CT 1: Knowledge and the Knower: Historical Background

CT 1: The Knower: Ontological

We will approach the topic of the historical background of who we are as knowers from two different perspectives: the ontological, which defines what human beings are; and the ethical which illustrates how human beings behave or act or how human beings have acted historically. From these approaches we hope to get a better understanding of who we are and who we think we are regarding what we consider “knowledge”.

Because the IB Program is a product of Western history and experience, this understanding of the historical background of “the knower” will be Western understanding. It should be supplemented by someone with knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads as well as other Eastern texts which I myself do not have.

The understanding of ourselves for those of us in the West begins with the Greeks. For the Greeks, knowledge was of three areas: physics, ethics and “speaking”. These three broad episteme roughly corresponded to our asking the 5 Ws and H questions: “who” and “what” we are as human beings, “how” we are in our manner of being or action, “where” and “when” we are in our historical and geo-political existence, and “why” we are as we are being that unique being that takes it own existence in hand. This taking our existence in hand is what we mean by “experience”.

Language, “speech”, has a most important role along with “the world” and human being itself. Language is the discussions we hold with one another as well as our discussions we have with ourselves concerning ourselves. “Speech” is the way we behave, a natural pre-scientific view of the world which illuminates who we are and what we are as human beings. This is why the Greeks defined human being as the zoon logon echon, the living being that can speak and so defines its being in and through such speaking.

The Greek word for language, speech is logos. It became translated as “logic” after Aristotle and the Latins equated it with ratione, the “rational” so that human being came to be defined as the animale rationale, the rational living being. “Logic” was originally conceived as all speaking, and it was connected with the study of grammar. As grammar became the study and rules of “right speaking”, logic became the study and rules of “right thinking”.

Language was understood as speaking to each other about something, of some thing. This speaking about something was of the revealing of that thing, of bringing that thing to light. In such revealing, the thing becomes defined and determined or ordered. Logic as the science of speaking is the revealing of something, allowing the world and human existence and things in general to be seen. This uncovering of things that are “hidden” is what is understood as “truth”. This uncovering found its height in mathematical knowledge. What is important here is to understand that the essence of human being, what human beings are is the revealing of things in the world.

We have an understanding of ourselves as “persons”. From where do the concepts of “person”, “personal”, and “personality” arise? Originally, “person” comes from “persona” the Latin word for “mask” or “what is before the face”. It originates from Greek drama where actors wore masks to indicate their roles in the performance they were about to perform.  Personalitas originally designates the “role” that a persona indicates or illustrates, but it has the sense of the word “dignity” implied in it so that the designation of a “personality” was someone who was distinguished and dignified by the “role” that they played in events or in the society or community of which they were a member. It was considered an honour and a duty of a citizen to perform in the Greek dramas as these were more “religious” in nature and not merely as educational and a source of entertainment. A “role” is a particular way and manner of being a human being and it is very much related to its origins in Greek drama. In the words of T.S. Eliot in his “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: it is “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”. What “roles” do we think we play in our society today?

For the Romans, particularly Cicero, a persona is someone who possesses a high degree of the quality of what a human being is as such: the animal rationale. “Dignity” is thus grounded on ratio, the animal possessing reason and the capability of discourse. The concept of the persona and of the human being are closely linked and are grounded in the determination of human being. This concept of the animal rationale is still with us today in, for example, the Roe vs. Wade decision regarding abortion by the U.S. Supreme Court wherein the Supreme Court determined that foetuses were not “persons” in the whole sense.

St. Augustine
St. Augustine 5th Century

With the arrival of Christianity, human being comes to be determined as a “mixture of body and soul” in the writings of St. Augustine in the 5th century. This determination rested, too, on the notion of human being as the animal rationale. In the Christian determination, the human being, the persona, was determined as an individual soul whose goal and salvation  lie in gaining eternal life as an individual. God is determined as the essential unity of the three personae: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. (Augustine) Here we find the beginnings of the shift in the concept of the persona in the direction of the individual, that he or she is their own goal and purpose in their search for certainty and surety regarding one’s individual salvation.

In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas determines human being as the “person” who is “rational” by nature (in essence) and is incorporated in an individual body. Thomas’s understanding signified the individual self-sufficiency of a rational being: the independence of the human being, the persona, comes to the fore. The emphasis here stresses the “free will” and responsibility of the individual in their choices and decision-making, their morals and ethics.

Rene Descartes

The French philosopher Rene Descartes takes up the concepts of human being that were handed over to him to develop an entirely new concept of the “personality”: ego cogito, ergo sum, the basic principle of modern philosophy: “I think, therefore, I am”. The ego cogito is essential for within it human being is determined through its self-certainty which corresponds to an understanding of truth as “certainty”.  The ratio that was historically involved in all determinations of human being receives the particular form of self-certainty (“I know because….) on the basis of which certainty about anything else first becomes possible. This means that the ego in Descartes’ principle is the subject lying at the root of everything. The human being determines itself now wholly in and from itself and no longer needs Church doctrine; the essence of human being is determined according to its capacity for self-determination, its “freedom” to choose, its freedom to make promises and to enter into contracts.

Immanuel Kant

The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, determined the next stage historically in his distinguishing the difference between human beings and things (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals) and with respect to the determination of the human being according to three elements, one of which is the “person”.  (Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone). For Kant, a thing can certainly exist in itself but its independence, its “freedom”, is only ever a mere means. In contrast, a being that is rational —for Kant, reason is the power of the principles– can never be a mere means. Because it has reason, it is its own end. The three elements of human being in Kant, are the “animal” that is humanity, the “humanity” that is humanity (together with the “animal” giving the animal rationale), and “personality” as a rational and responsible being. Kant distinguishes between the reason that is thinking and apprehending, and the reason that is “accountability”, that is, responsibility, the ethical. This distinction is important for we all know of many human beings who think according to the principle of non-contradiction but who are not at all responsible. The human being, however, is responsible in that it is free to act according to principles. These principles are ethical or as Kant says “practical principles”, praxis. For Kant, the highest is the categorical imperative; the categorical imperative was an improvement on the Golden Rule:  Act as you would want all other people to act towards all other people. Kant’s categorical imperative demands us to act according to the maxim that you would wish all other rational people to follow, as if it were a universal law. For Kant, autonomy/freedom to decide constitutes the modern personality.

Kant further identifies “personality” with “character”. For Kant, “character” is the mode and manner that a cause is a cause (see the etymology of the word “character”). Kant distinguishes two types of causes: those of intelligible character and those of empirical character. This is in contrast to Hume. Kant needs these two types of character for his determination of human being as a responsible being. A “responsible” being must have free will as the cause of his actions. This free will is not found in the human world. In this world, the empirical world, human will is not free; it is conditioned, that is, its character is empirical. “Personality” is equivalent to character”. Personality is a being that is and acts according to its own responsibility. For Kant, all other determinations of personality derive from this.

The Knower: Ethical

From where does our emphasis on personal knowledge and “experience” arise in the West for it was not part of the thinking of the ancients at the beginning of Western thinking although phronesis was a way of knowing held in high esteem by both Plato and Aristotle? During the period which is called the Renaissance, a great paradigm shift occurs in what was called “knowing”, and this was the result of changes in how the world as Nature was understood, and thus how human beings were understood,  and how human beings understood themselves. The French philosopher Rene Descartes is primarily responsible for this change, and the change is based on what our understanding of knowledge and truth are.

With this paradigm shift brought about by Descartes and others before and after him, what is called “humanism” comes to the fore with its focus on human beings’ central place in Nature and in the whole of things. This change occurs during the 15th and 16th centuries with the change in the understanding of the “person”. Humanism could also be said to find one of its origins in the arrival and grounding of algebra in mathematical thinking. In the search for certainty and surety of human beings’ salvation and redemption as a “personal” event in the Protestant Reformation within Christianity, and in the arrival of modern science in the  experiments of Galileo, and in the philosophy of Rene Descartes where human “subjectivity” is grounded and where Nature itself is understood differently from previous interpretations, we have a great paradigm shift of how human beings understood themselves and their place within the world.

English-speaking teachers of philosophy and theory of knowledge have rarely paid attention to the two most comprehensive thinkers, the great anti-theological/atheist thinkers of the West: Jean Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Nietzsche.  There are a number of reasons for this and to go into all of them would require far more writing than this post would or could bear. Many of them will be touched upon in other areas of these writings. How has the thought of Rousseau been received and understood by English-speaking teachers of philosophy and Theory of Knowledge?

Bertrand Russell

If one is familiar with the English-speaking tradition of philosophy (I will say, for the moment, the materialist, empirical, “the analytical school”), Rousseau has been called an “unsystematic poet”, a man quite incapable of the sustained and disciplined thought necessary to the true philosopher. This account can be seen from the writings of Jeremy Bentham right up to the writings of Karl Popper. Bertrand Russell’s account of Rousseau in The History of Western Philosophy, where Rousseau is dismissed as a self-indulgent poet, is filled with Russell’s contempt and anger for the man ‘whose thought is so filled with contradictions of such an obvious nature that they could be discovered by any high school student of average ability’. These, shall I say, misreadings of Rousseau have caused a lack of serious attention to this thinker which has resulted in the darkening of our self-understanding and the dimming of our understanding of ourselves as knowers and the consequences of this dimming for life and thought.

The ascendancy of the English-speaking peoples (and the IB Diploma Program is but one outgrowth or flowering of this ascendancy) has been with us historically from the Battle of Waterloo to the victories in the two great wars of the 20th century. It was achieved under the rule of various species of “bourgeois”. The members of this elite class felt their right to rule was self-evident since it was not seriously questioned at home and they were successfully extending their empires around the world. The constitutional liberalism, empowered by technological progress, was justified by various permutations and combinations of John Locke’s contractualism and utilitarianism. English-speaking political philosophy, understood as the theory of living well within communities, has largely been concerned with emendations to Locke’s account. But why be concerned with Rousseau who in many respects agreed with Locke?

Rousseau is the primary instigator of that period which has come to be called the Romantic Period. Because of Rousseau’s influence, what we know as ‘German Idealism’, the philosophies of Immanuel Kant, Hegel, and Marx get their initiation. This is because within Rousseau we come upon the presence of the concept ‘history’: the temporal process in which beings are believed to have acquired their abilities. By History is not meant ‘historiography’. Historiography is our study of the written account of human history and is included in our Part 3 subjects, the Human Sciences, or as a distinct area of knowledge in itself here in TOK. The meaning of ‘history’ used here is ontological: it is a realm of being in which human beings dwell. We call this realm “time”.

In the writings of Kant, for instance, English-speaking philosophers were deflected from the true intent of his writings by his statement that David Hume, the British philosopher, had awoken him from his “dogmatic slumber” and so they looked at him from within their own philosophical tradition and have, up till now, tried to make him part of their own philosophical tradition. But Kant’s chief encounter was with the philosophy of Rousseau and there are far more references to Rousseau in his work than to Hume. (This is not to deny Rousseau’s debt to Hobbes and Locke, both of whom established the history of English philosophy, but Rousseau is profoundly critical of that debt).

Charles Darwin

For the English-speaking peoples, ‘history’ becomes part of our ‘shared knowledge’ in the discoveries and writings of Charles Darwin. While the historical sense was present in English writings well before Darwin, the historical sense becomes central through the writings of Darwin because it was at the heart of the most important activity of the 19th century—Natural Science. It is said that Darwin’s main contribution to our shared knowledge was not ‘evolution’, but how evolution took place: through ‘natural selection’. Darwin’s chief concern, however, was not Natural Selection, but the question of Creation or Modification. (See Life and Letters, vol. II p. 371). “Modification”, in Darwin’s sense, is a synonym for History understood as the temporal process in which beings acquire their abilities, that beings ultimately have no essence. Darwin’s thinking is not possible without, first, the thought of Rousseau. Once History becomes part of our shared knowledge, what happens to the ahistorical political science of Locke who has provided the foundation of our English-speaking political and social institutions?

Thomas Jefferson
John Locke

Locke’s contractualism is ahistorical. The American statesman, Thomas Jefferson, reveals this when he says in the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Jefferson’s Constitution is an attempt to bring together both Locke and Rousseau. Being “endowed by one’s Creator” and possessing “inalienable rights” are ahistorical principles. Shifting Locke’s “right to property” to the right of the pursuit of happiness is possibly the result of Thomas Paine’s, a student of Rousseau’s, influence on Jefferson. Locke himself was an atheist even though he wrote a book entitled The Reasonableness of Christianity. While being a man of sobriety or seriousness, he was not without a sense of humour nor without a sense of irony. These contradictions are part of the everyday reality of American and other English-speaking political and social institutions today.

John Rawls

The attempt to hold together history and ahistorical contractualism (that which is beyond time or permanent and that which is within time as motion or change) has made English-speaking political philosophy become thin to the point where it has become the sheer formalism of the analytical tradition. One can find an attempt at this formalism in John Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice. As a cautionary note, I would say that even though our academic curriculum and our manner of knowing is dominated by the perspectivism of historicism, our freedom from historicism in our practical affairs has preserved us, so far, from the great crimes of National Socialism and communism (I am referring to our ‘internal’ politics, our domestic politics, and not to our misguided imperial adventures of the 20th and 21st centuries nor to the behaviour of our corporate institutions abroad. That this preservation from the crimes of fascism and communism is slowly breaking down appears to be the chief concern of our new TOK guide for 2022).

The attempt to maintain contractualism, our being in societies, our politics, our ethics, freed from any ontological statements (our being-in-the-world and our understanding of ourselves as beings in this world), fails because it requires that science be taken in phenomenalist (empirical) and instrumentalist (the analytical school) senses. It may be possible to attempt this when discussing the small results of academic technological scientists (the attempt to make the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis substantive, for instance), but it is quite impossible to assume it about the results of a great synthetic scientist such as Darwin.  When Darwinism is taught at school, it is not taught as a useful hypothetical tool only of interest to those who are going to be specialists in the Group 3 and Group 4 subjects. As Darwin well knew, the discussion of Creationism and Modification is an ontological one, despite the clever chat by analytical philosophers. His Holiness, the Pope’s, acceptance of evolution and the Big Bang theories retain the sense of purpose in the “createdness of Nature” (what is called “teleology), that there is meaning to creation, but whether or not this is sufficient ontologically is quite another matter. That these theories ultimately clash and contradict with His Holiness’ beliefs in not discussed in depth (to my knowledge).

What is the issue: you cannot hope to successfully combine an ahistorical political philosophy, an ethical philosophy if you will, with a natural science which is at its heart historical.

With the idea of History/Modification we are led back to Rousseau. Science views Nature as non-teleological, that is, it is a product of accident, chance not purpose. Nature has no goal in and of itself. It seems that when there is a great outpouring of scientific activity—in the case spoken of here that of the 19th century—there is always a great philosopher who in his thought of the whole has made a breakthrough against all previous thought. By “breakthrough” I am not speaking about the “progress of truth”: breakthroughs can also lead into errors. This great breakthrough occurs in the thought of Rousseau. This is  what we mean by a “paradigm shift”. A true paradigm shift is very rare in history and it occurs within human being-in-the-world.

Rousseau first stated that what we are, our essence as human beings, is not given to us by what the Ancients understood as Nature but is the result of what human beings were forced to do to overcome chance or to change nature (in the modern sense of what we understand nature to be). Life is experienced as a problem to be solved. Human beings have become what they are and are becoming what they will be (the “empowerment” of human beings) through their solutions to “the problem that is life”. We are the free, undetermined animal, the perfectly malleable animal, that can be understood by a science which is not teleological (i.e. by a science that sees no final purpose in the things that are).

Rousseau understood the difficulties and the ambiguities of his thinking of human being as an historical animal far better than say, one of his followers, Karl Marx. Rousseau’s battling with the contradictions that appear in the discoveries of his thought is what has led English-speaking commentators to dismiss him, for the most part, in their tutorials at Oxford and Harvard. The contradictions are the result of Rousseau’s refusal to avoid the ambiguities which he was given to think.

Friedrich Nietzsche

The greatest critic of Rousseau is the German philosopher Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, Rousseau is the epitome of the ‘last man’, the ‘secularized Christian’ who is responsible for the “decadence” of European thought over the last three hundred years. But Nietzsche accepts from Rousseau the belief in the fact that we are historical, that we acquire our abilities in the course of time in a way that can be explained without purpose. Nietzsche claims that he is the thinker who understood the ‘finality of becoming’ in an historical way. But one deeply wonders how Nietzsche failed to recognize how much of his thought on the finality of becoming had been worked through by Rousseau. Was Nietzsche moved by an anger that clouded his openness to the whole?

Karl Popper

The understanding that human beings acquire their abilities (their “empowerment”) through the course of time expresses itself in what we call ‘historicism’. Historicism is the fate of all Areas of Knowledge in our time. The attempts to refute historicism from within the tradition of English-speaking liberalism (Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism, as an example) while well-intentioned are feeble. This is reason itself why we should read Rousseau carefully so that we can attempt to know what it is that behooves us to know when all thought is touched with the deadening hand of historicism.  This becomes even more pressing as we become enamored with the word “empowerment”, the word of Nietzsche, and how this “empowerment” will unfold in the nihilism that is our future.

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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