Pre-Conditions of Knowledge 1

Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 244)


To attack the problem at the root of the possibility of knowledge directly we start by considering again the role of such a doctrine as the Kantian doctrine of “two sources”, or Spinoza’s “monism”, or Quine’s “holistic relativism”. The question now being whether we need such a theory. After all we have no difficulty communicating and making sense. We use our knowledge in a satisfactory manner for all practical purposes. Whoa! — that lands us in Pragmatism, and Pragmatism is a basic epistemological hypothesis of the very type that we are trying to abandon.


Specific Potential Individual Object Numerical Identity Implicit Understanding Matic Idea 
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  1. 1.
    Kant at his most abstract tried to base this parameter of content on the concept of object in general, Critique A156/7,B195/6 (Kant, 1929). For him the crucial contact with content amounts to being presented with something as an object. But the concept of object in general’ is not itself a possible object, it is much more a matrix that determines what can be presented as a possible object.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    To mark this I introduced the term ‘paradigmatic idea’ to contrast it with articulate idea. When we normally use the word `idea’ we mean an articulate idea. I will follow this tradition, and will specify paradigmatic ideas(matrices) explicitly (vide Introduction).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    We should perhaps note explicitly that the concept ‘paradigm’ is commonly used in a less austere mariner, and that that use is viable. I could mark the difference by referring to, say absolute paradigms, but it is easy enough to remember the point without resorting to a proliferation of technical danglers. One needs to have some respect for English as well.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    In apparent contradiction I have suggested at some stage above that a number of supposed underlying items might well form a benign intensional circle, as such making thought possible. It must be stressed that the present point is of a different order: we are concerned with the very possibility of cognition, and we have realised that this cannot be found among what can be specified articulately. Short of seeing this we, in company with Peacocke would be looking for a condition, or a set of conditions, accepted as specifiable, and enabling us to start thinking.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The second part of the worry is apt, for any conception of such a base must allow us to comprehend the functional interrelations of all the elements, together with their relation to the possibility of knowledge. We must guard against specifying something that could meet the strictures of our demands, but also such that nothing can follow from it, and nothing can be built on it.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    At this point we face a very special type of problem. Let us observe that this case is not even similar to the ostensibly parallel problems with emotion. Emotions even if merely ‘emoted’, are at least subject to introspection. The present stuff could only be indicated in an indirect roundabout way. We could for instance reflect that even an amoeba reacts differentially to the flotsam passing by its gob. This selective reaction is life preserving, as it makes feeding possible. There seems to be a lesson here, if we can but read it. Yet what we can say about such a situation is largely negative: what is responsible for the selection is not an item of consciousness; it is not open to introspection; it could not be reached by psychoanalysis; there is no specific functional way in which it can be seen as responsible for the selection, etc., etc. (My apologies to amoebas if they happen to think.) In what sense then could we claim with some understanding that pre-conditions of the possibility of knowledge obtain on this level? We can say that an individual totally incapable of such selective behaviour would be a fortiori incapable of developing a system of thought. But we cannot suppose that an individual so capable is in principle in a position to develop a system of thought. Further where an individual has such a capacity, we cannot say how the two are related. At best we take it that the universe of any individual incapable of any selective reaction whatever is too impoverished to support the possibility of thought. If this is a requirement it only specifies, after a manner of constraint, what kind of individual may be capable of thinking, not how it can be capable of thinking. It is the second question that is the theme of the present book.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    On the margin this shows that Peacocke’s assumptions are unjustified, his theory fails and cannot be defended by the arguments that he offers. Peacocke, of course is not offering to argue this side of his case, but it is significant that such further argument is needed. Peacocke admits this need, yet his admission does not go far enough. He assumes that it will be possible to provide an account sufficient for us to judge content in the manner required by his hypothesis. If the above results are accepted this is certainly not so. Peacocke needs judgments to identify content reliably, so that proper canonical commitment will have a base, and ensure that our thinking is truth-preserving. This is now shown to be impossible. The requirement of reliability could perhaps be abandoned, and canonical commitment only seen as concerning the validity of our working out of our initial assumptions. But then our judgments of content could be no more than that, and we are back on Tarski’s bandwagon and committed to the Protagorean “man is the measure of all things”. I suspect that this would not suit Peacocke, at any rate it does not suit us. We are actually attempting to find a way around the difficulty by trying to specify viable preconditions of knowledge that would escape this very impasse. Let us then return to paradigmatic matrices.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Cf. Brentano’s doctrine of Doppelurteile (Brentano, 1930).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    A system of thought based on our core ideas with an alternative set of additional ones will do after all. Will it be the same system of thought though? In one good sense it will of course differ, but the differences will be of the order of e.g. differences between languages all of which are interrelated in a systematic way, and explicable within one overall system. All we need to do to achieve this is to specify how the interchangeable sets of ideas differ in the various cases, and how this affects the working of the systems. They are but variants on the basic structure. If so the foundation structure is determined by core ideas, and they alone can be paradigmatic.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MelbourneAustralia

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