Three Kinds of Knowledge

Spinoza identifies three kinds of “knowledge”.

“From what has been said above, it is clear that we perceive many things and form universal notions:”

“I. from singular things which have been represented to us through the senses in a way that is mutilated, confused, and without order for the intellect…; for that reason I have been accustomed to call such perceptions knowledge from random experience;”

“II. from signs, e.g., from the fact that, having heard or read certain words, we recollect things, and form certain ideas of them, which are like them, and through which we imagine the things…. These two ways of regarding things I shall henceforth call knowledge of the first kind, opinion or imagination.”

“III. Finally, from the fact that we have common notions and adequate ideas of the properties of things…. This I shall call reason and the second kind of knowledge.”

“[IV.] In addition to these two kinds of knowledge, there is another, third kind, which we shall call intuitive knowledge. And this kind of knowing proceeds from an adequate idea of the formal essence of certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the… essence of things” (Ethics, book 2, proposition 40, scholium 2, Collected Works vol. 1, Curley trans., pp. 477-478).

The first kind is the source of the confusion addressed in the last post. It elaborates on Plato’s account of “mere opinion”. An important detail is Spinoza’s explicit reference to the fact that inadequate “universal” notions are commonly formed based on inadequate ideas from perception and imagination. Formal logic can then be mechanically applied to these inadequate universals, yielding conclusions that are formally logically sound but deeply wrong materially or content-wise when applied to the real world. We’ve all seen this happen.

The second kind, which he calls “reason”, is thus distinguished not by its use of logic but by the kind of contents it addresses: common notions and adequate ideas. For Spinoza, “reasoning” that takes mere images and opinions as unproblematic sources of truth does not deserve the name of Reason.

“Common notions” is Spinoza’s preferred term for principles that are recognized by all humans and are “equally present in the part and the whole”. What exactly these are intended to include is somewhat obscure. His main example of common notions involves simple mathematical properties of bodies, which are “common” due to the presumed objectivity of mathematics, rather than any sort of intersubjectivity or mutual recognition.

“Adequacy” of ideas is an entirely internal criterion — basically a kind of coherence of meaning, rather than a correspondence with something external that is presumed to be independently known. Ideas for Spinoza are things we affirm or deny, so they have internal complexity. Adequacy of ideas seems to be entirely independent of his criteria for common notions, which is good because I worry about the narrowness of the latter.

I read the third kind — “intuition” — as presupposing and building on the discipline of the second. It is not a free-for-all. This is a “cumulative” rather than “originary” intuition. What other authors claim as originary intuition (alleged “self-evident truths” coming from nowhere) would for Spinoza be mere opinion or imagination.

He says that the first kind of knowledge is the only source of falsity, which implies that the results of the second and third kind are always true. While it is clear that the first kind is a source of falsity, to say that reason and “intuition” yield only truth sets a very high standard indeed. He does not seem to acknowledge the difficulty of knowing there is no admixture of the highly fallible first kind in what we may take to be the infallible second or third kind, or in general the difficulty of practically achieving the extremely high standards he sets for the second and third kind.

This whole discussion proceeds very hastily. There is a bit more than I have quoted, but only a bit. His account of the first kind of knowledge and its weaknesses is relatively more extended, and quite vivid and insightful. But the account of the second kind is very sketchy, and the account of the third kind even more so.

Perhaps we are intended to see the whole text of the Ethics as an illustration of how the second and third kind work. But if it purely embodies the infallible second and third kinds of knowledge, then it would seem that all serious philosophers ought to unequivocally endorse all its arguments, or else they won’t qualify as serious. Strictly speaking, does Spinoza’s standpoint even allow him to acknowledge another philosopher as serious who does not endorse all his arguments? Honestly I did not expect to write the previous sentence.

While Spinoza does not seem to me to be what Kant would call a dogmatist in the sense of taking objects for granted, there is a sense in which he does seem to say, “here is my system, take it or leave it”. I’m still not sure what I think of Hegel’s claim that no finite presentation can ever be truly final, but relatively speaking I’m more comfortable with that. I want to say it is actually a principle of charitable reading to at least in some measure tolerate excessive claims a work may make on its own behalf, and focus instead on understanding the content.

Form, Substance

Faced with questions like what the world is “made of”, modern people have generally assumed that it must be some kind of “stuff”. The usual presumed answer is some sort of matter-stuff, or less commonly some sort of mind-stuff.

Plato and Aristotle already suggested a radical alternative to this way of thinking that takes the accent away from “stuff” altogether. Aristotle especially developed a rich account of how we think about these kinds of things, by looking at how we express these kinds of questions, and what we are implicitly trying to get at when we ask them.

The most obvious simple answer attributed to Plato and Aristotle is form. In Aristotle’s case, one should also mention what has been traditionally called substance.

Etymologically, eidos — the Greek word we translate as “form” — seems to begin from a notion of visual appearance, with an emphasis on shape. It acquired a more abstract sense related to geometrical figure. Plato attributed great significance to the practice of geometry as an especially clear and perspicuous kind of reasoning, but he also recognized a broader kind of reasoning associated with a dialectic of question and answer, which comes into play especially where questions of value are concerned. From a point of view of ethical practice and human life generally, questions about what something really is and why this rather than that are more important than what things are made of (see What and Why). Already with Plato, “form” came to be inseparable from meaning.

Aristotle’s classic discussion of substance (ousia) in the Metaphysics starts from the idea of a substrate in which properties inhere. This most superficial level later inspired the Greek grammarians to articulate the notion of a grammatical subject of predicates. In what I think is the single greatest example of ancient dialectic, Aristotle gradually steps back from the simple notion of a substrate. Substance becomes “what it was finally to have been” a thing, at the end of the day so to speak. But then this is further interrogated to disclose the level of actuality, or what is effectively operative in a process. But it turns out that actuality is not complete in itself. What is effectively operative does not form a self-contained whole that explains everything. A fuller understanding must take into account potentiality, which leads to a transition away from simple actuality to a larger perspective of processes and degrees of actualization, in which nothing is simply given just as it is. Aristotle was especially concerned with the forms of living things, which have this character.

The more interesting senses of form for Plato and Aristotle do not refer to something that could be simply given. In line with this but in a more speculative mode, Plotinus suggested that every form somehow in a way “contains” all other forms. The poetic truth in this is that the articulation of one form depends on the articulation of other forms, and while everything in some sense coheres, we have no unconditional starting point. We always begin in the middle somewhere, in a context that has yet to be fully elaborated. The work of elaboration is itself the answer. (See also Interpretation.)

Dialectic Bootstraps Itself

Here is a subtle but vital point. I’ve just reiterated that dialectic assumes no prior truth. Dialectic approaches coherence in an iterative and incremental way, sometimes backing up and trying a new path. As a philosopher in what I take to be the genuine spirit of Plato and Aristotle, I think seriously taking up such a work is the very best we mortals can honestly do to achieve high levels of practical confidence about the things that matter most in life. No, it does not have the precision or definitiveness of mathematics, but mathematics is like Aristotelian demonstration in that all it tells us with certainty is that certain conclusions follow from certain premises, so the conclusions are only as applicable to life as the premises and their assumed mapping to the real world.

The vital point is that dialectic — the development of richer meaning — can make real progress, without ever assuming a foundation. No, we’ll never say the last word, but we can iteratively and incrementally build cumulative results. With iterative and incremental development of coherent articulations of what we care about and an openness to acknowledging error, we can progressively improve interpretive confidence.

I think this is what is behind Hegel’s somewhat mystifying talk about spirit producing itself. (See also Interpretation; Dialogue; Ethical Reason; Practical Reason; The Autonomy of Reason; Openness of Reason; Reason, Feeling.)

Desire, Coherence

We experience all sorts of passing and possibly conflicting impulses or wishes upon which we don’t necessarily act, and to which we never commit ourselves. It would not be appropriate to call these things that we “really” want.

Really wanting something implies what Aristotle would call a choice. This does involve a kind of ethical commitment. As Aristotle and Brandom might jointly remind us, to choose something is also inherently to choose whatever the realization of that thing requires; to choose what follows from the realization of that thing; and not to choose anything else that is incompatible with any of these. That is why Aristotle associates choice with deliberation. Just as emotion and reason interpenetrate in feeling, really wanting something implicitly has a rational and normative component as well as a desiring component.

Of course the possibility remains open that in particular cases, we may be unclear on what we want. In this case, we are back in the territory of wish and impulse. There is still some responsibility even here, but it is shared with others, and generally also matter for forgiveness. But as talking animals, if we explicitly say to someone that we want something, we are in the realm of choice and commitment, and we are responsible to be able to explain ourselves. Our participation in the universal community of ethical reason lifts organic desire into a defeasible rational desire. (See also Unity of Apperception; Dialogue; Scorekeeping.)

Beyond Subject-Object

Hegel famously wanted to move beyond the subject-object dichotomy he saw as typical of early modernity. In practical terms, Kant’s most famous concern to avoid “dogmatic” assumptions about direct possession of epistemic objects had seemed to accentuate the separation of subject and object, by focusing on the distinction between appearance and reality. But both Kant and Hegel wanted to assert the possibility of knowledge in a strong sense, while avoiding what Kant called dogmatism. They also had considerable common ground in a shared rejection of naive early modern notions of subjects and objects and their relations.

Kant had begun — seemingly unwittingly — to recover some neglected Aristotelian insights in these areas, and Hegel made this an explicit theme. Thus they both already questioned the dichotomous interpretation of subject-object relations. Kant had also already highlighted the inevitable involvement of concepts in experience. For Kant, there is no direct epistemic access to real-world objects, or things in themselves (or to our own subjectivity). All knowledge proceeds by way of concepts, but he retains the concept of objects (and subjects) as a sort of placeholders for new distinctions between appearance and reality that can always be wrapped around current concepts in a new iteration.

When dichotomous connotations have already been applied to a distinction in some communicative context, it can be tricky to simultaneously clarify the transcendence of the dichotomy and the preservation of the underlying distinction, but the general solution is not far to find — just ensure that the underlying distinction is expressed in terms of some finite relation, rather than A versus not-A. Then we have Hegelian determinate negation or Aristotelian difference between the terms, rather than classical negation. So in effect, the solution lies in recognizing that the previous understanding of the distinction in terms of dichotomy was wrong in the first place.

More positively, Hegel eliminates dichotomies by putting determinate relations, coherence, and mediation first in the order of explanation, before all particular terms. The Hegelian Absolute — or that which transcends the subject-object dichotomy — is just a handle for perspectives that put processes, relations, coherence, and mediation before any preconceived notion of the conceptual content of particular terms.

I think Hegel saw this sort of structure as common to Aristotelian substance or “what it was to have been” a thing on the one hand, and Kantian subjectivity or synthesis of apperception on the other.

Working in the Hegelian Absolute does not require epistemic super powers or specious Cartesian certainty, just a sustained honest effort that is still implicitly defeasible. Hegel intends the Absolute to be a kind of Aristotelian achievable perfection, not a kind of omniscience or theological perfection that could never be legitimately claimed by a rational animal. (See Substance Also Subject.)

In approaching these matters in A Spirit of Trust, Brandom characteristically focuses not directly on higher-order abstractions, but on their implications for what we do with ordinary concepts in ordinary experience. Like Aristotle and Hegel but following a distinct strategy of his own, Brandom avoids the impasse of a supposed transition from psychological to “metaphysical” terms, or from ordinary experience to something that would seemingly have to be like the mind of God, by clarifying what we implicitly mean by concepts in the first place.

With Aristotle, Hegel, and Frege and in contradistinction to the empiricist tradition, Brandom understands concepts and apperception in a nonpsychological, nonrepresentational, normative-pragmatic, inferential-semantic way. Through the discovery of counterfactually robust relations, concepts evolve toward increasing universality. Through the experience of error, synthesis of apperception comes to incorporate the recognition that not only its commitments but also its concepts are always in principle provisional, subject to reformulation when faced with a new case. Through both of these combined with the additional cross-checks provided by mutual recognition, synthesis moves toward increasing objectivity and what might be called contact with reality. Through Brandom’s “expansive” model of responsibility, the last remaining obstacle to a full resolution of subject-object separation — the lack of a normative interpretation of unintended consequences of actions — is removed.

Neither “subjects” nor “objects” as such are very prominent in an account of this sort. It is much more a story about processes, relations, coherence, and mediation. Aristotle, Hegel, and Brandom each develop their own ways of working that start in the middle, as it were, and do not need reified subjects and objects to begin with. This, again, is just what the Hegelian Absolute is — a name for the sort of perspective that emphasizes the in-principle provisional character of all finite concepts, as contrasted with the more directly practical sort of perspective that provisionally works with the current basis as a source of reasons for particular sayings and doings. (See also Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic; Contradiction vs Polarity; Three Logical Moments.)

Coherence

Aiming at coherence is a moral necessity. Serious people are serious about avoiding material inconsistency, as Aristotle noted in the Metaphysics, and Brandom has more recently thematized. (Unity of apperception is a moral imperative, not a fact, and certainly not something that could be simply possessed.)

Reality or objectivity is measured by the counterfactual robustness of our generalizations; our ability to recognize incongruities; and our commitment to resolving them. This one way of formulating what is sometimes referred to as a coherence theory of truth, or “coherentism”. Reality is not something you could point at, but a normative criterion, admitting of degree. (See also Objectivity of Objects; Foundations?)

The thing that complements coherence is not correspondence, but rather non-correspondence. Putative correspondence provides no additional assurance of veracity, but non-correspondence tells us something is wrong with our conceptions, which is valuable information. From an intuition of incongruity arises a task to improve our understanding. (See also Error; Obstacles to Synthesis.)

One, Many

The unity associated with logical coherence and the flexibility and richness associated with the right measure of pluralism both seem to be worthy goals. As usual, we aim for a kind of structural mean, or the best of both worlds.

The two are not fundamentally opposed. Something like unity of apperception involves no suppression of appropriate distinctions. Similarly, the pluralism we want involves no suppression of practically achievable stability or coherence. So in principle, reconciliation ought to be possible.

They even ought to be combinable like product and sum types in type theory, which are like structures nested inside an n-ary logical AND or OR operation. A single consistent view is representable as a product type. Pluralism at a given logical level of interest is representable as a sum type.

Following Plato’s metaphor in the Phaedrus, we want to cut at the joints, as it were — to recognize unity where there should be unity, and difference where there should be difference. Of course, those “joints” are not just simply given to us; we have to find them.