1. What is knowledge?
2. By what method do we obtain knowledge?
Such questions reveal just how important epistemology is, as it forms the foundation for all subsequent philosophical investigations (which are ostensibly aimed at finding knowledge). Without a firm epistemology, I have no direction. Indeed I can progress without one, but towards what?
As things stand so far, the second question is void of meaning until the first one is answered. Indeed, if I am ignorant of what knowledge is (as I admit in asking the first question), how can I make sense of the question, "By what method do we obtain knowledge?" Thus it makes sense to answer the first question before the second.
The nature of the first question is also a bit puzzling, for I am not asking for a stipulative, arbitrary definition of knowledge. I seem to presuppose that there is a "correct" definition of knowledge, implying that I have some primitive notion of what knowledge is in the first place. My goal is then to extract the essence of this primitive notion in concrete terms, to give it an accurate description.
I believe I can go a long way towards doing this by reflecting on the implicit premises necessarily contained in the questions that I have asked. To illustrate what I mean, imagine someone asking the question, "What is the largest country in the world by landmass: Cuba or Spain?" We immediately see that one of the premises behind this question is that either Cuba or Spain is the largest country in the world (which is incidentally false, but illustrates the point). I claim that asking the above questions about knowledge also reveals certain premises. However, these premises are not unique to these questions; they are in fact behind any and all questions, and thus all philosophical investigations. For this reason I am inclined to call them universal premises or axioms.
That is to say, when engaging in any philosophical investigation, I necessarily demonstrate an acceptance of several universal premises. It is this list of premises that I want to determine, and I believe I have identified a few so far:
1. I am an acting being.
2. There is an objective reality.
3. Proper method is logically consistent.
These are statements which are implicitly expressed by every action related to philosophical investigation, including their own denial (i.e. to deny any of these statements constitutes a performative contradiction). I will attempt to justify why each one gets to be on the list. In doing so, I will define the relevant terms, and clarify the meaning of each axiom. After this is done, I will return to the original question, "What is knowledge?" which should be easier to answer in light of the following analysis.
I am an acting beingThis axiom is a modified version of the praxeological action axiom first stated by Ludwig von Mises. From his economic treatise Human Action, Mises defines action thusly:
Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego's meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person's conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life. Such paraphrases may clarify the definition given and prevent possible misinterpretations. But the definition itself is adequate and does not need complement of commentary. (Human Action, p.11)The axiom that humans act in such a way is discussed by Murray Rothbard in his own treatise Man, Economy, and State:
All human beings act by virtue of their existence and their nature as human beings. We could not conceive of human beings who did not act purposefully, who have no ends in view that they desire and attempt to attain. Things that did not act, that did not behave purposefully, would no longer be classified as human. (Man, Economy, and State, p.1)While the action axiom is something that I, like most people, do tend to accept in everyday life (both by explicit admission, and demonstration in my treatment of other humans as acting beings), nonetheless I have a couple criticisms of it. These criticisms, however, lead me to conclude in my own version of the action axiom, and so a discussion of them is not so much of a digression. Both criticisms stem from a lack of precision, in my opinion, of the statement of the axiom.
The first criticism is that it seems to be a tautology, by which I mean it is simply true by definition. Consider a "human vegetable", an organism which is anatomically/biologically human, but lacks any cognitive ability. To the extent that a real vegetable acts, I would say this organism acts just as much: it doesn't. All of its behavior is unpurposeful. However, as Rothbard states above, such a thing cannot be classified as human for this very reason. Mises also says in Human Action
Beings of human descent who either from birth or from acquired defects are unchangeably unfit for any action (in the strict sense of the term and not only the legal sense) are practically not human. Although the statutes of biology consider them to be men, they lack the essential feature of humanity. (Human Action, p.14)So it seems, according to Mises and Rothbard, that one of the necessary qualities of a thing (among others) for it to be called "human" (in the sense used in the action axiom) is that it acts. Thus to say, "Humans act," is just an unwinding of this definition. It seems to be, in the Kantian sense, an analytic, a priori statement.
In any case, I don't think this undermines praxeology as a science; it is still possible to formally deduce the logic of acting beings. However, it does undermine the relevance of that science to the real world. Perhaps I am interpreting the action axiom too literally then, and what is truly meant is that there are simply human beings in the world who are actors. This would then escape the first criticism, but this second formulation has subtle problems of its own.
It is impossible to identify action by observation, that is, empirically; there are no observations that, alone, could distinguish purposeful from unpurposeful phenomena. Action is understood, not observed. This insight leads us to self-reflect on the meaning of action, and in particular on our own lives as actors. I think Austrians are correct to point out that if I attempt to refute the action axiom, I am acting. Indeed, my end is to refute the statement by means of an argument. We deduce with apodictic certainty that I am acting. However, I believe it is a non-sequitur to deduce further from this realization that other human beings are actors as well. My self-reflection, by nature, says nothing about these other human beings. We could alternatively phrase this in Rothbard and Mises' words, that these other human beings may not be, as far as action goes, "human" at all. The only conclusion that we can garner is that I act, and I am just one human, whereas the action axiom says that humans (plural) act.
However, we nevertheless arrive at the very axiom I set out to establish: I am an acting being. This reduced statement escapes my criticisms. The self-reflection method has merit, but to a lesser extent than I would have previously thought. Indeed, engaging in a philosophical investigation is to act. The content of my actions, i.e. the means and ends, in undertaking philosophy is what constitutes the next axiom.
As far as economics goes, it may suffice for the economist to simply assume or take on faith that there are humans "out there" in the world acting, and to which all of the praxeological theorems apply. After all, as I noted earlier on, practically speaking we all tend to assume this in our daily lives anyway. To positively reject the action axiom seems on par with solipsism; this is not so much to say that any view reducing to solipsism is necessarily wrong, but that it is at least one meant for the "philosophers", not the economists. I think it is perfectly reasonable and practical for the economist to be concerned with practical, economical questions rather than obtuse philosophical ones.
There is an objective realityIt is my casual observation that the more fundamental or abstract a subject of critical thought becomes, the more inanimate it tends to be. As we move through the spectrum of scientific disciplines, from say sociology, to psychology, to biology, to chemistry, to physics, to mathematics, to logic, man becomes less and less important, less involved, less relevant. It would seem to me, for reasons I've stated above, that epistemology is the most fundamental subject, yet man's role is central here; for epistemology concerns itself with the idea of seeking knowledge, and without a seeker of that knowledge (and thus an actor) epistemology is meaningless. It is for this reason that I decided to place the action axiom first, to highlight man's role in the process of philosophy, and praxeology's role in epistemology.
I now want to review the idea of action, and dress the concept with the words that will most accurately frame the next axiom. Action is "purposeful behavior", meaning the deliberate application of means to achieve well-defined ends. To have ends, I must be able to comprehend the current state of my existence, and to imagine more preferable states in the future. This comprehension of my existence, the entirety of my understanding and perception, is what I will refer to as subjective reality. By an objective reality I mean a reality independent of my subjective reality. This is not to say that an objective reality is necessarily inaccessible, it is simply something different from my subjective reality.
Before I continue I should clarify the meaning of true and false as I will use them. These are labels applicable to propositions. A true proposition is simply one which accurately corresponds to reality, and a false proposition is one that does not. Propositions can relate to either subjective or objective reality, and depending on the context we may call a proposition subjectively true (or false) or objectively true (or false).
My knowledge of the truth of propositions as they relate to my subjective reality is more or less trivial. It is impossible by definition for me to be uncertain whether propositions (whose meaning I understand) are in error with my subjective reality, i.e. subjectively false. That is to say, I can't not have an understanding of what I do have an understanding of. However my knowledge of the truth of propositions relating to an objective reality is very different. I do not immediately know, that is it is not manifestly clear and obvious, if a proposition is objectively true or false, because (again by definition) an objective reality is different from my subjective reality, and thus there is the capacity for error. In case it's not clear, this is not to claim that it is impossible to determine whether or not propositions are objectively true or false; the claim is that it is non-trivial.
Up until now I have only tried to define and differentiate subjective reality vs. objective reality. I have not claimed or argued that objective reality exists. However, with this differentiation complete, I believe it's now clear that if I chose to engage in a philosophical investigation I am implicitly admitting that I am capable of making error with respect to an objective reality. In other words, my doing philosophy demonstrates an acceptance of the existence of a reality independent of my subjective reality (i.e. an objective reality) against which it is possible to make errors.
A philosophical investigation is a declaration of uncertainty. In the language of praxeology, it is the application of philosophical method (the means) towards the alignment of my subjective reality with an objective reality (the end). It would make no sense to engage in a philosophical investigation believing that the only reality that exists is my subjective reality, since there is no capacity for error - in short, no reason to do philosophy. The philosopher reveals his belief that there is an objective reality, and his aim is to understand it. In fact, we could say that a philosophical investigation is the act of attempting to discern objective truth from objective falsehood.
I cannot emphasize enough that this does not prove that objective reality exists. I am only saying that if I chose to do philosophy, I necessarily admit that I believe objective reality exists, which is quite different. This belief in an objective reality applies equally to the axioms themselves, that is I accept as objectively true the axioms on the list above in engaging in any philosophical investigation.
Proper method is logically consistentThis particular axiom is the one I have developed the least. Heuristically I intend this to mean an acceptance of a number of logical laws, perhaps those of Aristotle. I don't think a proper understanding of the role logic has to play in philosophy can be had until one has a proper understanding of the concept of meaning itself, which I intend to read about, explore, and write about later. Fortunately, this postponement does not seem to significantly alter what I have to say below.
The nature of knowledgeThis deeper understanding of the premises behind my questions, and hence the questions themselves, better equips me to answer them. The idea of "knowledge" now appears inextricably linked to the process of aligning my subjective reality with an objective one (discussed above). If we associate the word "belief" with the subjective, and "true" with the objective, we can rephrase this description; knowledge is true belief.
But, appealing to my primitive understanding of things, knowledge cannot be merely true belief, for then any fool who happens (perhaps by chance) to believe in what is true would be "knowledgeable". There must be a third preprequisite for a belief to be considered knowledge, namely that the belief must have a justification. Let us then define knowledge to be justified, true belief.
Yet we would be making another error if we stopped here. Edmund Gettier's insight shows us that it is non-trivial what constitutes a justification in the first place. If my understanding is correct, his point can be heuristically illustrated as follows. Suppose that an ancient pagan man commits a horrible crime, as defined by his culture, and predicts that his god will cause a great storm to ravish the land. If incidentally a storm does occur, the man would have given a justification for a true belief. Yet, assuming (perhaps arrogantly) for the moment that our Western explanation for these storms is the "correct" one, his justification would be "invalid". Equivalently, we would say he never had a "valid" justification for the storm in the first place.
Gettier's problem illustrates that, in addition to justified, true belief (JTB), a fourth condition must define knowledge called a Gettier condition (JTB-G). The Gettier condition differentiates between "valid" and "invalid" justifications for true beliefs. For the sake of making the post coherent, however, we can recognize that determining what is a "valid" justification is, in fact, simply the second question about knowledge we have asked above. The outstanding problem we need to overcome is to determine the right Gettier condition, i.e. to determine the proper method to acquire knowledge.
Philosophical methodNow the challenging part of determining proper method is that method itself is bound up in this very determination. In other words, I must employ some method to determine what proper method to use in philosophy. But what method do I use here? This is problematic, for I'm now stuck in an infinite regress.
It is my belief that this problem of infinite regress cannot be overcome. Philosophy has no bottom. I think this is really disappointing, and discouraging. Indeed, there doesn't seem to be any reason to expect that we can progress in a water-tight fashion lacking a water-tight method. I'm willing to be persuaded to change my mind, but I just don't think it's possible to escape this truly fundamental problem. For a long time I tried, and failed, but I now believe it to be a futile battle. To continue would be, to me, like beating a dead horse. And as I've said before, eventually there will be a dead philosopher too.
Just to reemphasize, I'm not claiming here that proper method is impossible to determine, for that would be a claim to knowledge - knowledge which I still don't know how to obtain by proper method! However, because I can't determine how to determine proper method, and cannot conceive of how it could possibly be done, I'm led to believe that it cannot be done.
Accepting this as problematic, it pretty much undermines everything said here, because everything I'm writing is conducted within the framework of some method (lest I forget that this post is a philosophical investigation itself!) Faced with this dilemma, I could either exit from the stage of philosophy, or persist. There is nothing much to say about what happens if I should choose to exit, reasonable as the choice may be. But what can I say in the case that I do persist? This is the question that I've been thinking about most recently.
In order to answer this question, and continue the analysis of method, I must employ some method. The method I have been using, and will continue to use, is my reasoning skills. I suppose the choice to continue doing philosophy could, therefore, either be interpreted as a mere exercise in using these skills, or an investigation conducted under the assumption that the use of these skills is proper method. I will leave that interpretation to the reader.
ConclusionIn this short article I have attempted to lay out a foundation for epistemology. We began by asking the relevant epistemological questions: what is knowledge? and how does one acquire it? To answer these questions we investigated the premises underlying them, which subsequently provided us with a praxeological, ontological, and logical framework. Including Gettier's insight, we arrive at the conclusion that knowledge is true belief justified by an appropriate method. The outstanding question then becomes what method is appropriate for acquiring knowledge.
My thoughts and ponderings on this last subject all point to defeat, in short that proper method cannot be determined. The problem of method, it would seem by its very nature, is an insurmountable wall. What I am led to conclude, therefore, is that method is ultimately not determined, but chosen. My adherence to consistent logical deduction, to the best of my ability, showcases my choice. However what is truly meant by "logical"? Perhaps I will have something to say about that another time.