Tuesday, August 21, 2012

23. From inside and outside


Now I start a series of items on questions of knowledge and truth.


What comes from inside the human being and what from outside? The question arises in relation to all three of the true, the good and the beautiful. Here I focus on knowledge. Later I will consider morality and ethics.

Does the self produce its own knowledge? Does that come from innate ideas that are aligned beforehand with reality, by some gift of God? We find this for example with Descartes. Or is the brain a clean slate on which sensory perceptions inscribe themselves and form ideas, in a process of association? This we find with mostly English empiricist philosophers (starting with Locke). Or do we form and understand perceptions by pre-existing forms of thought, such as space, time and causality? The philosopher Kant proposed that, and ever since we are uncertain about our knowledge. Where Kant still assumed that there remains an objective reality, outside our ideas, though we cannot know it as such, subsequent idealists argued that if we cannot say anything about that the only relevant reality is that which is produced by ideas.


Who is right? Do ideas come from inside or outside? Do ideas form themselves from perceptions or vice versa? Is there anything like ‘sense data’ that serve as elementary ‘building blocks’ from which ideas are ‘constructed’? The difference is not so large as it may seem, if we look at how ideas and knowledge develop. Descartes already indicated that ideas are not available beforehand in developed form but in potency and arise or not depending on sensory triggers. Empiricists on their side grant that the process of association between sensory perceptions also creates ideas of a ‘higher’ level, in some sense, that affect our perception and interpretation.


Nowadays almost everybody thinks along the following lines. As a legacy from evolution we have the potential to produce forms of thought and ideas, but how that happens and what comes out depends on the circumstances of nature and culture in which people develop their ideas in the course of their lives. The mental forms according to which people perceive develop in interaction with reality, in the development of the human being in evolution and of the individual in its life. Ideas thus arise both from inside and outside, in interaction between what mentally we already had as potential and the realization of that dependent on the environment.

The fact that people construct their ideas implies, as Kant said, that we do not know the world as it is in itself. More precisely: we don’t know that either. We don’t know in how far and in what way we grasp the world correctly. We cannot descend from our minds to inspect how our knowledge is hooked on to the world. But we must take into account the possibility that we see the world wrong. Objectivity then is not pure, cognitively immediate perception, which is impossible, but openness to views of others.

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