CT 1: Knowledge and Reason as Empowering and Empowerment

George Grant

“When one contemplates the conquest of nature by technology one must remember that that conquest had to include our own bodies.”—George Grant, “In Defence of North America” (1969)

The beginnings of tragic literature in the history of the West in the theatre of the Greeks illustrate how human beings, through lack of self-knowledge, are responsible for their own nemeses or tragic outcomes through their lack of knowledge of their origins. This lack of knowledge of who they are and what their limits are or what they are capable of leads them, through pride, to believe that they are capable of anything that they can accomplish through the force of their wills.

In the story of Oedipus the King, Oedipus learns of his terrible destiny to kill his father and marry his mother; and because he loves those who he thinks are his “real” father and mother, he sets out on a journey to be as far away from them as he possibly can. Oedipus’ lack of self-knowledge of his origins leads him directly to his “fate”, to his “real” father and mother. In “self-defense” he kills his actual father and eventually ends up marrying his “real” mother as a reward for solving the riddle of the Sphinx and ridding the city of Thebes from its curse. The answer to the riddle of the Sphinx is, of course, “human being”.

Our fates in the modern age may be compared to the story of Oedipus by way of an analogy or metaphor in that we may be said to have reached the fulfillment of our destiny as human beings by killing our Father in the name of “freedom”, and through our technology not so much marrying as raping our Mother through our domination and commandeering of Nature to meet the desired ends of our wills. But in our freedom and domineering we have not yet found that which is “fitting” to us and for us as human beings and in an essential way lack the self-knowledge of who and what we are as human beings. We are the, as yet, “undetermined animal” and our fate is likewise.

One of the most common words used today by students in TOK classes is “mindset”, but when asked what exactly this word means the users of the word are at a loss to explain it. It is one of the words that we use without thinking, or hearing.

This writing will attempt to explore the relationship of reason to what we understand as the “key concepts” that determine our “personal knowledge” (which some preclude is the product of a ‘mindset’) and how reason is, actually, the ground of the ‘mindsets’ that we think we have chosen in our “freedom”, or what we call our “empowerment”. How is reason “empowering” and how does it relate to “empowerment” as “enhancement of life”?

When we speak of ‘mindsets’, we are speaking of human cognition, how we think, perceive and understand the world around us, the language and key concepts that we use, and how the manner  or methodology of this thinking, perceiving and understanding has come about from our “shared knowledge” (historical background, social contexts, etc). We shall understand “cognition” as an (intellectual) processing of (intellectual) contents, the contents of which are what we have come to understand as “data” which is then shaped into what we have come to call “information”.

What we call reason as a way of knowing or a way of relating to the world is grounded in the principle of reason: nihil est sine ratione, “nothing is without reason” or “nothing is without a reason”. The principle of reason holds that each and every thing that is, no matter what it is or how it is, has a reason for its being as it is. Whatever happens to be actual has a reason for its actuality. Whatever happens to be possible has a reason for its possibility. Whatever happens to be necessary has a reason for its necessity.

We require “reasons” for the assertions that we make in knowledge claims: they provide the answers to our questions “how do I/we know x”; and the answers begin with “be-cause” or “the cause is….” We insist upon a foundation or a ground/cause for every attitude when we explore emotion as a way of relating to the world and how these emotions shape and determine our human cognition, our processing of the contents of our experiences. It is from within this principle of reason that we determine who among us is sane and who among us is not. In our search for reasons we begin with the immediate reasons for the things in front of us and then proceed to attempt to get to the bottom of, or ground of, the more remote reasons and, finally, ask about the ultimate reason, the “why” of Being, why is there something rather than nothing.

The Lamp of Learning

The principle of reason is ubiquitous in all that we do and it is so because it is “illuminating”, and through this “illumination” it is “empowering”. Nothing happens without a reason: nothing happens without a cause. Every cause is in some way a reason. Not every reason brings about something in the way of causation, however. For example, the universally valid statement “All men are mortal” contains the reason for seeing that Socrates is mortal, but the statement does not bring about, is not the cause for, the fact that Socrates dies. As we shall see, the principle of reason is not the same as the principle of causality; it is broader and encompasses the principle of causality.

The principle of reason requires that reasons must be rendered for all that is. The rendering of reasons is carried out through logos or language as a way of knowing. Logos is any type of rendering; it is not merely that which can be expressed in words. All of your work in the Diploma program is based on the need to render sufficient or satisfactory reasons whether this rendering be in the form of words, mathematical formulae, products or performances. It is a bringing to presence of some thing, and the providing of a sufficient or satisfactory reason for the thing’s presence.

We need to ask and explain three questions that arise from this: 1. how come a reason is always a rendered or given reason? 2. How come a reason must be rendered in the first place, that is, explicitly brought forward? 3. to whom or to what is a reason rendered?

Gottfried Leibniz: The Founder of Finite Calculus

The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz was the first to formulate the principle of reason as a statement and as a principle in the 17th century. He insisted that it was the principle. What does this mean? Why did it take so long in the history of ideas and philosophy for this statement to be uttered and why was it written in Latin by Leibniz?

Leibniz answers our first question with the observation that a reason is a rendered reason “because a truth is only the truth if a reason can be rendered for it.” For Leibniz, truth is always a correct judgement. Judgement is the connection of what is stated with that about which the statement is made. We call this the correspondence theory of truth. As the philosopher Kant stated: “Judgement is the seat of truth”. What Kant’s statement indicates is that which, as the unifying unity of the subject and its predicate, supports their being connected as the basis, the ground of judgement: it gives a justification for the connection. Reason renders an account of the truth of judgement. To render an account in Latin is called ratio. The ground of the truth of judgement is represented as ratio. The first principle for Leibniz is the fundamental principle of rendering reasons. Whether this rendering of the account is in words or numbers is of no matter.

With regard to the second question “how come reasons must be brought forward whatever reasons”, Leibniz says that reason is ratio, that is, an account. If an account is not given, a judgement remains without justification. It lacks evidence of its correctness; it is “subjective”. The judgement itself is not truth. Judgement only becomes truth when the reason for the connection is specified and accounted for, when the ratio, that is, an account, is given. Such a giving of an account is in need of a site (“positionality”) where the account can be delivered and rendered. This site may be as formal as an experiment or an essay or an oral presentation, or it can be as informal as a statement made over coffee and donuts. The rendering of reasons is because reason is ratio, an account. If it is not given, the judgment remains without justification. It lacks the evidence, the support or the ground, for its correctness.

In answer to the third question: to whom or to what must reasons be rendered, the answer is to human beings who determine objects as objects by way of a “representation that judges”. Representation is in Latin representare: to make something present to humans, to present something, to bring something to a presence, to bring it forward.

Rene Descartes

Since Descartes, and later in Leibniz and all modern thinking, human beings experience themselves as an “I” (an ego, a self) that relates to the world such that it renders this world to itself in the form of connections correctly established between its representations—its judgements—and this “I” sets itself over and against this world as to an “object”. Judgements and statements are correct, that means true, only if the reason for the connection of the subject and predicate is rendered, that is, given back to the representing I. A reason is this sort of reason only if it is a ratio or an account that is given about something that is in front of a person as a judging I, and is given to this I. An account is an account only if it is handed over to others.

This handing over of reasons can be experienced in human cognition in the form of works of art either as performances, paintings or language, as discoveries in the sciences through experiment or observation, or the personal experiences that one grasps and possesses through one’s own human cognition. A reason is a reason to be rendered. When the reason for the connection of representations has been directed back and expressly rendered to the I, what is represented first comes to a stand (“positionality”) so that it is securely established as an object, that is, as an object for a representing subject.

But a rendered reason only effects such a bringing-to-a-stand of objects when it gives in a sufficient way an account that is adequate for the secure establishing of objects. The reason rendered must be a ratio sufficiens or a “sufficient reason”. This is the principle behind all assessments in the IB Diploma and in all human cognition in general. It is the ‘mindset’ that demands results which in themselves satisfy the principle of sufficient reason. Doing well or not doing well in your assessments is whether or not you have sufficiently rendered the reasons in securely establishing the object about which you are making assertions.

Leibniz says: “Nothing exists for which the sufficient reason for its existence cannot be rendered.” The reason that demands its being rendered in every judgement about an object at the same time demands that, as a reason, it suffices—which means that it be completely satisfactory as an account. Of and for what? So that in every way and for everyone it can bring an object to stand in the entirety of its stance. The completeness of the reasons to be rendered—perfectio—is what guarantees that something is firmly established—secured in its place—as an object for human cognition. Only the completeness of the account, perfection, vouches for the fact that every cognition everywhere and at all times can include and count on the object and reckon with it. It is the principle of reason that gives security to the woman in Moscow, Idaho and the man in Moscow, Russia that their proceedings in their experiments or their mathematical propositions are correct. “Nothing is without reason”. The principle now says that every thing counts as existing when and only when it has been securely established as a calculable object for cognition. It is from this reckoning and calculability that we have “subjective” and “objective” statements regarding the things that are. “Subjective” statements are denigrated because they lack “reality”, they lack “objectivity”, and they lack this reality and objectivity because they lack sufficient reasons in the accounts of their being as they are.

This distinction between “subjective” and “objective” statements is what Leibniz determined as the “grandness” of the principle of reason. In the thinking of Leibniz, the Principle (here capitalized because it means the “first” or primary) decrees what may count as an object of cognition, or more generally, as a being/thing. What Leibniz is saying here is that human cognition is governed by the principle of reason and is under its power. Cognition becomes Rational and governed by Reason. For over 2000 years, ratio has meant not only an “account” in the sense of that which stands to account for something else, but ratio also means to “account for” in the sense of “vindicating”, of confirming something as being in the right, of correctly figuring something out and securing something through such reckoning or “accounting”. Reckoning is the way humans take up something, deal with it, and take it on; how, in general, human beings perceive something and assess something. Ratio is a manner of perceiving, which means, it is Reason.

Rational cognition follows the principle of reason. Reason first fully develops its essence (what it is) as Reason through the principle of reason. The principle of reason is the fundamental principle of Rational cognition in the sense of a reckoning (an accounting) that securely establishes something. One speaks of rational grounds, of evidence. When I discuss the prescribed titles given for the TOK essay for example, I am often criticized by those who say that my definition of the word “theory” isn’t correct for TOK and that my analyses of the titles is confusing. One of the forms that this criticism takes is that the understood definition of “theory” in the natural sciences is something supported and built from “facts, concepts and generalizations” and the theory is “universally true”. While this criticism is correct to a point, if we speak about the principle of reason we find that this definition is based upon a belief in the principle of causation and that it itself is “unfounded” or not grounded. The framework for the “seeing” that is the viewing of the theory is a priori and pre-determines how the beings that we wish to see will be seen and the manner of the outcomes of the questions we ask must be pre-determined ahead of time. What we do not understand is from where this principle of reason speaks to us and why the demand for reasons is made upon us initially.

Leibniz’s articulation of the principle of reason brings to fruition what we call “modernity”. The principle of reason comes to determine all cognition and behaviour, in other words, our “personal knowledge”. Since Leibniz’s articulation, the principle of reason has embedded itself in our human being and determines the manner in which we, as human beings, are moving forward into the future. But we are not fully aware of how the principle of reason operates in our day-to-day activities.

How do we hear this claim of the principle of reason in the determination of our “mindset”, how we understand our “experiences”? The manner in which the claim of the principle of reason is most heard is in the distinction between “subjective” and “objective” mentioned earlier. Today, we measure what is “great” and what is “grand” only where the principle of reason is authoritative. We see the evidence of the principle of reason in our technology as it drives forward and opens the space for the bringing of its contrivances and products to an all-encompassing greatest possible perfection. Perfection consists in the completeness of the calculably secure establishing of objects, in the completeness of reckoning with them, and with the securing of the calculability of possibilities for reckoning. Our contrivances and products (computers and hand phones, for instance) are not merely instruments, equipment and tools like hammers and pens. The contrivances and products of technology rest on the understanding of the world about us that has become secure in its calculability. This calculability arranges the objects about us so that they are secure and at our disposal; the things about us are turned into data, and from this data into information. It is this securing of the disposability of the objects about us which brings algebraic calculation to its height as the determination of what is considered knowledge in our age. It was Leibniz’s creation of “finite calculus” that helped to initiate the dominance of the principle of reason. This knowledge comes about through the application of method or the path which follows and at the same time leads from the principle of reason. That Leibniz was also the inventor of what is called the insurance industry should indicate how his thinking was dominated by the need for security and control over necessity, chance and contingency.

The striving for perfection in our technology is an echo of the demand for perfectio which means here the completeness of a foundation. It is a striving which demands the rendering of sufficient reasons for all that is. Perfection is based on the thoroughgoing calculability of objects. The calculability of objects presupposes the validity of the principle of reason. The authority and security of the results from this calculability of the principle of reason determines the essence of the modern, technological age. (See Werner Heisenberg’s comments on the grounding and outcomes of his indeterminacy principle and its operations in quantum physics).

What role does human freedom play in this ceaseless technological striving for perfection? In our knowledge and how we experience our lives, we must come to terms with the distinction between calculative thinking and reflective thinking. We may begin our reflection on why this age is called the “Information Age” in order to illuminate the difference in the forms and ways of being-in-the-world in which human beings are captured and enslaved by the principle of reason. We shall attempt to determine the distinction between the calculative thinking which the principle of reason prescribes and reflective thinking.

The Principle of Reason and Information

How does the principle of reason operate within the “information age”? “Information” is sometimes called knowledge by students in their essays and oral presentations. “In-form-ation” is the bringing of what is encountered to a stand in the “form” in which it can “in-form” or be rendered and handed over. To “inform” is to render an account, to pass on what has been brought to a stand in human cognition through “representational thinking”. We require that this rendering be as quick, comprehensive and bring about results in the most efficient manner possible in order to assist us in securing our necessities, requirements, and satisfactions. We speak of this rendering as “empowerment”, the ability to “make our thinking visible” as representations.  So it is that in our age the representation of language as an instrument of information has come to dominance and shows itself in our attempts to create machines with artificial intelligence and ever bigger, greater, more efficient computing frameworks with capacities for ever larger calculations. These attempts are based on our understanding of “intelligence” as information and contribute to the organizing within the framework that the principle of reason has established for itself.

In order to be passed on or rendered, what is encountered must be “trans-formed” into data so that it can be manipulated and controlled. The suffix “a-tion” comes from the Greek aition, “that which is responsible for” or “that to which something is obliged”, which was interpreted as “cause” by the Latins. In this trans-formation of what is encountered into what is called in-formation, into data, what is encountered ceases to be an “object” for us and only retains its validity, its reality, as long as it retains its sense as data. As data, it ceases to be an independently standing object. The principle of reason requires that all that is encountered is understood as data. Until it is so understood, the thing encountered does not have a “reality” for us; it is not a “fact”. It is “subjective”.

Why this need for everything we encounter to be rendered as “information”? Because in its rendering as “information”, the principle of sufficient reason can hold sway. What is the consequence of seeing and hearing language and speaking as information? Because of this manner of hearing and speaking, the possibility of a thoughtful conversation with a tradition that is considered to be our shared knowledge, a shared knowledge that could invigorate and nurture us, is lacking. Because language has been consigned to information, reflective thinking is pushed aside and is considered as something useless and superfluous because it does not achieve “useful” ends.

It is to the IB’s credit that it wishes to have TOK at the core of the Diploma program so that whatever embers might lie within our thinking that are the remnants of reflective thinking may still be able to catch fire and flame out as something other than calculative thinking.

Knowledge, Empowerment and Reason

What is the relation of the principle of reason to personal knowledge and what we have come to call empowerment? It is the power of the principle of reason that “empowers” what we think personal knowledge is. The principle of reason governs all modern thought and action in the sense that it makes all modern thought and its consequences possible. It is the principle of reason that “empowers” the modern age to be what it is. At the same time, the principle of reason “overpowers” all thought and action making it difficult, if not impossible, to think and act except in the manner prescribed by the principle of reason. Our enchainment to the principle of reason requires that we “hear” what is being said in it and, at the same time, how the “mighty” principle (in Leibniz’s word) has come to determine what is understood as “technology” and its “empowerment” of human beings in the modern age. This attentive “hearing” requires that we begin to listen to what we hear which we have previously been inattentive to in the principle of reason; and this hearing and seeing requires a responsiveness on our part to what is and what we are as human beings.

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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