Here is an outline of my talk on “What is Knowledge?” as part of the PVCC Public Philosophy series on May 30, 2018.
Video to come …
Here is an outline of my talk on “What is Knowledge?” as part of the PVCC Public Philosophy series on May 30, 2018.
Video to come …
Critical thinking is a virtue that we recognize as supremely necessary as we are inundated with greater amounts of information. We want our university graduates to be independent and critical thinkers. The words “critical thinking” seem to be on the lips of many in the field of education. What do we mean by “critical thinking?” To adopt the virtue and pass it on to the next generation, we must be very clear about what critical thinking is, and what it is not.
Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, a book about the nature of being, begins with a discussion of the laws of thought. The laws of thought are also the laws of being. These laws are the law of identity, which states that a is a; the law of noncontradiction, which states that something cannot be both a and non-a in the same respect and at the same time; and the law of excluded middle, which states that something is either a or non-a. These laws deserve a more detailed treatment in a future post, but these laws need mention here because they are necessary for all thought. If a statement violates a law of thought, then it is meaningless and cannot be true. The laws of thought are the cornerstone of critical thinking.
What is the activity of thinking? In his Organon, Aristotle defined three aspects of thinking, which are logically ordered from more basic to less basic. The most basic, and perhaps most important, level of thinking is forming concepts. We form concepts, according to Aristotle, when we grasp the essential nature of a thing. Grasping the essential nature of a thing requires understanding what a thing is. It involves understanding what is an essential feature and what are accidental features of a thing. When we grasp a concept, we express it with words, terms, or symbols that allow for communication of concepts with others. Words are either meaningful, or they lack meaning. Meaning is the category for evaluating concepts. Meaning is prior to truth, and without understanding the meaning of the words we use with one another, we cannot agree on whether what we say is true or not.
We may make errors in falsely identifying what a thing is. We may fail to understand the words that others use to communicate concepts to us. Critical thinking begins at the level of concept formation and concept communication. Often, we must ask one another “what do you mean?” when discussing. For example, two people may say that “God is love” but have very different understandings of the concept “God” and “love.” This level of critical thinking requires that we carefully define our terms, and seek agreement on our definitions. If we fail to find agreement here, the next level of thinking will result in an inability to understand one another, and frustration in communication.
Following concept formation in the act of thinking is making judgments. A judgment is not a bad thing. It is an unavoidable activity. Every time we are engaged in thinking or saying “x is y” we are making a judgment. For example, “the horse is brown,” “tomorrow is Thursday,” “God is love,” and “the marker is blue” are all examples of judgments. Judgments are either true or false. If we do not first know the meaning of the concepts being used in a judgment, such as “God” and “love,” then we cannot know whether a judgment is either true or false. Pausing for clarification and understanding is what it means to say that meaning is more basic or is logically prior to, truth. Critical thinking involves understanding the meaning of the terms used in a judgment, but it also involves assessing the truth claim being made in a judgment, since judgments are either true or false. We should note that some judgments are neither true nor false, but are matters of taste, such as the claim “ice cream is better than pie.” To think critically, one must also be skilled at identifying those judgments that are neither true nor false.
Judgments that are either true or false ought to be supported by giving an account. Plato says in the Theaetetus that knowledge is true belief “tied down” with an account. The word for “account” that Plato uses is logos, which is translated as “reason.” Knowledge is true belief supported by reason. In the Theaetetus, Socrates demonstrates by example what it is to support a judgment by reason. He does this by asking for and giving arguments for the judgments that he and his interlocutors make. Theaetetus begins the dialogue by making the judgment that knowledge is perception. “Knowledge is perception” is a judgment that is either true or false. In effect, Socrates asks young Theaetetus to “prove it.”
Proving a judgment requires an argument. An argument uses premises (judgments) to support a conclusion (a judgment). One of the most famous arguments goes like this:
Major Premise: All men are mortal
Minor Premise: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal
Arguments may be tested (this is the function of the discipline of Logic) for validity and soundness. The validity of an argument is a way to test the form of an argument. Some argument forms are invalid and thus cannot possibly support the conclusion. Soundness of an argument is a way to test the form and truth content of an argument. If an argument is valid, and the premises are true, then the conclusion will necessarily be true. A necessary truth is equivalent to knowledge. It is a true belief with an account.
Some people will object that we cannot prove everything, or that necessary truths are rare and do not prove much. To respond to the first objection, it is true that not all judgments will need support by an argument. Determining which judgments do, and which do not require an argument is a crucial role for critical thinking because it requires that we have the ability to identify assumptions. Philosophical assumptions and judgments require support using an account, proof, or an argument. Non-philosophical assumptions and judgments may require some other kind of support or evidence. If I claim that “saturated fat is healthy,” I would be more likely to prove my point by providing empirical data than a syllogism. Critical thinking requires us to be able to identify different kinds of assumptions, which require different kinds of support, evidence, or account, and then supplying the proof when necessary.
The Goal and Means of Critical Thinking
Why do we so highly value critical thinking? What is the goal of thinking critically? It seems pretty clear that the goal of critical thinking is to reject what is false and to arrive at what is true. The truth is the goal of critical thinking. We want the judgments that we accept to accord with reality. Also, we want to grow in our understanding of what is true. If Aristotle is correct, then all men by nature desire to know. Critical thinking is the means by which we come to know.
How is critical thinking a means to attain knowledge? We have to begin with self-knowledge. Socrates says that the unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined life is a failure of self-knowledge. It is to go through life with little to no reflection upon who we are, and what makes for a good life. The unexamined life is a life lived according to unexamined assumptions, or what we often call biases. The most basic assumptions we carry with us are our philosophical assumptions. We may have picked up these assumptions from our upbringing, our culture, our education, our religion, etc.. Our philosophical assumptions are the uncritically examined answers that we provide to the following questions: How do I know things? What is ultimately real? And what is the good life? We have all answered these questions. Answers to these questions are what stir our emotions and drive us to action. Poor assumptions lead to unruly emotions and bad actions. Critical thinking begins with self-examination about our answers to these basic philosophical questions. Why do we believe as we do? What reasons, proof, or evidence do we have for believing as we do? Have I ever considered alternatives to what I believe? What reasons, proof, or evidence is there for alternative positions? Going beyond self-examination, can I thoughtfully articulate my beliefs and reasons with my parents, peers, or professors? Critical thinking begins with self-examination regarding our philosophical assumptions.
Beyond our assumptions, critical thinking enables us to identify and analyze philosophical assumptions and biases all around us in the media, online, in what our fellow human beings say. Every time we speak, we speak from a philosophical position. Anytime anyone speaks, they speak from a philosophical position. Are those positions well founded and supported by reason? Are they true? Critical thinking helps us to identify assumptions and then test those assumptions for meaning, or rational consistency. We start with concepts, are they meaningful? Then we examine judgments made, are they true? If they are true, we should be able to support them with a sound argument. Critical thinking is essential for meaningful human communication in pursuit of the truth.
Several virtues and attitudes accompany critical thinking in pursuit of truth. To find the truth, one must look for it. The attitude of seeking for truth, what Socrates attributes to “wonder,” is necessary for obtaining the truth. The truth may be hidden; it may need searching out, like a rare hidden treasure, it requires digging and dedication. But the truth is much more valuable than gold. So, if we are willing to work hard for gold, we must be all the more willing to work hard for truth and the wisdom that results from knowing the truth.
Critical thinking requires humility. Socrates, when told by the oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man, did not accept the judgment. First, he asked, “I wonder what the oracle means?” Then he set out to show that someone else was wiser than he. When he could not find one wiser, he realized that his wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he did not know. Humility rests in our knowledge that we don’t know as we should, that our understanding is limited, and that as finite beings we will always be growing either in truth or falsehood. Let us hope that we are engaged in critical thinking and growing in understanding in the truth. This growth may require grace, a gift that we don’t always talk about in philosophy, but a gift about which Socrates knew. He attributed his philosophical pursuit to a calling from the god. Grace is a gift from outside of ourselves, either from the Divine or from our fellow human beings that helps us to grow. As social beings, we are meant to live in a community. The community is meant to help us to achieve the good life. Grace is for this purpose.
Critical thinking requires courage. It’s hard to examine oneself. It is difficult to subject one’s views to others who may not extend the gift of grace and may instead criticize. Self-examination is uncomfortable. Courage, the willingness to move forward in the face of difficult challenges, is necessary for thinking critically about one’s presuppositions. But, courage is also needed to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, in every area of life, for the whole of one’s life.
Having spent some time discussing thinking, we should address the “critical” part of critical thinking. To think critically is to be engaged in rational analysis. It begins first with understanding what a statement means. We then analyze arguments presented in support of the statement given. In addition to this, we must recognize that truth is not piecemeal but fits into a system of truth. To think critically is also to think systematically. How do the truths that I hold, that I have rational support for, fit together coherently? If the foundational beliefs in our system of beliefs are faulty, the structure that we build upon those foundational beliefs will be unsupported. Critical thinking helps us to lay a strong foundation, to analyze the supports and pillars, to construct a strong and beautiful house from which to live a rich, meaningful, and fulfilling life.
Critical thinking enables us to reject what lacks meaning by means of reason. We cannot discern what is meaningful or meaningless based on emotion, prejudice, pragmatism, tradition, ideology, what goes by the name of science but is not science, and what goes by the name of reason but is not reason. Emotion, will, and experience may be aspects of human life, but they are not critical thinking, nor can they substitute for the pursuit of meaning and truth.
Critical Thinking and Assumptions
Knowing the truth would be relatively easy if we would seek after truth and we could recognize assumptions in ourselves and others. Recognizing assumptions requires training, practice, and the lifelong habit of self-examination. We must get into the habit of asking ourselves “what do I think about x?” and “why do I think that about x?” Self-examination is hindered by our not seeking after truth, and by our thinking that we are doing okay. We are self-deceived about our seeking to know. Who in their right mind says “I do not want to know what is true.” We all like to think that we are interested in the truth, but if we were, wouldn’t there be a lot more people who were producing sound arguments for the judgments that they make? In addition to self-deception, we tend to justify ourselves. We have other goals besides knowing the truth that motivates our communication and action. Perhaps our motivations are pleasure or power. We justify what we do with rationalizations rather than reason. Rationalization is just another word for self-justification. Self-examination would help us to cut through our lack of knowledge and the excuses we make for ourselves for not knowing.
Self-examination would be easier if we recognized that some things are clear to reason. When the truth is clear, and we do not see it, we should repent. Repentance is a change in mind, thinking, or direction. If we are going down the wrong path, we should turn around and show the results in our way of thinking and living. Being self-aware of our tendency to be deceived about our interest in seeking the truth will help us in a forward moving direction. Engaging in dialogue with others with the goal of understanding ourselves and others will help us to overcome self-justification in the pursuit of philosophical justification (i.e., knowledge).
The Ethics of Critical Thinking
Aristotle tells us that we are rational, political, animals. With this nature comes moral responsibility. We are responsible for the use of reason to the fullest. Failure in the use of reason to the fullest is dehumanizing and destructive to ourselves and directly leads to the harm of others. It leads to intellectual stupor and societal decay.
We are political beings. We live in society and have moral obligations to one another. We are a society of rational beings and participation in, or separation from society is predicated on our use or non-use of reason. We are morally obligated to one another to give an account for what we say and what we do because what we say and do affects us all. Also, we are morally accountable for upholding the dignity and responsibility of every rational being regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc..
We are animals. We have bodies and sensations. We are embodied rational beings, but we are not merely animals. We have sensations, but we do not merely have sensations. Our rationality is what distinguishes us from other animals. It is what makes us different and what gives human dignity. To reduce human beings to mere animals is to dehumanize. Reason is to rule over our animality or our senses. We cannot deny the demands, needs, and joys of the body, but we can rule over them. This rule requires critical thinking.
Rational political animals require critical thinking to rule over our physical nature, to thrive in human society and to have a thriving society, and to achieve what is good for all human beings – knowing the truth. Knowing the truth results in happiness and a fulfilling life. Therefore, critical thinking is a means to the highest end. It is our most valuable tool. Let us encourage one another in the virtue of critical thinking in pursuit of what is true and good.
To sum up: Critical thinking begins with using reason to identify the meaning of the words that we use, assess the truth of judgments that we make, and to prove the judgments that we make with arguments. We cannot substitute critical thinking with emotion or bypass it for pragmatic reasons. The goal of critical thinking is knowledge of the truth. Knowing the truth is a communal activity. Therefore, critical thinking is for the good of the individual and the common good.
Retrieval Philosophy is the study of the history of philosophy as a means to addressing contemporary philosophical problems. Retrieval philosophy (Ret PHI) uses the history of philosophy to bring concepts and figures from the philosophical past into dialogue with philosophical problems of the present.
Ret PHI is a movement within the discipline of philosophy. It is a move “back to the sources” (ad fontes). It is a call to return to classical philosophy, with the advantage of a rational presuppositional approach to critical analysis of basic assumptions. A rational presuppositional approach relies upon the critical use of reason to test concepts, judgments, and arguments for rational consistency, rejecting that which lacks meaning and retaining that which is meaningful. The rational presuppositional approach seeks to establish what is logically more basic prior to engaging with what is logically less basic in a step by step, systematic way. For example: Epistemology is logically prior to metaphysics, and metaphysics is logically prior to ethics. Ret PHI seeks to use the history of philosophy in a challenge and response method with the goal of removing the accumulated rubble of bad philosophy and rebuilding the foundations of the discipline of philosophy.
Ret PHI benefits from developments in analytic and continental strains of philosophy, with a critical eye to both past errors and contemporary assumptions. Yet, Ret PHI is post-analytic and post-deconstruction philosophy. It takes the critique of both traditions seriously, and promotes what is of value from both traditions, yet is not paralyzed by the skepticism of each tradition. Ret PHI is not mere genealogy, but is similar to genealogy. The method is to trace concepts or thinkers historically, and show their strengths and weaknesses. The method should get to the root of assumptions, uproot what is meaningless and false, and chart a course for what is meaningful and true.
Ret PHI seeks to avoid a naive reading of texts, which calls for careful and close interpretation and analysis of the text. Ret PHI also seeks to get to the root of philosophical problems and address them in such a way that does not allow for regrowth of the same problems later. Ret PHI is in essence a way of reading the history of ideas with the goal of rejecting meaningless, and thus false, positions and retrieving from the broad philosophical tradition what is true, good, beautiful, and just. It is a critical examination of received assumptions, a test for the meaning of those assumptions, a rejection of what is meaningless and a preserving of what is meaningful from the history of philosophy.
Ret PHI does not tacitly accept the assumptions of contemporary philosophy, which includes naturalism, empiricism, skepticism, and pragmatism. Ret PHI retrieves key arguments against these assumptions from the history of philosophy, providing contemporary philosophical discussions with historic counterexamples. Ret PHI is a platform within the discipline of philosophy from which to move the discipline forward and to explore alternative avenues such as retrieval rationalism, retrieval philosophical theism, and retrieval natural moral law.
It is a longstanding critique that analytic philosophy has not sufficiently recognized or engaged with the history of philosophy. It views itself as “objective” and ahistorical. Analytic philosophy has not sufficiently addressed its own problematic historical assumptions and position of power within the academy. This has been a consistent critique from continental thinkers. Continental deconstruction has been keen to point out the history of power dynamics within the history of what passes for “knowledge,” but deconstruction has not left any positive philosophy in the wake of its destructive forces. The discipline of philosophy, the foundational discipline of the academy, is in crisis. We are now post-reason, post-analytical, and post-postmodern. The only way forward from this moment of crisis within the discipline appears to be a reckoning with the past. This reckoning includes a critical analysis of the assumptions that led to the crisis, and a retrieval of what is classic in classical philosophy.
Retrieval philosophy is a way forward. The desire is not to return to mere tradition, Ret PHI is a “critical retrieval.” It is not a mere return, it is getting something back having dealt with the challenges that led to its being rejected and forgotten in the first place. Ad fontes, philosophers!
The primary philosophical problem that has sustained my attention over the years has been reason and public discourse. I am convinced that a renewed civil public discourse is not only possible, but is necessary. I wrote about the crisis of contemporary discourse in my dissertation, and to set up the project of Retrieval Philosophy, I would like to quote at length from the introduction (publication forthcoming):
Currently, the West is experiencing the results of unreason and the lack of a shared public discourse. Western Civilization seems to be in a crisis of legitimacy in the face of a plurality of competing belief systems within a new level of global interaction. There is a push by some for global unity, but on what basis? The process of secularization has resulted in the celebration of pluralism, diversity, and multiculturalism on one hand, and the privatization and minimization of national, cultural, and religious particularity on the other. Politically correct (PC) language has been used as a means to navigate our diversities, and has become the fallback language of the public sphere. But politically correct language does not provide any content. Rather, PC is a negative guide in what ought not be said because what is said may be deemed insensitive. PC is the language of tolerance in the face of difference. Social justice has become the fallback ethics of a public that lacks a shared set of values. And since there is no shared source of authority — cultural, religious, traditional, or otherwise — there is no common ground for public discourse. What we currently see in the public sphere are expressions of emotional outrage or the imposition of a will to power, often by protests that verge on civil unrest by the populace or by legal fiat by the elite. Words are emptied of meaning, and we experience the phenomenon of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”1 Instead of engaging in the rational exchange of arguments to explain what one means, ad hominem attacks are often used to defend oneself or to oppose those with whom one disagrees.
Thomas Szasz has named the phenomenon of emptying words of meaning “semanticide.” He says: “To concepts like suicide, homicide, and genocide, we should add ‘semanticide’ — the murder of language. The deliberate (or quasi-deliberate) misuse of language through hidden metaphor and professional mystification breaks the basic contract between people, namely the tacit agreement on the proper use of words.”2 The murder of language has a history, and is rooted in an earlier murder of reason (logicide). This dissertation will chart the root of semanticide in the West. Yet, semanticide is not a new phenomenon, nor is it only a Western phenomenon. Chinese Confucian philosophy recognizes the danger of semanticide and proffers its cure in “the rectification of names.” Confucian philosopher Hsun Tsu (310 – 238 BCE) says the following with regard to the rectification of names:
“…When sage-kings instituted names, the names were fixed actualities distinguished. The sage-kings’ principles were carried out and their wills understood. Then the people were carefully led and united. Therefore, the practice of splitting terms and arbitrarily creating names to confuse correct names, thus causing much doubt in people’s minds and bringing about much litigation, was called great wickedness. It was a crime, like private manufacturing of credentials and measurements, and therefore the people dared not rely on strange terms created to confuse correct names. Hence the people were honest. Being honest, they were easily employed. Being easily employed, they achieved results. Since the people dared not rely on strange terms created to confuse correct names, they singlemindedly followed the law and carefully obeyed orders. In this way, the traces of their accomplishments spread. The spreading of traces and the achievement of results are the highest point of good government. This is the result of careful abiding by the conventional meaning of names.
Now the sage-kings are dead and the guarding of names has become lax, strange terms have arisen, and names and actualities have been confused. As the standard of right and wrong is not clear, even the guardians of law and the teachers of natural principles are in a state of confusion.”3
Semanticide is the murder of language through the misuse of names, either intentionally, or through becoming “lax” in guarding the meaning of names. It involves the confusion of words, and what those words represent. Semanticide fails to identify and distinguish the “fixed actualities” that names represent. It leads to disunity, confusion, and doubt (skepticism); lawsuits (will to power); wickedness, fraud, and dishonesty (distrust); unemployment, disobedience to law, and bad government. Semanticide has a cure. The cure is the rectification of names: identifying actualities and calling them by the correct name. Yet the cure must go deep. It must go to the heart of the most fundamental discipline in the academy. The cure must begin with the discipline of philosophy. The sages charged with “the guarding of names” in the West — the philosophers — are often the very people who have promoted and propagated semanticide in our day. Some in the academy are currently proclaiming the death of philosophy. Philosophy, which once stood as the foundation of Western Civilization, is dead. What then becomes of Western Civilization? What becomes of our common culture, traditions, and language? What becomes of the West in the face of globalization, multiculturalism, and secularization? What will be the source of unity for humankind in this context? What will determine whether we have named things aright? Will a political person or body determine the proper names of things?
… We will ask the question “what is reason?” And we will engage the question “how may reason be a shared source of authority for all human beings?” Minimally, reason is the laws of thought.4 Furthermore, we will ask “how can we use reason as common ground in a global, multicultural, secular context?” The means of exploring reason and public discourse is through the discipline of philosophy, and more specifically by examining a previous period of philosophical crisis similar to our own. The problem and diagnosis of semanticide goes to the question of reason in itself, reason’s application to being, and its expression in the proper use of words to express being. Reason and being have been the two fundamental concepts in the history of philosophy, and the denial of reason and being are at the root of semanticide today.
The contemporary crisis of public discourse has a history. There is also a solution to this crisis in the history of philosophy. To address the crisis and to find the solution to the problem of contemporary public discourse through a close grappling with the history of philosophy is an example of the method of Retrieval Philosophy. Yet, the crisis of public discourse also has roots in the very discipline of philosophy. Thus, Retrieval Philosophy also involves a method for disciplinary self-examination. Retrieval philosophy seeks to expose assumptions of contemporary philosophical schools, which are historically rooted, and which contribute to contemporary philosophical problems, the crisis of public discourse being one such example. To sum up: Retrieval Philosophy engages in the history of philosophy to address contemporary philosophical problems. These problems often have roots in the discipline of philosophy, thus Retrieval Philosophy serves also as a means of disciplinary self-examination.