Some readers have criticised my recent essays on the grounds that they are not sufficiently philosophical. At the risk of losing other readers, I'll have a crack at offering a few essays that are more obviously philosophical. One basic philosophical question is: How is knowledge possible? How are we able to understand the world? (And I'm not thinking about good parenting/schooling etc.)
In summary, the answer requires the development of two claims: that the world is structured in a way which makes knowledge of it possible; and our minds are structured in a way which enables them to process that knowledge. Both features are necessary for our understanding of the world.
First, it is not possible to have knowledge of an infinite number of random particulars. But since we do have knowledge, there must be recurring patterns in the world; the world must consist of types of thing.
Aristotle recognised this basic truth and argued that knowledge can be obtained by classification. Aristotle classified everything he came across: plants, animals and the constitutions of cities. Whereas the terminology has changed a little, Aristotle's approach to the scientific understanding of the world, including disease, is still accepted. The idea of genera
is still familiar. The more developed the science, the more refined will be the systems of classification, as is apparent when we hear about the variants of the Covid virus.
But the world is such that underlying its groupings and patterns there is causality. Since causality exists in the world, at least at the macroscopic level, the sciences can deepen our understanding. For example, an early botanist might have observed the pattern that insectivorous plants, such as butterwort, typically grow in boggy terrains. The more modern biochemically-minded botanist could explain the pattern by establishing that a boggy terrain is deficient in nitrogen and that the plant obtains nitrogen by ingesting insects. Thus the observed surface pattern is explained in terms of a pattern of underlying causality. Our understanding is deepened because the world works by causality.
Sometimes there are problems at the edges of patterns or groupings; the world is messy rather than neat in its patterns. In borderline cases, we intervene and make decisions about what to include. Hence knowledge requires both our observation of naturally-recurring groupings which we discover in the world and humanly-imposed principles of grouping.
But the world also has a deep structure, deeper than its causality, and its deep structure requires mathematics and physics. Knowledge of this deep structure is possible because the laws of mathematics and physics hold throughout the known universe, a view held from Plato to Einstein.
The possibility of knowledge therefore depends on the remarkable fact that the universe consists of accessible patterns or structures following causal laws which themselves follow the laws of physics.
But – my second claim – the possibility of knowledge also depends on features of us, of homo sapiens
. Kant's great contribution was his argument that knowledge depends not just on what we learn from the world but also on what we bring to the world in the form of conceptual structures. Kant called such concepts a priori
: we have them prior to empirical experience. He developed that idea over the 500 difficult pages of his Critique of Pure Reason
, so I expect readers will forgive me if I simply give examples of these a priori
concepts. Examples are 'same', 'different', 'space', 'time' and 'causality'.
It might be objected that such concepts can be acquired from sense experience in infancy. No, they cannot, because all experience of the world presupposes that we already have them. We could not recognise a pattern unless we were already able to say: 'That is the same
as that and different
from that'. Again, we would not search for underlying causality unless we already had the concept of causality built-in to the way we view the world. And we necessarily see the world in terms of space and time. Such concepts are a priori
in the sense that they are built-in to the structure of the human mind. In contemporary terminology, we are 'hard-wired' to understand the world in a certain way. We cannot but see it in that way, but seeing it in that way makes knowledge possible.
In addition to our built-in or a priori
concepts, many more concepts can be acquired from experience; they serve as the pegs on which we hang the specifics of our knowledge. We approach the world with our built-in concept of causality, and the sciences give empirical content to that formal assumption by their discoveries.
We can think of a concept as a disposition which shows itself in an ability to recognise real life instances of something, or drawings and other replicas of it. For example, if we have the concept of grass, we can recognise it when we see it and we can imagine it. There are many types of grass, and we can enrich our concept by acquiring a more detailed classification of that biological type. A concept then is something we can have to a lesser or a greater extent, and it shows itself in our ability to recognise instances.
But a concept requires to be expressed via language or other symbolism. If we have the concept of grass, we can use the word in a meaningful way and also spot strange or metaphorical uses. For example, if someone says: 'My grass is red', we would want to ask: 'What have you done to it?'; and when the prophet says: 'All flesh is grass', we can follow what he means. So, our knowledge of patterns forms our concepts which in turn can be expressed in the symbolism of language.
Some philosophers have objected that having a concept is no more than being able to use appropriate language or other forms of symbolism – that we don't need the additional idea of concepts. Our knowledge of the groupings in the world, they say, can be adequately explained simply by our ability to use language. According to this view, it is language rather than concepts which is essential to progress knowledge. Consider this passage from Between the Acts
by Virginia Woolf:
Mrs Swithin's thoughts rustle through her mind, frequently confusing and eluding her and, as she tells her brother, proving hard to verbalise:
'We haven't the words – we haven't the words,' Mrs Swithin protested. 'Behind the eyes; not on the lips; that's all.'
'Thoughts without words,' her brother mused. 'Can that be?'
Yes, it can be! Some thinking does not involve language at all. For example, consider sign-cognition: I might glance at the sky and decide to take an umbrella. In such cases, no words need go through our minds. Or we might glance at our partner's expression and decide not to proceed with the anecdote. Thoughts overflow language and other symbols.
Even when we do use words in our thinking we rarely use full sentences. A few scrappy words might express our thinking. Again, we have all had the experience of looking for the right word and getting suggestions – no, not that, yes, that is what I am trying to say! The implication of that type of example is that there is a concept in our head which is guiding our search for appropriate language.
Hume points out that we can use a single word as a way of holding our thoughts together. For example, if we are to make a speech or recite a poem, we might reassure ourselves that the whole thing is in our mind in readiness by holding on to the first word or line. In other words, concepts are under the surface guiding our use of language, or to put it another way, language must be used understandingly, and the understanding comes from input from the underlying concepts.
Language is one type of symbolism in which we express our underlying concepts. But another type of symbolism is numbers. Mathematics has a conceptual structure expressed mainly through the symbolism of numbers. Most of us, if asked to carry on from 2, 4, 6, will be able to write down 8. The pressure of the underlying mathematical concepts leads us to the appropriate symbols.
In sum, knowledge and understanding are possible because the world is structured in a patterned way which has an underlying causality and follows the laws of physics. Secondly, knowledge and understanding are possible because we have a hard-wired conceptual structure which enables us to discover these patterns. The hard-wired concepts can be enriched through empirical experience and are expressed through language, mathematics or other forms of symbolism.
The Festival Fringe used to have an excellent show called The Abridged Works of Shakespeare
. I have tried to provide you with the abridged works of Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hume.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow