedback, feedforward) relationship and are mutually illuminating. As they form a system, a systemic approach is therefore justified.

The precarious situation of humanity is a well-known fact. It has important consequences for the study of knowledge. Had it not been for the predicament in which humankind finds itself presently, the problem of the consequences of rationality would never have presented itself in such a drastic way, and rational knowledge together with rationality as such would not require a critical reappraisal. It is for that reason that we shall attempt to discuss the relationship between humans and the knowledge construct in light of the contemporary great problems of humanity. A discussion of these problems, of their origins and consequences should make the problematic of the human-knowledge construct relationship more understandable.