Ch.1 - The Status of Knowing (The Philosophy of Knowledge by Kenneth T Gallagher)

So my philosophical logic class has turned into epistemology for the second half of the semester. Today I will be summarizing chapter one of our assigned readings, the Philosophy of Knowledge by Kenneth T. Gallagher. 


Gallagher starts out by making the observation that two of the greatest Greek philosophers begin their understanding of knowing from two diametric perspectives. Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with the line that all men desire to know and that this desire can be realized in philosophy. Socrates, on the other hand, in the Apology makes it clear that he is the wisest man precisely because he realizes that he doesn't know anything. It is here that we are led to the concept of "wonder." This is Plato's idea that everyone who philosophizes must wonder at the world around him. The realities of philosophy are at once so obvious and close to us, and yet at the same time, realities which are incredibly hard to define and far from us. 
"Philosophical wonder is not primarily before the complicated and abstruse, but before the simple, the obvious, the close at hand. It is the obvious which is most unfathomable, and it is in the region of the near at hand that the great philosophical questions have emerged and in which they continue to dwell."
They are so simple that they are difficult. (This reminds me of the posts about Jose Ortega y Gasset and how he characterized philosophy as the study of the universe as such, something which is something we are at once immersed in and yet at the same time may not possibly be able to conceive as such.) 
"What is change, being, motion, time, space, mind, matter? Of such questions has the career of philosophy been made. Among them all, perhaps the paramount one is that which Socrates singled out for primacy at the beginning through his adoption of the maxim "Know thyself": Who am I? What does it mean to be a self, and to be just this self which I uniquely am? Here we have a perfect coincidence of the obvious and the mysterious: the maxim "Know thyself" turns us to that which is at the same time nearest at hand, and yet most distant."
In one sense we know what these realities are. We have a functional and cultural knowledge of them. But to look at them anew with a sort of total strangeness in order to get at their true essence, that is impetus of philosophy. That is where philosophical wonder begins. It seeks that existential foundation of being which is always present, yet rarely accessed or dealt with. He mentions the example from Augustine's
Confessions where Augustine says that if no one asks him, he knows what "time" is. Yet as soon as someone asks him to define what "time" is, he cannot seem to do it. And so in every discipline of this wondering in philosophy, another question comes up. What is it that I know in this area? What are the premises, methods, and conclusions that I am grappling with? With what surety do I know them? Epistemology is present in the roots of every other philosophical discipline. And so it emerges at the time of Descartes as its own philosophical discipline. What's the nature of knowing itself? What are its limits? Philosophy turns back on itself. 

The Situation of Common Sense

Historically this self-reflection and birthing of epistemology as its own discipline happened when man become aware that reality and his "common sense" perceptions of reality were not necessarily the same thing. There are a certain set of common sense presuppositions which seems to be universal to human experience. Gallagher lists these as: 

"Common sense thinks it knows lots of things: I exist; I have a body; I have a past, with which I am in contact through my memory; my five senses put me in touch with an external world which is outside me and independent of me, but which I can understand as it is in itself; other men exist â there is experience beyond my experience; there is a past of humanity, history; I am certain of various moral and political principles by which I live and conduct myself in respect to the rest of humanity;"

But then man progresses and realizes that there are many principles that differ from culture to culture which do not seem to be universal common sense, he begins to question that common sense. What finally, for Gallagher, breaks the mold is when science begins to show that reality and man's perception of reality are not the same, and can actually be quite different from one another. This brings up the inevitable epistemological problem, "Can I know reality as such, or only my subjective experience of reality?" It then becomes the goal of epistemology to philosophically establish just what can be known by man with certainty. If he can do it though, it will take him onto firmer grounding than common sense was able to though. 


In beginning this journey toward the foundations of truth as such, it is important to address the objections of skepticism at the outset. Gallagher points out that it is true, truths cannot infinitely be affirmed by other truths, the position of realism comes down to a truth which cannot be proven but which is nonetheless self-evidently true. It's an openness to being, with truth being tied to being itself. This does not mean, though, that skepticism has the upper hand. 

Rather, he points out that skepticism is self-contradictory in several ways. Whatever the skeptic tries to affirm that his position is the correct one ends up refuting himself in the same act. Even if this is an agnosticism towards truth, if he insists that it is the right disposition, he is then insisting that the objective truth is to be agnostic towards truth. Even if the skeptic were to choose to remain silent to show his skepticism, he would affirming that skepticism is true by that act, thus refuting skepticism. Once we begin to see this reality, we can proceed forth with the view of realism, that being and truth are tied together in their fundamental reception by the mind. 

The Existential Aspect

Having shown that truth is possible, epistemology then seeks to lay out the boundaries and limitations of knowledge. What is it that is able to be known? If the skeptics point meant anything, it should cause serious reflection as to the question, "How closely is my knowledge to that of reality?". As a being which is finite and limited by time, death, suffering, is not the truth that I am most certain of still full of doubts itself? "Man is a becoming which never at any moment coincides with itself: man is not what he is. Time is possible because man is not a simple self-identity but a being forever non-coincident with himself."

We want certainty, but if we try to see knowledge as something that is "objectified formulas atemporally straddling the minds which think them..." then we will fall into error. Rather, we must realize that, just like our being which is spread out in time and limited in so many ways, knowledge too is going to follow the same mode of our being. It too will be spread out in time and limited, but that does not mean that it doesn't exist at all. 

Analogy of Knowledge

What exactly does it mean to "know?" In a sense "knowing" cannot be broken down into more fundamental concepts, according to Gallagher. "Since knowing is an ultimate and irreducible event, it cannot be conveyed in terms more fundamental than itself." Rather, we can use other synonyms to explain this fundamental reality more. Some, like Russell, define knowing only as scientific knowledge. Others, as only knowledge which can be objectively verified by others. 

Yet, these definitions are lacking. Just as being is meant in various ways in philosophy, so too knowledge must equally be varied. If being and truth are convertible, then all the different modes in which we know being are valid forms of knowledge in their own right. In its broadest sense, Gallagher defines knowledge as: "Knowledge is the event by which human consciousness emerges into the light of being. We cannot prescribe in advance how being is to be revealed." This is the role of the philosopher, to be open to the modes of knowledge as the pathway to the modes of being that exist. 

Method in Epistemology

Finally, Gallagher closes out chapter one by pointing out that it is a mistake to equate epistemology with the neat categories of rational knowledge, ie those of concept, judgment, and reasoning. While these categories or true and helpful, they are not the most fundamental experience of the knowledge ofbeing. Rather, there is a connatural and dynamic experience of being which is the foundation of knowledge because it is the foundational experience of being. It is not enough to just skip over experience, we must take the knowledge gained in this connatural relationship as important as well for epistemology. 


1 Gallagher, Kenneth T. Philosophy of Knowledge. Ch 1. The Status of Knowing.