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The phenomenological notion of knowledge and its consequences
The phenomenological notion of knowledge is very simple. Knowledge is the awareness of the truth of your opinion about a thing. There are two aspects of this definition: awareness and truth. These would be worth going over in a bit of detail.
Awareness means experience. To be aware of something is for it to be the object of your experience. Defining knowledge in terms of awareness is therefore a matter of defining it as an experience.
Truth is a relation of adequacy between what is thought or said about a thing and that thing itself. Aristotle defined it simply: to say of what it is that it is and of what is not that it is not (Metaphysics 1011b25). One accomplishes truth when one thinks or speaks about a thing as it is.
The phenomenological notion of knowledge is therefore easy to understand. To know is to have an awareness of the truth of one’s opinion about something. This is commonly called “achieving evidence.” Evidence in this sense does not mean “facts which support a certain idea.” It means “clearness” or “evidentness.” To achieve knowledge is to achieve the clearness or evidentness of the truth of your opinion about a thing.
But it was mentioned earlier that truth is a relation. More specifically, it is a relation between an opinion about a thing and that thing itself. And one cannot become aware of a relation between two things without having those two things present. One cannot see that one cat is fatter than another unless both cats are given in some way, either in propria persona and in the flesh or else by accurate photographic representation, etc. Neither can one see that x > 100 unless the value of x is given. The reason why is that the awareness of a relation comes about after comparing at least two things. And things cannot be compared unless they are experientially given. The awareness of a relation requires being presented with both relata.
From this it follows that it is not possible to become aware of the truth of your opinion about a thing in the experiential absence of that thing itself. Truth is a relation between what you think or say about x and x itself. The awareness of this relation is not possible unless both your opinion about x and x itself are given in an experience. This means that the phenomenological notion of knowledge can be restated as the occurrent awareness of the adequacy of one’s opinion about a thing to that thing itself in a concrete experience.
Now this conception of knowledge obviously implies that our knowledge is strictly speaking very limited. That is because in most cases we cannot come to an awareness of the truth of our opinions about things.
Consider for example my opinions about past events. I think that some event in the past took place in a certain way. Knowledge would mean awareness of the truth of this opinion of mine. But I obviously cannot go back in time to re-experience the event itself and see if it was the way I think it was. All I have at my disposal are present phenomena which I take to be “traces” or “imprints” left by that past event that persist to this moment. But this means that I am interpreting things that are here now to be related in a certain way to an event from the past. Are they so related? Once again, the awareness of a relation requires the experiential givenness of both relata. I clearly cannot step outside of time to see whether there is any such relation. I cannot see for myself whether the past is related to the present in the way that I am supposing. This means that my opinions about past events are simply that—opinions. They cannot become knowledge for me because I simply cannot come to an awareness of the truth of my opinions through an experience of these past events themselves.
Now one might think that this constitutes a point against the phenomenological conception of knowledge. You might be saying: “Surely I know that I had breakfast this morning! But that’s an opinion about the past. If any theory of knowledge cannot grant me at least that much, then to hell with it.” Certainly, the phenomenological notion of knowledge implies that we do not actually know much of what we take ourselves to know. But can it be set aside so easily?
I think there are two points in favor of the phenomenological notion of knowledge. On the one hand, I think it adequately summarizes what is going on in what many people take to be “paradigmatic” cases of knowledge. On the other hand, it is immune to Gettier-style counterexamples. These two points suggest strongly that the phenomenological account of knowledge is indeed correct.
First, the question of “paradigmatic” cases of knowledge. There is a well-known problem in philosophy called “the problem of the criterion.” Suppose we want to ask the question of the nature of knowledge. Where do we begin? With a list of things we take ourselves to know? Or with a definition of knowledge considered in the abstract? The former approach is called “particularism.” One does not first define knowledge formally and abstractly but simply points to examples of knowledge that we all possess The latter approach is called “methodism.” One begins with a definition of knowledge and only then addresses the question of whether anyone possesses it.
Many persons with aversions to skepticism prefer the particularist approach. They think it is obvious that we know at least some things, for example that I had breakfast this morning. They are consequently willing even to forgo offering a formal and abstract definition of knowledge that might rule out such cases from a firm conviction that we really do possess knowledge. But it is possible both that we take ourselves to know various things and that our presumed knowledge can be formally analyzed in such a way as to undermine our pretense to possess knowledge. The phenomenological notion of knowledge does exactly this.
I purportedly know that I had breakfast this morning. Why do I think that I know this? Because I remember eating breakfast. I therefore have a memory on which my belief is founded. But why should this constitute knowledge at all—unless I am treating my memory about that past event as though it offered me the past event itself? I am treating my memory as though it were inextricably connected to the past event to which my purported knowledge refers. I therefore take myself to have knowledge of a past event because I think I can come to an awareness of the truth of my opinion by comparing this opinion to something functionally equivalent to its referent itself, namely my memory of it.
The same kind of analysis can be given in other cases, as well. I take myself to know that there is a door to the right of me. Why do I think that? Because I see the door when I look in that direction. But why should this constitute knowledge at all—unless I am treating my perception of a door as though it offered me the door itself? I am treating my perception as though it were inextricably connected to the external object to which my purported knowledge refers. I therefore take myself to have knowledge of an external reality because I think I can come to an awareness of the truth of my opinion by comparing this opinion to something functionally equivalent to its referent itself, namely my perception.
These kinds of examples can certainly be multiplied. The analysis offered here shows that the particularist approach of pointing to purported cases of knowledge does not escape the phenomenological notion of knowledge. To the contrary, it can be shown that the reason why we take ourselves to possess knowledge in all such cases is precisely because we take ourselves to have an awareness of the truth of our opinions about things. The thing is that we recognize that we often do not have the thing itself but something else which we take to be functionally equivalent to it, something that gives us the thing itself indirectly and thus is as good as having the thing itself.
But the phenomenological notion of knowledge also implies that what we presume to be knowledge in our naïveté is not really so. Is my memory of an event truly functionally equivalent to that event itself? Is remembering an event really just as good as experiencing the event directly? Obviously not. I only think I have knowledge by means of memory because I treat memory as though it were as good as the thing itself. In my more thoughtful moments, I realize that it really isn’t. And then I also recognize that I do not really and cannot really know what I take myself to know by memory. What I actually have is an opinion about the past that seems to me true in light of what I take to be the evidence I have at my disposal. But that is not knowledge.
Here then is a first argument for the phenomenological notion of knowledge. It explains what is going on in purportedly paradigmatic cases of knowledge. But it also explains why such cases are not really knowledge after all.
It is also possible to give a second argument in favor of the phenomenological notion of knowledge, namely that it solves the so-called Gettier problem.
The story goes that “knowledge” is a matter of justified true belief. To have knowlede, you must believe something, your belief must be true, and you must have justification for your belief. Edmund Gettier wrote a paper in which he argued that this analysis does not work. It is possible to have a justified true belief without knowledge—if, say, your belief happens to be true as a matter of luck. You are driving through the country side and you see what looks like a barn on a hill to your left. You think to yourself: “Ah, there are barns out here.” You are right that there are barns. But they are just beyond the hill where you cannot see them. What you saw was not a barn but merely the façade of a barn. You had a belief, it was true, and it was justified—and yet it was not knowledge. This is the so-called “Gettier problem.”
One point in favor of the phenomenological notion of knowledge is that it is immune to this problem altogether. It also makes sense of why we think that such persons do not really have knowledge.
The phenomenological notion defines knowledge as the awareness of the truth of one’s opinion about a thing in a concrete experience of that thing itself. But merely looking toward a field and having the impression of a barn is not the same thing as confirming the truth of your opinion. It may be that what you see is not really a barn. You have to experience the field from a number of different angles and investigate matters more profoundly than that. One glance does not give you the whole, as is obvious upon a moment’s reflection. We only ever see things from one side, under certain conditions, from a certain angle, and so on. The phenomenologist will therefore say that the person in the Gettier case mentioned above clearly does not have knowledge because has not achieved evidence: he has not done his due diligence in trying to come to an awareness of the truth of his opinion and all that this requires. Knowledge is an achievement that takes much effort. It is not easily or quickly had.
This is therefore a second argument in favor of the phenomenological notion of knowledge. It is immune to Gettier-style cases and it helps us to understand why the persons in these cases do not have knowledge even though they seem to have justified true belief or something like it.
These two arguments both amount to the same thing. The phenomenological notion of knowledge is the intuitive notion of knowledge that we are always using. It is what we are using when we recount supposedly paradigmatic cases of knowledge. It is what we are using when we recognize the insufficiency of other accounts in so-called Gettier cases. We intuitively know that knowledge is the awareness of the truth of our opinion about a thing.
But this conception of knowledge implies that we do not really know much of what we take ourselves to know. Therefore, I think we must simply be honest and admit defeat. We do not really know much of anything.
Now, there are certainly consequences of all this. If we do not really know most things, how should we act? Don’t we most often take ourselves to act on the basis of prior knowledge? What does our lack knowledge imply for how we should act? These are questions I will have to address in a later post.