CT 1 Knowledge and the Knower: “Empowerment”

Truly, truly, I say to you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it stays alone: but if it die, it brings forth much fruit. John 12:24

      No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
10 We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
     When thou dost ask me blessing,  I’ll kneel down                                                                         And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
     And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
    At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
15 Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
     Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
     And take upon’s the mystery of things
     As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out
     In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones
20 That ebb and flow by the moon. –Shakespeare, King Lear, V sc. iii

What is it about human beings that make liberty and justice their due? Why is justice “what we are fitted for” when it is not convenient to our wills or our “empowerment”? Why is justice our “good”? What does it mean to say that “we are not our own”?

For May 2022, TOK has decided that knowers and knowledge are to be explored through core and optional themes. Themes are the main ideas, topics or subjects to be explored. In order to “explore” one must set out by some means of navigation upon a journey toward a goal; we may call these journeys “paths”. These “paths” in TOK are what we call our “methodologies”, the means by which we attempt to reach the goal, which is ultimately “knowledge” of the particulars within the general areas of knowledge that have been designated as the domains of exploration.

These domains of exploration are what are now called themes, the main or big ideas, the central or archetypal concepts and principles, and your understanding of them will be assessed in an Exhibition that brings to presence the your ability to apply your knowledge to everyday events in the world about you. What is this “knowledge” that you will be applying to the world about you? What form does it take? We call such knowledge “second order knowledge” for it asks us to demonstrate the grounds of how we know and we distinguish it from “first order knowledge” which asks us to bring to presence “what” it is that we claim to know from the use of this second order knowledge.

In the Core Theme (CT), “knowledge and knowers” is to be examined. In the writings on the core theme, we will explore what it means to know and what and how what we have come to call knowledge comes to be. We will examine the factors that shape how we make sense of the world and what we mean by “making sense”. We will also try to discover where our “values” come from and what shapes our perspectives, our viewing of the world and on the world. That “values” and “perspectives” are the words brought to prominence by the German philosopher Nietzsche through his “historical” thinking is dealt with elsewhere on the blog site. Part of the difficulty that we face in coming to know ourselves is that we use words like “values” and “perspectives” quite carelessly without hearing them or thinking about them, but they are filled with consequence.

We will attempt to reflect on how we engage and relate to the knowledge around us in the everydayness of our dealings with the beings/things in our worlds. A great part of our worlds are the communities we belong to, and they play an important, if not decisive, role in how we construct, share and evaluate knowledge or what we think knowledge to be. Our ethics or our manner of being-in-the-world are, for the most part, decided by the communities of which we are members. That many of our communities are lurching towards fascism politically is a theme which bears scrutiny as we examine what we think knowledge to be and what comes to count as knowledge within those communities. Could this fascistic leaning in the present day be due to the preponderance of the acceptance of the “pragmatic theory of truth” in the empirical and social sciences i.e. how we have interpreted “nature” including our own human nature? Let us explore and see if this is the case.

The pragmatic theory of truth came to prominence in the writings and conclusions of three Americans: Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Their writings were influenced by the British empiricists David Hume, J. S. Mill, and Jeremy Bentham as well as the British scientist, Charles Darwin, for the most part. In the writings of the Americans, the emphasis was on the pragma or the material substance (Nature) that was arrived at through “sense perception as a way of knowing” or what has been called empiricism. The pragmatic theory of truth primarily focuses on the “useful” as what is “true”, and it was an attempt to overcome what was believed were the conclusions of the previous metaphysics and philosophy of European thought, primarily brought forward by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Those accounts for the why, the how and the what of things that were experienced by the 19th century continental European thinkers were to be replaced with a “scientific account” or an account that was explainable in terms of science and the scientific method of inquiry. The misunderstanding of what that metaphysics is/was in the history of the philosophy of the West has led to many of the contradictions present in this pragmatic theory of truth and is one of the factors in the current confusion of present day thought. Some of these will be explored below.

The Pragmatic Theory of Truth holds that the “usefulness” of a proposition determines its truth. “Usefulness” is measured by whether or not the truth “works” and provides some “value” to the viewer and to the community of which he or she is a member. For the pragmatists, utility is the essential mark of truth and utility relates to “pragma” or the “matter at hand”. A pragmatic theory of truth is present in such TOK phrases as “the production of knowledge” or “the measurement” of some result to determine its success in relation to an “ideal” desired, what was once called “perfection” (although the use of this word has fallen out of fashion somewhat). The pragmatic theory of truth strongly relies on belief as a way of knowing, beliefs that lead to the best, most efficient results, or the best justifications of our actions (“the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, for example), or that promote “success” or what is considered to be “valued” as the best outcome. From them, evolution was viewed as the progress towards the perfection of the species biologically coupled with a drive for moral perfection through the used of rationality by human beings as the animal rationale.

William James’s version of the pragmatic theory is that “the ‘true’ is only an expedient in our way of thinking, just as the ‘right’ is only an expedient in our way of behaving. For James, “truth” is a matter of convenience whether in theory or in practice; it is the end that determines all. This becomes the principle of ethical action: truth is a “value” which is justified by its effectiveness when the applied concepts to actual practice “work”, and these ends are determined by our “convenience”. It would be difficult to find a clearer statement about what is currently happening in American politics than this assessment of truth made by James. James said that “all true processes must lead to the face of directly verifying sensible experiences somewhere”. For James, “if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, then it is ‘true’.”

The good end, the good result, will justify any means, and this principle of action has led to many of the great disasters and catastrophes that have marked the 20th and 21st centuries. It can, perhaps, best be captured in a quote from the scientist Robert Oppenheimer who said: “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”  “Just do it” is an apt slogan for our age and one of the “principles” which has created its “moral compass” or lack thereof. It is what is today called “ideology” which may be said to be “the imagined existence (or idea/ideal) of things as it relates to the real conditions of existence”. But from whence derives this understanding or “interpretation” of the “real conditions of existence” and upon what is it grounded.

The pragmatic theory of truth came into being and operates where technology as a way of knowing through the principle of reason prevails. Charles Peirce wrote: “This activity of thought by which we are carried, not where we wish, but to a foreordained goal, is like the operation of destiny. No modification of the point of view taken, no selection of other facts for study, no natural bent of mind even, can enable a man to escape the predestinate opinion. This great law is embodied in the conception of truth and reality. The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality.” “Faith”, for Peirce, is “opinion” and it is the opinion of whichever class rules in a society at any particular time whether that class be “civilized” or cannibals. Peirce’s definition is quite distinct from the Platonic definition of knowledge as “justified true belief”. The pragmatists argue against the allegory of the Cave of Plato because they believe that there is nothing beyond the Cave that can be known or loved.

There appears to be very little room for freedom in Peirce’s conception of thought and reality, and one can see how the world of “alternative facts” could easily emerge given whatever opinion of the community predominates at the time (through political choices, for example), or whatever has been decided upon or deified regardless of whether that community believes that it has arrived at its ends through democratic or fascistic means, whether the community’s choices are rational or irrational. What is decisive is the determinative ethos of the day. Decision is what is most important. It is the opinions of the Cave (to remember Plato’s allegory) which prevail, and the light shone on the things of the cave by the keepers of the fire is that which has been agreed to by the cave-dwellers as the light. For the pragmatists, this light has been shone by scientific research. But as we have seen, science is at a crisis at this point in its history.

John Dewey agrees with Peirce on what can be considered truth: “The best definition of truth from the logical standpoint which is known to me is that by Peirce: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real.” For Dewey, truth is the belief best exhibited by the scientists in their inquiries into the nature of what is. “Truth” is the end product of the process that applies the principle of reason (the principle of causation in this case) and arrives at statements or assertions regarding the reality of what is.

“Truth” comes to be replaced by “ideology”. It is the view that prevails when one accepts Darwin’s account of the being of beings and what “fittedness” has come to mean in modern societies. As the American philosopher Sally Haslanger has said: “The function of ideology is to stabilize and perpetuate dominance through masking or illusion.” It is these masks and illusions that have come to dominate our ethics and our politics in the form of mass movements and ideologies. It is this lack of self-knowledge which illustrates our age as a tragic age as the technological society totters towards its apogee.

The “belief” element in the pragmatic theory of truth has led to the position of  “alternative facts” where, for the sake of convenience or “usefulness”, the “matter” or the “pragma” being discussed is disputed in its nature. “Usefulness” rests on the proposition’s ability to “empower” someone and this “empowerment” is a matter of convenience for the individual and the community; if it is not convenient, it can easily be cast aside. For example, it may be “useful” to someone to have a belief in a god for psychological reasons while it may not be useful to another to have such a belief. The utility to the individual and the community is the prime determiner of the truth of the thing. This is a common critique of the pragmatic theory of truth for this standpoint is a violation of the principle of contradiction and, therefore, a violation of the principle of reason: a thing cannot be both itself and its opposite at the same time. But this is not to deny the fact that in the pragmatic theory of truth the principle of reason, whether realized through algebraic calculation or through the definitions of algorithms, still prevails. The critique of the pragmatic theory of truth states that, ultimately, the pragmatic theory of truth is irrational. This irrationality ultimately leads to intolerance as its outcome as collective factions vie for power within the communities of which they are members. The madness, this irrationality, can only be deep in societies which hold forth its opposite, when rationality is coupled with idolatry and the blasphemy of thinking that the god’s will is scrutable. The rational and the irrational belong together and they are linked in very mysterious ways.

One can see an example of where ideology overrules science in the recent rejections of the notion of “climate change” by certain individuals and groups. Because the scientific findings or “facts” are not “convenient” to certain individuals or groups within the community (fossil fuel promoters, for example), the scientific facts are rejected for the sake of the benefits of their short term gains or “empowerment”. Al Gore’s film entitled An Inconvenient Truth is aptly named. But at the bottom of the climate change deniers’ view is a much more worrisome and deadly viewing of the world, and that viewing is nihilism. The German philosopher, Nietzsche, has shown that the “perspectivism” and “values” philosophies of the pragmatists rest upon a “sea of nihilism”.

Counter to this preponderance of the “pragmatic theory of truth” in our current education, what does it mean to say that ‘we are not our own’ when we are reflecting upon ourselves and on the communities of which we are members? As beings in bodies, human beings experience themselves as the “dependent” creatures. In the modern, we have come to experience ourselves as “wills” directed towards mastery over beings and things, “making something happen”, “changing the world”, and “empowerment” of the Self through our mastery of the environment and the ready-to-hand, including our own bodies. In these writings, this is called “technology”. Today’s focus on the Self and of its securing its own permanence and security, its salvation, is a product of the Renaissance interpretation of Christianity, what has come to be called Protestantism. This focus then evolves into what has come to be called “humanism” where human beings are placed at the centre of all that is when “the death of God” becomes an ethical and political reality. Why is this so?

In the thinking of Plato, “will” is experienced as “wanting” or “desiring” (eros) expressing our dependence upon that which we need be it food, another person, or the Good. In our language we have continually attempted to overcome our experience of “will” as dependence, as the “erotic”, and attempted to replace it with “mastery”. We conceive of our essence as “freedom”. For Plato, our “freedom” rests in our ability to respond to the light that has been given, not a light which is a creation of “human subjectivity”. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the greatest example of this “freedom” that we have in the English language.

In Plato one finds that our core need as human beings is our longing for the perfection that is to be found in the Good. The ideas of love, beauty and justice are perceived through contemplative attention and then enacted upon in our lives. Our modern view is that the core of human beings is the primacy of the will in achieving the satisfaction of the “appetites” be these food, sex or power. It is our way of seeing and being-in-the-world that leads to our injustice or justice when it comes to our ethical actions or praxis. The ethics are not in the seeing and being but in the actions themselves. The purpose of the seeing and being-in-the-world is the purpose of discerning and distinguishing between the just and the unjust life, what we are “fitted” for as human beings.

If we return to Plato’s allegory of the Cave in his Republic we discover from Book VI and Book VII that the chief “religions” focus on the self and the social (“religion” understood as what we bow down to or what we look up to). As the French philosopher Simone Weil states, our “freedom” is our incoherent behaviours that harm others e.g. “collective feelings, war, national rivalries, class hatreds, loyalty to a party, to a church, etc.” (Notebooks 2, p. 347). This harming of others comes from our focus on the “appetites” and our need to assert our wills. Since there are no limits to our “freedom” since there are no limits to our appetites we are, literally, “beyond good and evil” in how we view what is due to other human beings and to the world in which we live. It is our understanding of ourselves as “freedom”, whether in following “values” created by the Self as autonomous individuals or the “values” imposed by society through a contract chosen by a collective of selves, that we understand ourselves.

The ancients felt that through “virtue” (arete) one could experience the Good. For ourselves, the Good is what secures and preserves our “freedom” to create our destiny as we see fit. We affirm the assertion of the power of the self (“empowerment”) over something other than the self and of our selves over our own dependencies, particularly those dependencies that arise through being beings in bodies. What the ancients understood as “desire” (eros) and “need”, we interpret as will and mastery. Something of this may be found in the example of some women speaking of pregnancy as an “illness”.

As we have seen in our reflections on the thoughts of Nietzsche, to will is to “legislate”, to make a judgement/judgements and we view this as the expression of a responsible and independent self, an “empowered” self. The Greeks, Aristotle and Plato, have shown that the “regime” or the community will determine how we view this Self and what takes place within this Self which, in turn, will determine its actions. Both Plato and Aristotle rejected the pragmatic theory of truth for something higher and more noble.

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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