Sense Perception as a Way of Knowing

Sense Perception as a Way of Knowing:


TOKQuestionFor human beings, existence itself is that which is questionable (but why do we ask the “why”?). We experience our existence through our five senses: seeing, taste, touch, hearing and smell, but we still question whether or not there is something that is knowable in the world we experience. Human life, unlike the life of animals (or other entities such as chairs for that matter) is something with which humans must concern themselves. For the historicist thinkers, human being is in such a way as to be something that understands something like Being, and it does so with time as its standpoint. This is why there is such an emphasis on the social and historical contexts placed on your studies.

With sense perception as a way of knowing, it is human being that must be understood first. “Knowing” is one of the ways that human beings “are”. This basic state of our Being-in-the-world must be understood/interpreted first. Otherwise, it is the ‘world’, our ‘world’, that gets passed over and consequently our being -in- the- world; and, therefore, something essential about the Being of human beings is lost in this forgetfulness of the passing over. Why ‘knowing’ does this we will see shortly.

To be mindful of the world is to think about it in our everydayness: our lives at school, our social lives, those things about which we are concerned, and those things that matter to us in some way. These encounters are what make our human Being “come alive”. These ‘ready-to-hand’ entities/things or ‘equipment’ for writing, knitting, measuring and manipulating, for example, are entities that ‘are in order to allow human being to do something; they are not mere ‘things’, their being is ‘for the sake of’ something else’. Think of your current use of the computer, right now, at this particular moment. Furthermore, your computer, ‘equipment’, exists in a ‘totality of relationships’ that ultimately forms the web of your human being in the world. This web is the technological. Thus a computer is for researching and writing or for making social contacts that produce a sense of being alive for you and, by implication, for others. Human being is ‘in’ this world not as a ‘sailor in a ship’ — which he can leave — but ‘in’ in this sense is what human being is; what we are as human beings is our existence in the world; human being is therefore ‘spatial’. This ‘spatialness’ is experienced through sense perception as a way of knowing the world.

We become so caught up in our everyday dealings with the world that we don’t even notice them most of the time, except when something we need is missing or broken — then things are not ‘handy’ (the subway breaks down, for example); then the ‘concernment towards which’ we are oriented is disclosed and, in this way, the “‘world’ “announces itself”. The world is revealed: “in anything ready-to-hand the world is always ‘there'”. This world “does not get created for the first time by knowing it nor does it arise from some way in which the world acts upon a subject”. Rather, we, as human beings, encounter the world; it has ‘significance’ for us as human beings. This significance is what we call ‘experience’.

When we stop to consider or think about the computer, then it is. When we ‘know’ it in this way, the computer is present-at-hand, not ready-to-hand. How is it that I ‘grasp’ what this is? There is an intrinsic relationship between ‘human being’ and the world shown in the way we encounter things in a ready-to-hand way. We do not grasp things just theoretically or mentally but also physically and practically (the world ‘gives’ the things to us). We are not along-side things the way a wall is alongside a chair. The chair and wall never ‘touch’, but a human being encounters the chair, touches the texture of the wall. It does not simply ‘know’ the thing as an isolated subject meeting up against an isolated object. In this latter way of knowing, we have to think of knowledge as a ‘grasping’ or ‘getting it’.  We want to consider knowing [as] …an activity carried out in a particular context, for particular reasons… and so knowing is one aspect in the complex web of activities that make up a culture and a society. In this way of knowing, the ‘world’ is still there and is present-at-hand; we are ‘tarrying-along-side’ but still in the mode of ‘in-order-to’.  We are free to choose to exist as human beings in either an authentic or an inauthentic way in this ‘tarrying-along-side’.

Historical Background: Descartes Thinking on Sense Perception:

DescartesIn our discussions of Reason as a WOK, we examined Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. Descartes began his “meditations” by doubting and examining the evidence of his senses. Descartes’ analysis of the ‘thinghood’ of a honeycomb of wax in the Second Meditation culminates in the understanding of it as a res extensa — a substance extended in space that is grasped “by the mind alone”. When everything else it taken away — smell, feel, colour, the sound it makes when struck — a clear and distinct idea of its extension remains. He can come to this understanding because he is, in essence, a ‘thinking thing’ or res cogitans: “Even bodies are not strictly perceivable by the senses or the faculty of the imagination but by the intellect alone and that this perception derives not from being touched or seen but from their being understood” [Descartes, Rene Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans J Cottingham Cambridge University Press 1986, Second Meditation p 22].

This mind is wholly distinct from the body for Descartes. Even though he cannot be “separated from [his] body as [he] could from other bodies”, it is a substance in which the incorporeal mind subsists. The mind then is of his essence (what he is as a human being) while the body is a mechanism that somehow is connected to the mind. The body can of course give him information, but this may be false; if my limb is cut off, I may still have the sensation of pain in it — this, according to Descartes, is more evidence of the unreliability of sensory information and a further reason to make a clear distinction between mind and body. In Descartes’ ‘world’ we can therefore, without doubt, have a res cogitans (a thinking thing) and a res extensa (a thing extended in space). The apprehension of the thing’s extension is space in its ‘calculability’ through mathematics, the reasoning of the mind.

A substance, which is a res extensa, — Descartes in the Principia Philosophiae — is “an entity which is in such a way that it needs no other entity in order to be”. And there are two kinds of substance in the Cartesian world (as we have seen), a res cogitans and a res extensa. What we now have are two ‘present-at-hand’ entities in isolation alongside each other.

When all we have is isolated objects, then the ‘world’ remains hidden and so the being of human beings as Being-in-the-world gets passed over. Even Descartes himself needs God, ‘who is no deceiver’ to put clear and distinct ideas about entities into his mind in order for him not to doubt that they exist. But, now that he has found the foundation of knowledge in the incorporeal mind, Descartes can also explain the possibility of the existence of objects through mathematics and the mathematical.

Descartes begins his Sixth Meditation with, “It remains for me to examine whether material things exist. And at least I know they are capable of existing, in so far as they are the subject matter of pure mathematics, since I perceive them clearly and distinctly”. [Descartes, Rene Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans J Cottingham Cambridge University Press 1986 p 50] In a Cartesian world “that which enduringly remains, really is. This is the sort of thing which mathematics knows. That which is accessible in an entity through mathematics makes up its Being”. [Heidegger Being and Time. We need to recall “mathematics” here means what is “learnable” and what is “teachable”.]

The Cartesian world consists then of these entities which have their kind of being prescribed for them by the human mind. Two present-at-hand entities (such as the thinking being and extended things) cannot be related to each other. We can look at the example of Descartes’ explanation of the attribute of ‘hardness’ as ‘resistance’. Resistance amounts to no more than not yielding place, not changing location. In this way the experience of sensory perception is obliterated and things cannot be then grasped in their Being; what we have instead is two res extensa side-by-side, related to each other by means of mathematical calculation. But “hardness and resistance do not show themselves at all unless an entity has the kind of being which human beings -or at least something living — possesses”. ‘Hardness’ is something that human being encounters in how it experiences the object; hardness is disclosed to human beings in this encountering.

For Descartes, space is a matter of abstract mathematical coordinates and calculations in which things are located and move about; in what we are considering here, space is how human beings experience things. Things are ‘near’ or ‘close-by’ according to what a human being is concerned with at any one time. The pair of glasses on our nose can be considered further away than the object in the ‘distance’ that we want to give consideration to in some way.

Space and spatiality are thus neither in the subject nor in the world, but rather disclosed by human being in its disclosure of the world. It is this ‘disclosure’ of the world that readiness to hand provides. In disclosure, the world is revealed or unveiled (but there already) by human being. In the Cartesian analysis, the world would have to be ‘added on’ to the life of humans, in the way that the body is somehow tacked on to the mind of the human being. In Descartes’ analysis, objects are primarily encountered in a present-at-hand or in an isolated, decontextualized way and the ‘totality of relationships’ that make up the world of human being is not actually encountered and therefore the Being of human beings is not encountered. This lack of ‘world’ is what is lacking in current conceptions of artificial intelligence: its coldness was already presaged in the writings of Descartes, and its aspiration is the flowering of the essence of the Cartesian view of things. AI is what we call “cybernetics”.

The world for Human being is not a series of objects that we can come to know but a web of socially or culturally constituted concernments within which entities can appear as the particular type of object that they are and which must be disclosed in advance of any particular encounter with an object. The example of learning to use the computer — it is in this experience that things such as hardware or software applications or a command instruction can appear as the things they are. Eventually, all these things become inconspicuous as we become absorbed in them and we don’t notice our ‘world’ or the ‘worldhood of the world’. This is why the world tends to get passed over and why priority tends to be afforded to ‘knowing’ as it seems almost more obvious to us. We experience our being in the world as a desire to change the world in the forgetfulness of what is already present.

It is important to emphasize again that it is not that the present-at-hand or decontextualized mode of encountering the world is not a valid one; rather it is a deficient mode and, as such, is not the primary mode we should use in encountering the world. It is deficient in that if this is its only — or at least primary — mode, it cannot account for the ready-to-hand as a ‘grasping’ or of constituting an ‘in-order-to’ and thereby misses both the world as ‘world for human being’ and the human being as a being whose being is an issue for it, i.e. the possibilities it has through practical engagement with the world. The world is experienced as shadows and our ‘thinking’ is a one-track thinking.

Berkeley’s “Esse est percipi”:

George Berkeley

George Berkeley (1685-1763), a British philosopher and Anglican bishop, attempted to show that there no such thing as matter. All that could be said to exist were sense perceptions which vary according to which observer is making the observation, the position of the observer, and the circumstances of the observation (such as the amount of light). Such a variety of contradictory sense perceptions (the thing cannot be of different colours, sizes and shapes at the same time) suggests there could not be a real thing there but only a set of sense perceptions (sensations) with no continuing identity. Berkeley suggested that these sense perceptions existed only in the mind; they were mental entities only and could only exist when an observation is made. He considered “To be, is to be perceived” (“esse est percipi”) and that no world existed beyond our sense perceptions.

From Berkeley’s position, what we see varies with the sensory apparatus used to make the observation and the conditions within which the observation is made. If one changes the position of the observer, the shape and colour of things change; if a different sensory apparatus is used, there may not be any colours at all or there may be additional colours that humans are not aware of through their ordinary sense perception. What is seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched varies with the sensory apparatus used and the conditions under which they operate.

Sounds are vibrations in the air, but if there is no air, for example in outer space, no sounds can be heard (the catch line in Ridley Scott’s film Alien: “In space, no one can hear you scream”). The ability of dogs to detect smells and sounds not perceivable by human beings shows that different sensory apparatus will produce different sense data. Tastes appear to vary from person to person and from species to species. What is poisonous to one species may be food for another. Touch varies with the conditions available, for example a cold hand placed in cold (but less cold than the hand) water, will feel warm. The feelings obtained by touch also vary with the part of the body used for the touch as some parts of the body are more sensitive than others. If the sensory apparatus or the conditions of the observation are changed, then different sensations will be produced. This suggests the sensory process involves a relationship between the sensory apparatus, the conditions of observation and whatever, if anything is out there. If any of these are altered different sensations will be produced.

Berkeley’s interpretation is that there is no such thing as matter and that sense perceptions are mental entities only. In order to claim there is no such thing as matter, it would be necessary in some way to go beyond our sense perceptions to see whether matter exists or not. This is something we are not able to do. Equally the claim that what we see (notice that this is only is only dealing with sense perceptions, not with what can be known) are only mental entities is doubtful, when what we see seems to involve a relationship between the sensory apparatus, the conditions of observation and whatever, if anything is out there.

Kant’s Response to Berkeley:

KantWhatever is observed when an observation takes place is sensations. Our measuring devices require ‘sensations’ in order to make their measurements.

Given that the sensations change if different sensory apparatus are used to make the observation suggests there is no single objective reality available to us other than that which can be attained through the mathematical. It may be that such a reality exists, but we can never know it through our sensory apparatus or sense perception. The “what” or the “how” of sense perception does not matter: it is not “knowledge” until it is placed into some kind of mathematical “frame”. Berkeley suggested there was nothing beyond our sense perceptions, while Kant suggested there was “noumena” or the “thing in itself” and stressed the unknowability of the noumena. In effect, Berkeley claimed matter did not exist (i.e. nothing beyond perception i.e. esse est percipi) “to be is to be perceived”, thus an ontological matter, while Kant considered it to be an epistemological matter i.e. we have no way of knowing what is beyond perception except our own “mathematical” projections. This is why the sciences must report their results in mathematical language. The reason as a way of knowing, the essence of the mathematical, is what is ‘reported’.

Berkeley’s position, while rationally consistent, is not psychologically satisfying as an ontological statement and inadequate as an epistemological statement. Our perceptions are not primarily bundles of colours or sounds; what we perceive is already perceived as “some thing,” the accent here being on the word ‘thing’, and therefore it is doubtful whether we gain anything by taking the perceptions instead of the things as the ultimate elements of reality.

If there was nothing beyond perception, perceivers would always, subject to some variation caused by the conditions of observation, perceive the same sensations. Nothing is uniform with sense perception as a way of knowing, and if such uniformity were present, it would tend to produce the same sensations wherever and whenever one looked, while our sensations vary considerably. The uniformity of what is is provided by the modern sense of the mathematical: the uniformity of number grasping the uniformity of matter. Time and space are conceived as uniform mathematical units. The particularity of the categories of the things, their colours, etc. is passed over. (See the unit on Reason as a WOK).

Sensations will vary if you change any of:

  1. the observer or sensory apparatus used (which remains a part of the observer); or
  2. the conditions of the observation; or
  3. the point in space and time from which the observation is taking place

The relationship between the observer, the conditions of observation, and the thing observed will “give” different sensations if you alter any of the observer, the conditions of observation, or the observed.

For Kant, it is necessary to distinguish between phenomena and noumena. The noumena, due to our inability to get past perception, are something we cannot know about: we cannot know “Nature”, but only “Nature” exposed to our method of questioning. What we can be certain of is the “I think”. It is phenomena that constitute “the world” in which we live. Phenomena come in an infinite number of forms and are produced by the inter-relationship of the perceivers’ sensory apparatus, the conditions of observation and whatever, if anything, that lies beyond perception. Phenomena cannot exist without an observation being made. Noumena, according to Kant, exist independently of observers. When one talks about an observer dependant universe, it is phenomena that one is talking about. (Remember that for the Greeks, “phenomena” are those things that are “made” by human beings. In describing only that which is “knowable” as those “things” which we ourselves “make”, then we have an understanding of what Kant meant when he said: “The mind makes the object”.)

The idea of noumena and our inability to perceive the “real world” is consistent with other philosophical theories such as Popper’s falsificationism, Hume’s analysis of cause and effect, and the problem of induction. Each remains embedded and indebted to the history of metaphysics in the West.

Karl Popper

Popper’s falsificationism suggested a scientific theory could never be proved correct but could only be falsified by observations that contradicted the theory. This is because while we can observe phenomena that contradict the theory, we can never look beyond or behind the theory to check whether it was correct as this would involve “observing” the noumena (the mathematical propositions), which is impossible. They are part of the subjectum, not the objectum. They are the looking itself, and the looking cannot give an account of itself within its own look.

David Hume noted that we can never prove cause and effect; all we can do is observe the co-relation of phenomena. We can observe one billiard ball hitting another and the second ball being set in motion, but we can never prove the second ball was set in motion by the first. We can never prove a necessary connection between the first ball hitting the second ball and the second ball being set in motion. We can merely show the one event, (the first ball hitting the second) was followed by the second ball being set in motion. The inability to show the first ball caused the second ball to move is because we can only see the phenomena and we cannot see the noumena.

The problem of induction (inductive logic) is also consistent with the idea of noumena. With induction all we have is repeated examples of the same phenomena in a particular situation, but we can never be certain that in the same situation the phenomena will always be repeated. This is because we are unable to see behind the phenomena to see the cause of the phenomena. This would involve observing the noumena, which cannot be done.

Sense perception and Quantum Physics:

Werner Heisenberg

The uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, determined by Werner Heisenberg, concerns the impossibility of obtaining precise measurements of certain pairs of properties of quantum “things”. The example usually given is that of the position (space) and momentum (time) of an electron, the principle stating the more precisely we try to measure the position of an electron the less precisely we will be able to measure its momentum. The principle is sometimes explained on the basis that the only way we can observe an electron’s position is by bouncing photons off it that will tell us the electron’s position. However, the collision between the photon and the electron will disturb the electron’s momentum making it impossible to measure both position and momentum at the same time. This is called the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics.

This, however, is not the full story. The mathematics of quantum theory makes it clear that electrons and other quantum entities simply do not have a precise position and a precise momentum. They may have a precise position but then they will not have any knowable momentum at all, or they may have momentum, but their position will not be knowable. (Gribben, 1984, 157). By observing the quantum entity’s position (space), we observe it as a particle, by observing its momentum (time) we see it as a wave. This means we may measure the quantum entity as a particle and observe its position or as a wave, but it is not possible to see it as a wave and particle at the same time. Both the wave view and the particle view are necessary to understand the quantum world. They can be seen as different sides of the same coin. Any experiment designed to show waves, will show waves, any experiment designed to show particles will show particles, however no experiment will be able to show both wave and particle pictures of the quantum world at the same time.

The consequence of the Copenhagen Interpretation is that the observer plays a critical role in determining how the world is. The behaviour of atoms, electrons and light depend on whether an observation is being made. If it is, then the wave function collapses and they behave as particles. If no observation is made, then electrons, atoms and light behave as waves.

Schrodinger’s Cat and the Paradox of QM on the Macro Level of Perception:

schroedinger catA similar problem at the macroscopic level is revealed by the puzzle of Schrodinger’s cat. Quantum mechanical effects are assumed to apply at macroscopic level as macroscopic objects are made up of quantum entities. Schrodinger’s cat is placed in a chamber with a radioactive substance of which there is a 50% chance one of its atoms will have decayed within an hour. Should the atom decay a Geiger counter will detect this event and cause a hammer to break a flask containing a poisonous gas and so kill the cat.

The common sense view is that after one hour the cat will be either alive or dead. However, the Copenhagen interpretation considers that since the Geiger counter is made up of quantum entities it is subject to the quantum mechanical rules and does not exist until an observation collapses its wave function. It is not until an observer opens the chamber that the wave function of the whole system collapses and the atom may or may not decay, the Geiger counter may or may not detect the radiation, and the hammer may or may not break the flask, and the gas may or may not kill the cat.

Before the observer opens the chamber, the Copenhagen interpretation considered the cat to be neither alive nor dead but to be in suspended animation or a superposition of states. Alternatively, the cat can be considered to be both alive and dead at the same time. Obviously a cat at any one time must be either dead or alive and it certainly cannot be both dead and alive. So, what is happening in the box before it is opened and the wave function collapses? One view is that the cat itself is able to collapse the wave function so the cat is never both alive or dead or in a superposition of states. If there was a human, sometimes called Wigner’s friend, in the box instead of the cat no doubt he or she will collapse the wave function. After an hour when we open the box, Wigner’s friend will either report nothing has happened or we will find the corpse of Wigner’s friend. There is no case of a superposition of states here, but to a human outside the box the superposition of states remains.

If the human opening the box is not actually being observed, if for example the building was sealed off to protect the experiment, then his or her wave function will not have collapsed. To the people outside the building, everything within the building will be in a superposition of states and this situation continues in an infinite regression. Is anyone observing the planet earth to collapse its wave function? Possibly any conscious being will be able to collapse its own wave function, in effect to be self-actualising and to bring itself into existence.

The Schrodinger’s cat paradox is designed to show how ridiculous quantum theory is when applied to the macro-world or the “common sense” world (and Heisenberg has said he spent many nights wandering alone wondering whether the universe was as crazy as it appeared in his experiments). Yet as entities in the macro-world are all made up of quantum entities it would appear that quantum theory must apply in the macro-world. How can a macro entity, like a cat, exist if the quantum entities that make up the cat do not exist? The ridiculousness (and the consequences of arrogance and stupidity) of applying quantum theory to the macro-world was seen in the risk analysis that banks’ “number crunchers” made prior to the collapse of the banking system in 2008 where the probability function of quantum mathematics was used in risk analysis for derivative investments.

Furthermore in the “common sense” world, the phenomenon of superconductivity shows quantum effects operating in the macro world. It is possible to observe quantum effects on macro level instruments such as superconductor rings which may be several centimetres across and are of course made up of a vast number of atoms. This means it is not possible to say the rules of quantum mechanics apply only in the quantum world. (Davies, 1980, 128-129; Lindley, 1997, 176). It appears the same set of rules should apply to both the macro and quantum worlds and the rules that should apply are the quantum rules. So macro level measuring devices such as Geiger counters, bubble chambers, photographic plates, cats and humans should not exist until they are observed.

If one accepts the standard Copenhagen view of the quantum world, quantum entities do not exist until they are observed. If one accepts the standard common sense view of the macro-world, things continue to exist regardless of whether they are being observed. An attempt to accept both views would mean there must be a level where the rules of quantum theory cease to apply and the rules of classical physics begin to apply. It is however hard to pinpoint exactly where this level is and why it should apply. The case is that the laws of classical physics apply to the macro world, but they lack precision. They are not “knowledge” in the traditional way of understanding what “knowledge” is i.e. a certainty about what something is.  Kant’s a priori conditions of time and space are shown not to exist as such in the quantum world.











Personal Knowledge and the Good

Personal Knowledge and the Good

Simone Weil“Things of the senses are real if they are considered as perceptible things, but unreal if considered as goods.” (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, p. 45)

To understand the statement above, one must see it in the light of Plato. It has been said, with some justice, that every philosopher is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian, and there is no doubt that Simone Weil is a Platonist and was hostile to Aristotle. What can it mean to say that things such as health and fitness, food and drink, property and progeny, are illusory goods?

We as TOK students wish to look for counterclaims to positions that we have been given in our social and cultural contexts, in our education, for our goal is to attempt to get beyond our Caves. The essence of education is liberation. We wish to stop saying silly Russellian things like ‘God is as incredible as a celestial teapot’, or some other such comments that issue from propagandist ‘scientists’ who in their public speaking have ceased to be scientists and have become sophists at best, or politicians, at their worst. Human beings will have their gods whether they recognize them or not; the goal of liberation or education is to ensure that one is not worshipping false gods.

What we call our ‘personal knowledge’ is the adopting of a position where an ineluctable element of de-cision, a cutting off of reflection and an engaging of the will has been made: one must decide (and, indeed, has decided) what one will believe and how one will live. These decisions are grounded in the choices provided by our ‘shared knowledge’, our Caves. They are the products of what that kind of thinking which the Greeks understood as phronesis establishes. There is no argument, or set of arguments, that definitively establishes or grounds the desired conclusion, or justifies one’s personal way of life; and if one thinks that one has found that argument or set of arguments, then one has decided in favor of that argument or set of arguments without, perhaps, realizing that one has done so. If nothing else, one has decided to leave off investigating the matter. One has chosen, like some of the prisoners in the Cave, to return to the realm of the shadows. In most cases, it is our social and cultural contexts, our ‘shared knowledge’, which grounds our de-cisions and our ceasing to inquire.

What does it mean to say that the world of the senses is the world of shadows in the Cave?

First of all, to call the things of the senses ‘shadows’ does not mean that such things when conceived as goods have no reality whatsoever; the point is rather that they lack absolute reality, according to Plato. When Macbeth, for example, sees a dagger before him, it has a ‘reality’, but its reality is as a shadow; it is the construct of a mind that sees daggers. (The dagger could also be interpreted in a positive sense in that it is the “last warning” to Macbeth before he makes his decision). It is a construction of Macbeth’s de-cision: he is going to kill Duncan. Because the shadows lack an absolute reality, they cannot satisfy us ultimately (as Macbeth’s crime will not ultimately satisfy him). This delusion of desires/needs is the foundation of consumerism and of the society based on the appetites.

The Idea of the Good is that which imparts to things their goodness. For Plato, the Ideas determine the ‘essence’ or the ‘what-ness’ of some thing. Birches, oaks, and larches all share in the idea of ‘treeness’, but the individual tree is not the idea of the tree itself. So with all the things of the world: what is good in them is given by the idea of the Good, but is not the Good itself. Their ‘goodness’ is a shadow of the Good.

Personal Knowledge and Idolatry:

Because human beings are by nature the religious animal in that they are capable of being moved by gods, we can approach the question of personal knowledge via the notion of idolatry. The essence of idolatry lies in the absolutizing of the relative, or of universalizing of the particular. This is, in fact, what Aristotle does in his interpretation and understanding of Plato’s idea of the Good (agathon), and his interpretation of the ideas in general. A finite good becomes an idol when it is treated as if it were an infinite good, i.e., one capable of satisfying our infinite desire. That our desire is infinite is shown by the fact that it is never satisfied by any finite object or series of finite objects. Not even an infinite series of finite objects (novelties or ‘experiences’) could satisfy it since what we really want is not an endless series of finite satisfactions but, though we don’t know it, the absolute good which is the Good itself. This is why our releasement from the chains in the Cave must be done by “force”, and involves some “violence”, and why the experience of this releasement is a painful one.

Ultimately, all desire, all need is the desire or need for the Absolute. A desire or need that understood itself, that was transparent to itself, would understand this fact about itself. But our deluded desire thinks it can find satisfaction in the finite. Therein lies the root of idolatry. We give our love to that which is not deserving of our love. In the West, this need/desire was seen in eros whom the Greeks recognized as a god i.e. infinite. Yet Eros, and our experience of Eros is, curiously, both infinite and temporal.

In the East, the Buddha understood this very well: he saw that desire is infinite in that it desires its own ultimate quenching or extinguishing, its own nibbana (, but that finite quenchings are unsatisfactory in that they only exacerbate desire by giving birth to new desires endlessly. Contrary to the Buddhist belief that all being is suffering, in the West, this has been seen in the figure of eros or need. Both Plato and the Buddha see this desire in the element or metaphor of Fire, a fire that does not extinguish itself. No desire or need is finally sated; each is reborn in a later desire. (See, for example, the discussion of King Lear on the wheel and its relation to the Pythagorean doctrine). This wheel of cyclical desire in Buddhism is the wheel of Samsara ( The more one is driven by the appetites looking for the ultimate satisfaction, the more frustrated one becomes. The desire to consume or possess the Beautiful has been understood mythologically as the ‘fall’ of human beings; it is in our nature to consume/possess because we are the needing beings. We believe that taking something into ourselves will somehow make us whole and our desire/need will find rest.

So Buddha understood the nature of desire or need as infinite in the needing human being. But since he had convinced himself that there is no Absolute, no Atman (see the following link for a discussion of this difficult concept in Buddhism,) nothing possessing self-nature, (in this he can be distinguished from both Plato and Aristotle who saw in physis a self-nature or essence of what something is) he preached salvation through the extirpation of desire/need itself. Desire as such is at the root of suffering, dukkha, not desire for the wrong objects; so the way to salvation is not via redirection of desire upon the right Object, but via an uprooting of desire itself. This uprooting is a ‘violence’ that must be present in detachment from the things of the world.

In Buddhist terms, we could say that idolatry is the treating of something that is anatta, devoid of self-nature, as if it were atta, possessive of self-nature. Idolatry arises when some finite foreground object is falsely ascribed the power to provide ultimate satisfaction. This is the conception of knowledge in the sciences; but in our sciences, there is no conception and no place for the world to be seen as beautiful as the world is seen as ‘object’. This de-cision of our sciences is a closing down rather than an opening up of the world of perception.

The distinction between Buddhism and the thinking that originated in the West is that for Socrates and Plato the world is conceived as good. The drawing power of eros is necessary for us to be led to the Good, and this drawing power is the beauty of the world. The world itself is a souvenir, a remembrance or reminder of the ultimate Good of which it is a testimony. Think of it as a photograph of someone we love. The photo is a reminder of the being who draws our love, but is not the real person themselves. This world and all its goods are but a reminder of the ultimate Good itself. Our error lies in mistaking the two as identical.

It is not without reason that the peculiar madness of the lover (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as an example) is the taking of the finite for the infinite. For Plato, there is the presence of the Good in all things that are; and this good is given to us through the perception of the Beautiful which, in its erotic power, draws us towards the Good itself. We can mistake the Beautiful for the Good itself, and this is what creates our ‘values’: we value what we consider the beautiful and what we think the beautiful itself to be, as the Good, and we consider this good of our own making since it is we who impose values on things. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, no?

According to the Pythagoreans, whether or not the absolute Good exists is not the question: reason suggests that we should love the finite as finite, that our love should be attuned to, and commensurate with, its object or its ‘otherness’. To love the finite as infinite is to go beyond the limits (to attempt to exceed the circumference of the circle) and is, essentially, hubristic. Romeo and Juliet love not ‘wisely’ but ‘too well’. The desire/need that is infinite is such because it is for the Infinite and can only be satisfied in the Infinite. Eros is both god and mediator, both finite and infinite. As a young William Blake would conclude in his text “There is No Natural Religion”: “Conclusion. If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again. Application. He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only. Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.” What Blake has come to realize here is that “ratio” understood as “reason”, or the principle of reason, gives the “eternal recurrence of the Same” (as understood by the German philosopher Nietzsche). To counteract this, the Prophetic character of the imagination was, for Blake, required.


Knowledge and the Knower: What is Knowledge?


What is Knowledge: How do I know ‘x’? How do we know ‘y’?

“It is tempting to explain the plurality of good answers to knowledge questions in terms of a type of truth relativism: “it is just a matter of perspective”. A more likely explanation is that different interpretations of key ideas account for the different conclusions or that the weighting of different factors in the argument differs.” TOK Guide 2015

The following writing attempts to direct itself to the new TOK guidelines for May, 2022. The guidelines centre on a core theme (which is obligatory) and two of five choices of optional themes. The Core Themes are: CT1 Me as a knower and a thinker; CT2 My perspectives, biases, and assumptions; CT3 The origins of our values; CT4 Navigating the world; CT5 Detecting manipulative information or ‘spin’. 

In addition to the core theme, the two out of five optional themes are: OT1. knowledge and technology, OT2. knowledge and language, OT3. knowledge and politics, OT4. knowledge and religion, and OT5. knowledge and indigenous societies. How these themes are relevant to our world today and shape our perspectives and identities will be the efforts of these reflections.  Your understanding of these themes will be demonstrated and assessed through the TOK Exhibition. 

TOKQuestionIn order to gain a better understanding of what we mean by knowledge, it is necessary to grasp anew the basic concepts which we use every day and which we “think” we understand. We need to understand what the concepts really mean. What are these “conceptual tools” that we use in our day-to-day lives without consciously thinking about them?

Our understanding of the concepts we use will determine our disposition or orientation, how we will operate towards the objects of our concern in each of the areas or domains of knowledge. From this disposition will arise the particular methodology within which we gain what we have come to call knowledge.

These concepts arise and have risen from our understanding of what we believe truth and language to be; and these understandings of truth and language, in turn, determine what the “framework” for what we call knowledge is to be in each area of knowledge.

When we think about the areas of knowledge, our shared knowledge, we must try to understand how the objects that are our concern in each of these domains of knowledge become visible to us as what they are. This “becoming visible” is what we have come to call “cognition”. How the things show themselves and how we speak about them to each other is what we mean by our ‘personal’ and ‘shared knowledge’; you must “share” your knowledge in the form of an “exhibition” i.e. you must bring this knowledge to “presence”, “to light”. The difficulty for us is that these objects which we view in the areas of knowledge come into view within a pre-determined perspective and within a pre-determined manner/mode of questioning. The purpose of Theory of Knowledge is to lead you to a grasping and understanding of the questioning within your own specific areas of interest and to determine what the real questions are in those areas that you happen to be interested in. The hope is to make questioning a “habit” for you.

We are our ‘shared knowledge’, and this shared knowledge is what we call “History”. That which has come to be called knowledge in the West (and the IB Diploma is a Western education) rests on the foundations of Greek and Latin language and philosophy and does so to such an extent that we, for the most part, are no longer conscious of it. These foundations have become so obvious to us that we think we have nothing further to learn from the Greeks or from the ancients. To understand our shared knowledge is to understand ourselves, but we cannot have a true knowledge of ourselves if this knowledge is held in obscurity. The goal of this striving for an understanding of ourselves is so that we can experience what we ought to be as human beings. What the IB has concluded is that it is to realize the outcomes of the IB Learner Profile. But from where do these outcomes themselves arise and why have they been chosen? When we look at the societies that the “winners” of history have made today, perhaps it is time that we look at the “losers” and see what they had to say and whether we might learn from them.

Five Types of Knowledge:

In the West, the ancient Greeks distinguished between five types of knowledge: 1. Knowledge as wisdom or knowledge of the first things and of the whole (sophia), and this is sometimes called ‘divine knowledge’ or ‘understanding’; 2. Theoretical knowledge (episteme or what the Greeks, Aristotle in particular, referred to as ‘science’ which is from the Latin word for ‘knowledge’); 3. Expertise or ‘know how’ (techne) which allows one “to feel at home in something”; 4. “Common sense” or that knowledge which pertains to one’s own self-interest; circumspection or insight into one’s own self-interest (phronesis) which derives from ‘experience’; and 5. Intellectual knowledge (nous or noetic knowledge, intelligence: that knowledge which is the result of our ‘perceptual discernment’). In our Theory of Knowledge course, all these types of knowledge come into play in one form or another. The types of knowledge are not isolated but involve one or more of the other types of knowledge depending upon what is being considered and how what is being considered is disclosed or known to us through our various ways of knowing or through our cognitions.

In previous years in TOK, the description of knowledge as ‘justified true belief’ related to intellectual or noetic knowledge and was derived from Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus which is a dialogue focusing on the questioning of how sense perception is a way of knowing i.e. what has come to be called “empiricism” in later centuries. (Empiricism comes from the word emperia or what we translate as “experience”.) Perhaps this definition of knowledge was chosen because of our emphasis on sense perception or ‘empiricism’ as a way of knowing which was given to us from the logical positivism that dominates American and British institutions of higher learning today. Plato’s Theaetetus is but one part of a trilogy of dialogues: the Sophist and the Statesman comprise the other two. The three dialogues and their questions must be viewed as a whole, but this is another matter.

We wish to gain a wider view of what knowledge means and what it means to possess or ‘grasp’ knowledge than this single understanding of ‘justified true belief’ and to get a better understanding of what are the Greek roots of our ‘shared knowledge’.

Sophia as Knowledge:

  1. Wisdom or sophia is knowledge of the ‘first things’, the beginnings of things and, thus, knowledge of the whole. In Plato’s allegory of the Cave the first “thing” (although it is not a ‘thing’ in any sense), and that which is responsible for all things, is the Good or agathon. This is represented in the allegory through the metaphor of the Sun. The philosopher is a philo sophia, a friend or a lover of wisdom. So the philosopher, according to Plato, is a lover or friend of the Good, or of the divine, or the first things. To be a friend or lover of someone or something requires that one first “know” that person or thing; it is not coincidence that in ancient times to have sex with someone was “to know” that person; ‘knowing’ involves direct, intimate contact. The Good in Plato’s allegory is represented as that towards which all things, including human beings, strive; for in their striving they hope for a completeness or ‘that for which they are fitted’, their essence. We call this completeness “perfection”.

In this view, all things have a final purpose (telos in Greek) and that purpose is the achievement of their completeness or their essence, what they are. An acorn strives to become an oak, for it is in being an oak that it achieves its essence, its completeness, its perfection. The acorn cannot become an oak unless it is ‘nurtured’ with water and light; water and light do not make an oak but they do ‘help the acorn along’ to become an oak. The essence of some thing arrives at the last and, yet, is paradoxically present in its beginning. The Greeks had a saying: “The future comes to meet us from behind”. What they meant by that saying is that the future’s flowering is its realization of its essence which was contained in its past. For example, our technological gadgets, our hand phones and computers, are the completedness of the technological viewing which is their essence. The essence of technology is nothing technological.

For we moderns, there is no final purpose to things so there is no ‘wisdom’ to be obtained as understood by the Greeks; the Good and its offspring are what we “value”. “Things” have no “essence”. Things and the future will be what we make them to be; the world and the things about us are to be looked upon and changed to meet our needs; we human beings will determine the essence of some thing as good for our purposes. Nothing is good in and of itself. Our closest approximation to wisdom is a combination of the knowledge provided in ‘techne’ and our knowledge of ‘common sense’ which we achieve through experience or praxis, action. The modern French philosopher, J. P. Sartre, stated: “Existence precedes essence”; that is, what some thing will be will be determined by ‘choices’ human beings make in the present that will lead to outcomes for which they, as a human being, are responsible. This is why Sartre’s existentialism has been called a ‘humanism’ for its focus is entirely on human beings.

For the ancients, the person of wisdom, the ‘wise’ person, has knowledge of the Good as that which occasions or is responsible for the things that we experience in this world and is that towards which he or she must strive. He or she has attained this knowledge through the theoretical which is a two-fold way of ‘looking’ upon things. More will be said below about the theoretical and its manner of ‘viewing’ or ‘looking upon’ and ‘being looked upon’. For the Greeks, the completeness or perfection of a human being is to contemplate the whole of things (the ‘first’ things) through the theoretical viewing, and to live well in communities (using phronesis or ‘common sense’) based on this knowledge of the first things which gives us knowledge of what we, as human beings, are ‘fitted for’. For the Greeks, the human being is the zoon logon echon: “the animal possessing language” or, perhaps, “the animal possessed by language”. More will be said later about the importance of language as a way of knowing in defining what the essence of human being is.

You will notice that in the allegory of Plato, the philosopher is required to return to the Cave even though it is not his wish to do so. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave He would prefer to simply ‘look upon’ the Good. This returning is prescribed by the limits placed on human beings by the Good. It is the Good which delimits/defines and provides the limits for what human beings are fitted. Human beings are mortal and limited; the Good is immortal and eternal. The philosopher cannot be a monk or a hermit even though the philosopher renounces all ‘practical’ goals and particular goods. He or she is required to be a participant in the society of which they are a member. Wisdom is a curious or ambiguous combination of theoretical and practical knowledge for the ancients. We shall have to try to sort out this ambiguity as we go along our path to thinking about knowledge.

To the wise person, what we understand as evil is not the opposite of good, but the absence or deprivation of the good. A person who is not a good or virtuous person (arête in Greek is ‘virtue’ and we have translated this word as ‘excellence’; agathos is “the good person”) is not capable of sophia. Metaphorically and literally, this is understood as the absence of light or the choice of refusing to see the light for what it is (the “light” is that which limits or that which delimits and defines) and choosing its opposite instead; we could even say that our modern world is a denial of the light as light. We will later discuss how this relates to human freedom. Macbeth is a play which illustrates most beautifully the principles elucidated here; but all tragedies involve this inability or refusal to perceive the light as it is given in one form or another. The quote from the TOK Guide that begins this piece is an attempt to define what the light is and how the light works in our day-to-day discussions i.e. how the light “brings to light” or presence.

It should be noted that it is the light which first ‘uncovers’ the things and allows the things to be ‘seen’ and, thus, known. “Uncoveredness” or disclosure is for the Greeks aletheia which has been traditionally translated as ‘truth’. What the truth is conceived to be is prior to theory and the theory is prior to the practice. When we deny truth as ‘uncoveredness’, we likewise deny what was understood as the ‘theoretical’ for the ancients; and we transform the theoretical to another understanding of what it once was. For the ancient Greeks, if they could see us, we would be viewed as a tragic people.

Theory as Knowledge:

  1. Theoretical knowledge comes from a complex number of ideas. On the one hand, théa means ‘look’, ‘sight’ and hora means ‘to see’, ‘to bring to sight’. Thea as ‘sight’ is that which allows the look of something to be seen and is connected to eidos (form) which is the ‘outward appearance’ of some thing. For Plato, the eidos is eternal or permanent; the theoretical looks upon the permanent things, upon their essence. The ‘treeness’ of a particular tree is that which is present and permanent in all trees and allows us to see the tree as a tree. The theoretical person is the one who looks upon something as it shows itself, who sees what is given to see. From this word comes our word “theatre”, and the theoros is the spectator who goes to the great festivals and dramas to ‘see’ and ‘to be seen’.

The other complex of ideas associated with theoretical is that of the root theo which is to look upon the divine, to look upon the eternal things. For the Greeks, however, this looking was not one way: the theoretical was also how the divine looked upon us so that we are given a sight of the eternal things, or the first things (archai), and this giving of the sight of the divine was a ‘gift’. So, for the Greeks, the theoretical is both the god’s looking upon us, which comes first, and our response to that look (theo=divine, horao=the disclosive looking back). The proper response on our part was, initially, a contemplative, pious, thankful ‘looking back’ in response to the god’s look upon us. To be a spectator at the theatre for a Greek was to have both the god looking upon them and their response to the god’s looking; to be a participant or spectator at the Greek theatre was to take part in a religious activity similar to our participation and attitudes when we go into our churches, temples or mosques. There were no ‘fourth walls’ in the Greek theatre. The whole conception of a ‘fourth wall’ in theatre may, indeed, be a product of modern fantasy.

The connection between the Greek understanding of the theoretical and the modern understanding is that in the modern the theory encompasses the first principles, the first things, which determine the procedures and experiments or experience of the things that are, the re-search; this is what the Greeks understood as techne.  For us, the dominant first principle is the principle of reason. The things are required to ‘come to light’, to ‘come to sight’, within the principle of reason which establishes the validity of the other first principles e.g. the principle of contradiction, etc. The great achievement of quantum physics, for instance, is the discovery that things don’t quite come to ‘sight’ in the manner in which we expected them to under this manner of viewing.

Techne as Knowledge:

  1. Techne as understood by the Greeks is the manner in which human beings accomplish practical tasks. Techne as knowledge is a combination of the theoretical, the practical or phronesis, and the intellectual or the noetic, what we understand as “intelligence”. Techne is not the application of some more basic knowledge but is itself the most basic knowledge, namely, the understanding of what it means to be at all and it includes both the arts and the sciences. But techne is a “human-centred” knowledge or ‘know-how’, or so we have come to believe from the traditions of our shared knowledge. Perhaps the Greeks understood techne as something different…

For example, science is but one application of modern technology or techne. Science is the re-search motivated by the self-disclosure of the essence of beings/things as orderable through calculation. That is, in our seeing or viewing (our theory), the things of the world (including ourselves) present themselves to us as something which can only be understood (and are only allowed to be understood) as calculable and orderable. Science presupposes this understanding of the Being of beings, how beings are, what their essence is, and so science presupposes modern technology or techne, which in itself is nothing other than the theory of beings/things as essentially calculable. In turn, science itself can be applied, and that application issues in a certain sophisticated manipulation of beings, which is “technology” in the usual sense as we understand it, namely, “the mechanical ordering of beings”. From where does this theory of beings as orderable through calculation arise? How does this theory or manner of seeing lead to modern science and to modern, high-tech machinations? (OT 2)

Modern technology is the theory, the viewing, that arises when human beings no longer experience themselves as ‘the looked upon’. Human beings become the ‘subjects’ and the world and its beings are regarded as ‘objects’. In the West, the view of Nature and Being that was present in Judaism and Christianity was, in part, responsible for this change (although in the Western Bible there is no word for what we could possibly understand as Nature). When human beings made the decision to attempt to control and commandeer necessity and chance (Nature), then the oblivion of eternity, the disappearance of the gods, followed.

Common Sense as Knowledge:

  1. Phronesis or “common sense”/”practical knowledge” is defined by Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, in Book VI chapter 5 of his Nichomachean Ethics as belonging to the human being who “can deliberate appropriately” over “that which is good (full and perfect) which is, in addition, good for himself”. The object of knowledge or what is to be known can be something else like that of techne, but its relation is to the deliberator or thinker himself (I believe the term we use unthinkingly today for this is ‘subjective’). In contrast, the deliberation or thinking of techne relates or contributes to the production of something else either for oneself or for another and aims at a perfection that is not possible with “phronetic” or practical knowledge. There are no perfect or complete actions. The aim of techne is the production of, say, a house or a gadget and the search is for the ‘perfect house’ or the perfect technological gadget. There is no such thing as the perfect or complete action.

The primary distinction between the ancient understanding and the modern understanding of what a “practical” human being is is that for Aristotle, the excellence or completeness to be arrived at for the “practical” human being is the right and proper way to be a human being. For Aristotle, ethics is action, not theory. The goal was sophrosyne or knowledge of the whole of practical action. This has become understood as ‘balanced’ in the IB Learner Profile attributes. This sophrosyne is the deliberation or reflection prior to what is to be achieved in action. Proper action requires both self-knowledge and knowledge of one’s limits.

We see an example of false “phronetic” deliberation illustrated in Macbeth Act 1 sc. vii in Macbeth’s “If it t’were done when ‘tis done…” speech. Macbeth is lost in his calculations of the costs and benefits of his proposed action (the killing of King Duncan) rather than in his deliberations of the source or ground of the action itself. He does finally arrive at the ground at the end of the speech when he says “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent…”, and he appears to resolve not to do the deed i.e. to kill King Duncan. Macbeth is a great soldier and the savior of his country: he is ‘well-fitted’ for this; he is “Bellona’s bridegroom”. He is “ill-fitted” to be a king and this is captured in the play’s continual repetition of clothing motifs, both those fitting and that apparel which is ill-fitted.

To say that we live in a non-phronetic age would be understatement. Nike’s slogan of “Just Do It” captures our lack of deliberation and judgement when it comes to our actions.

Intelligence as Knowledge:

  1. Intellectual knowledge is that knowledge which is associated with our ways of knowing, primarily sense perception, reason, language and intuition. In Greek the term used is nous or mind. For the Greeks, noetic knowledge (intelligence) produces pistis or belief and, thus, we have our former TOK definition of knowledge as ‘justified, true belief’. This understanding of knowledge is derived from a combination of language, sense perception and reason. Notice that nous is placed last in order of importance for the Greeks; for us, of course, it is placed first.

In Greek, the word for language is logos. Logos became translated as ratio, which became further understood as “reason” by the Latins; and our word ‘logic’ is the derivative of this translation.  Logic is but one aspect of reason. One can think of the many associations that the word logos itself has in our modern usage. Think of all of your subjects of study: ‘bio-logy’, ‘psycho-logy’, ‘anthropo-logy’, etc. Language as ratio, in all its complexities, is our mode of access to the things that are and is the ground of our ‘shared knowledge’. (OT 1)

Let us try to grasp an understanding of noetic knowledge or intelligence as determined in language by examining the statement “The book is on the table”.  First, the thing (book) must be given to me to be addressed (cognition) and it must be addressed in speech i.e. its being communicable to others is the purpose of the addressing. Second, what is addressed is ‘the book’; this is the content of the statement. Third, there is what the book itself says of itself, how it answers our question of what it is i.e. it is a book and it is on the table. Fourth is our way of saying, the statement, the proposition: the book is on the table; either it is or it isn’t. Fifth is the structure of the addressedness itself i.e. the structure of what is addressed insofar as it is addressed. Here we have the subject: the book, and the predicate i.e. what is stated about the book i.e. it is ‘on the table’.  In the determination of language as an addressing of some thing as some thing, we should note that the thing addressed as some thing is 1) addressed as a thing; it is brought to a concrete stand or presence: it is a book and not a coffee cup; 2) in the addressing of some thing as some thing, the ‘as some thing’ refers to its universal and not its particular character trait. It is a book and there are many other things that can be called ‘books’.

The French philosopher Simone Weil once stated: “Faith is the experience that the intelligence is enlightened by Love.” In contrast, we would say: “Faith is the experience that the intelligence is enlightened by Reason”. How does our experience of the world, our being-in-the-world, change when we express our ‘faith’ in our experience as enlightened by Love or when we believe our experience is enlightened by Reason? While what we mean by both Love and Reason are somewhat abstract concepts, surely the less controversial statement is the second. Could this be because we have relegated our understanding of Love to simply a biological necessity for ourselves as human beings, and this relegation of Love to the biological was based on our “Reason” in order for Reason to dominate?

What is “Shared Knowledge”?

Being/non-being, truth/semblance, knowledge/opinion, concept/assertion, value/non-value are basic concepts: what, in fact, do they mean? How are truth and semblance visible at all? Being and non-being? Where do we find and appropriate or grasp these types of things?

One of the most basic questions we are faced with in trying to understand our ‘shared knowledge’ is how do we attain a ground upon which to view our shared knowledge? How do we know ‘y’? How do I know ‘x’? (CT 1)

We stress ‘lived experience’ as the ground of our personal knowledge, but what, in fact, is “lived experience”? We might say that lived experience is composed of acts of judgement, of knowledge. How do these actions really appear? What has come to us as our “shared knowledge” pre-determines the manner in which objects come into view, how they will be viewed, and how they will be questioned. In TOK we want to take steps towards bringing into view for the first time the matters that are at issue for us and to provide an understanding of them. In coming to understand our “shared knowledge”, we come to understand ourselves i.e. we are our shared knowledge; we are our past. We understand ourselves when we gain knowledge of what we ought to be as human beings.  It is the Socratic dictum “Know thyself” and our striving is for the perfectibility of what we are as a human being.


Our ways of knowing are our accesses and our relationships to the beings/ things/ entities around us. Our ways of knowing disclose things as “such and such” and allow us to take possession, to grasp, to appropriate what is disclosed. This disclosure is what we call the “true”. The knowledge which comes about once we have grasped things “expresses” itself and grounds itself in the assertion. The assertion is what we have come to call the “truth”. For the Greeks, the “expression” of something is what they termed logos and it can mean the “saying”, “what is said”, and the “about that which is what is said”. These sayings all involve relations. We will explore this term logos in greater depth, for an understanding of it is crucial to an understanding of most of the concepts that are used throughout our discussions here and the discussions which you have in your TOK classes. (OT 1)

The concept of truth provides information about what knowledge is and truth’s relation to beings/things. For the Greek philosopher Aristotle, truth is “judgement”, the determination of the ‘true’ or ‘false’ of things. The word in Greek for “truth” is a-letheia. The a-privative of the Greek language indicates that for the Greeks, contrary to what we understand the truth to be as a positive, truth was not something positive. The world as experienced does not disclose itself openly. What was originally “uncovered” becomes hidden or distorted by speech. “Opinions” become truisms so that what was originally disclosed is covered up again. “Idle talk” hides truth and idle talk abounds in our social media and public discourse. For an ancient Greek, what we would call our ‘shared knowledge’ is only so much ‘idle talk’. The “publish or perish” syndrome that rules at our academies of learning creates only so much obfuscation and confusion so that the “original” things become covered up by so much “novelty”—unthought novelty. Nietzsche once said: “The scholars dig up what they themselves buried.”

Aletheia is the “uncovering” or “unconcealment” which brings beings/ things/ entities into “presence” and from this presence the “what” and the “how” of things can be determined. This disclosure of things is a manner, a way of being of human beings i.e. what we conceive the truth to be determines what we conceive ourselves to be as human beings. This disclosure is first achieved through language. (OT 1)

Language and Truth:

For the Greeks, human being is “the animal possessing language” (zoon logon echon). This feature distinguishes human beings from all other beings. Connected to this “speaking” is arithmos “counting”, but not a counting understood as “one, two, three” but a “counting on” something i.e. the design, the plan. Number develops from this “counting on” something. What distinguishes the language of human beings from that of other animals can be shown in the following simple example. I can say to my dog Lola, “Lola, walkies!”, and Lola will fetch me her leash. I cannot say to Lola, “Naughty dog! Go fetch me three newspapers so that I can clean up!” Only human beings know what a three means and this is what distinguishes our language from that of other animals and distinguishes us from other animals.

“Psyche” is the living presence of something alive. It is the Greek word for “soul”, and in the myths Psyche is married to the god Eros. Life itself is movement, kinesis, the coming to presence of some alteration. Every thought, every action is a movement of some kind. Speaking is a vocalizing which says something understandable about the world. Our speaking is a mode of psyche, a way of being alive. For the Greeks, language was connected to the soul; for us, of course, language is connected to the “mind” and is understood as “information” from which our “intelligence” derives. “Psyche-ology” is a modern subject.

“Truth” is understood as comportment or a way of being of human beings to the world and to itself in which the beings/ things of the world are present in conformity with the way they are. “Universal validity” has nothing to do with truth. Something can very well have universal validity and be binding for human beings universally and still not be true (“justified, true belief”). Most prejudices and things taken as obvious have such universal validity and yet they may distort things/ beings i.e. the current understanding of technology, for instance, is a very good example. (CT 5) On the other hand, something can be true which is not binding for everyone but only for a single individual. This does not mean that truth is “subjective” or relative. We are not the providers of the light which “unconceals” things.

For us today, theoretical knowledge has become mathematical knowledge, “algebraic calculation”, and only what approximates the evidence proper to mathematics is considered ultimately true. This is the dominating “principle of reason” which operates in our cognition, our awareness of the world and the things in it. Physics must report itself mathematically because of this principle of reason. But this is but one particular way of perceiving the world and the things within the world. This will be discussed in our reflections upon Reason.


Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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