Things, categories, patterns
I don’t remember the topic of the discussion. I don’t recall who attended class that day. I cannot see in my mind’s eye now where I was sitting in that cavernous room in the basement of the bare-concrete humanities building. I just remember the voice of my history professor saying, in passing, to everyone in the senior thesis seminar that at some point in his twenties he had been “scrutinizing his categories”.
These strange words have stuck with me ever since, and I do remember pausing in class that day and mulling over them in my mind. What he meant, I think, was that at some point during his young adulthood he had thought about how he had come to know what he knows. For some foolish reason, these words of his began to emit in my mind the heady aroma of prophecy, and soon enough my memory of them had come to mean, “I too will scrutinize my categories one day in the near future, will rethink how it is that I have come to ‘know’ what I ‘know'”.
Truth is, though, I like talking about epistemology (the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge) about as much as I like seeing zoomed-in photographs of my face. Beliefs, like human skin, begin to reveal bizarre characteristics when seen up close. The problem is not so much with the beliefs or thoughts themselves as with our ability to scrutinize them. Most people, myself included, are just bad at coming up with insights about the way we think. Here is how a typical conversation about epistemology sometimes goes:
Svetlana: How do we know what we know?
Larry: Well, the world exists as an external entity. The individual person exists as a separate entity that sees, hears, smells, feels and tastes things in the world with his senses and understands the world through his mind.
So we understand an external world through our senses and with our mind?
And our understanding of our world is always accurate?
Well, no, not always. Our beliefs can be wrong either when we don’t have enough sensory information or because our minds are not working properly in some way.
Has any one individual person ever had complete sensory information about anything in the world?
No, I guess not. We are always “limited” by our senses because we can only see, hear, touch, smell or taste something in the present moment and even then from only one particular perspective or another.
So our sensory information is incomplete, and we’ve never even had a conception of what that completeness would look like?
And since we don’t know how the world would look like if we were perfectly informed by our senses, then we can never be sure that our present ideas and beliefs about the world are close to the truth or far from it.
I guess we can never be completely sure of the accuracy of our beliefs.
If we can never be sure about anything, then we can never really know anything. We can only make imperfect guesses, correct?
Yes, that seems to be the logical conclusion.
So we can not know the world with our senses alone; we can at best make imperfect guesses. What about our mind. You say that our mind helps us understand the world as well?
Yes, I did say that the mind and the senses work together to give us an understanding of the world.
And how does the mind – let’s say once it’s informed by the senses – come to such an understanding?
Well, this is a puzzling question. I guess probably with the use of ideas.
And what is an idea?
That’s even tougher to answer. Hmm… an idea is probably some statement about a pattern we notice in the world through our senses.
And how do we make such a statement?
We make any statement with the use of language, it seems evident to me.
So, let me try to tie everything you just said together. The mind understands the world through ideas, which are composed of statements, which are made possible by language. Is this accurate?
Yes, that is what I have stated.
So, to summarize, the mind understands the world through the use of language?
Yes, and also with the help of the senses.
But we agreed earlier that the senses do not give us knowledge. What about language, the other ingredient. Can we derive knowledge of the world through language?
I’m not sure how to answer this.
Let me rephrase the question. Does language exist in the world or in our mind?
Of course only in our minds. An animal called “lion” in English has a multitude of different names in other languages. I have even heard that the Inuit people have something like a dozen different words for the single word “snow” in our language. There are no words “lion” or “snow” written or embedded in any objects in the world like some gemstones in a necklace.
So the mind itself constructs language?
And the mind can only ever understand anything through language?
So it would be more accurate to say that the mind understands only the things it itself makes up (that is, language) and nothing outside of its own self.
This seems like a logical conclusion.
Then how can we come to know anything about the world?
Apparently not through the senses, which are always limited, or the mind, which only deals with words, phrases, and sentences it makes up about the imperfect information that the senses provide it.
If not through the senses or the mind, is there anything else that can give us true knowledge about the world?
Not that I can think of.
Then is true knowledge even possible?
Given what I have said, I can’t conceive of a way for humans to arrive at true knowledge.
Then, to go back to our initial question, how do we know what we know?
I guess we don’t really know anything for sure. We’re making guesses based on incomplete experiences in our past.
Then there is no such thing as knowledge about the world?
No, I can’t claim that there is such a thing based on what we have said.
From my experience, this tends to be the way these conversations about the nature of knowledge usually go (except that the defender of objective truth usually has stronger convictions than the hypothetical Larry in the above example and thus makes a more fiery defense of the existence of knowledge). Discussions about epistemology usually get impaled on the twin obstacles mentioned above of a). the senses are subjective and imperfect, and b). our mind can ever only comprehend the language constructs it itself creates and never anything in the outside world.
The problem that I see with the typical discussions about epistemology is not that they tend to reach the same conclusions, but rather that those conclusions don’t go anywhere. They are useless in the sense that we can’t do anything with them afterwards. They just confuse us for no reason, in my opinion. It’s the mind questioning the validity of its decision-making process by using that same process to do the questioning.
Even though I stay away from epistemological debates for these reasons, I’ve been nevertheless finding myself encountering these issues lately. I attended a local philosophy meetup where we were to read Aristotle’s Categories and in the course of an afternoon’s intellectual wrangling come up with an answer to the age-old question, What is a thing? The discussion proceeded from a close reading of the text and slowly, almost imperceptibly, fizzled out into a frustrated examination of how we can ever even begin to answer such a question being the limited organisms that we are. Epistemology like some Medusa had reared its ugly head.
I have also been reading this week a book called The Mission, the Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander by Pete Blaber, who discusses that recognizing patterns of experience is the key to understanding the world in such a way that can help you solve any kind of problem in life. I have an implicit, almost child-like, respect for the judgment of elite warriors, so I have been pondering patterns in day to day life lately.
Things, categories, patterns. I sometimes think the debates we have about our mental modes of perceiving the world are counterproductive to that very goal. While reading and discussing Aristotle’s Categories led me to be baffled by its contents, Aristotle himself went on to use these same perceptual tools that he created to divide up his perception of the world in an insightful way. By doing this, he laid the foundation for modern science. Remarkably (at least to my amateur mind untrained in philosophy) he used epistemology to create a thing of beauty rather than inner turmoil. Aristotle’s scrutiny of his own categories, unlike one’s usual method of doing the same thing, is perhaps an exemplary pattern to follow.