Some Remarks on the Philosophical Analysis of Truth and Knowledge

Ever since Greco-Roman antiquity, philosophical analyses have often tended to lead to at best bewildering, and at worst absurd results. Indeed, the investigations of such basic notions as ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ had already led in presocratic times (that is to say, before the time of Plato’s teacher Socrates) to the absurd conclusion that there could be no knowledge. The three so-called ‘formal modes’ of the Five Modes ascribed to the presocratic philosopher Agrippa, sometimes referred to as the ‘Agrippean trilemma’, outline a sceptical approach to the notion of knowledge which appears to leave one with no choice but to agree with the sceptic’s conclusion. The premise is that every argument needs to be supported, which leaves us with three possibilities:

1. The attempt to back up every argument necessarily leads us to an infinite regress.
2. The refusal to back up every argument leaves us with an hypothesis.
3. The return to an argument already given leads us to circularity.1

I cannot help noticing some ironic features. First of all, the term ‘notion’ originates from the Latin verb ‘noscere’, more specifically its past participle, ‘notus’, which means nothing less than ‘know’ or ‘known’. Second, and actually relating in a relevant manner to the case in point, the entire endeavour of disproving the possibility of knowledge, in fact, the entire endeavour of arguing in the first place, not only tacitly presuppose but require plenty of knowledge. Knowledge, namely, about language, logic, arguments, social life, and so forth. This kind of knowledge is, for its most part, what we call ‘practical knowledge’ (knowing how), yet practical knowledge obviously also entails what we call ‘propositional knowledge’ (knowing that). Thus, knowing how to speak a language entails knowing that words have meanings which, in turn, can change or vary by using them in different contexts. Furthermore, in order to know how to speak a language, one needs no meta-knowledge, such as that what one is doing is speaking a language, or that the sentences one forms consist of words. In other words, one need not have any concepts, that is to say, abstract ideas, so as to have, or correctly be described as having, knowledge of a certain kind. For evidently, we do not learn to speak a language by instruction, let alone verbal instruction, but by practice. A child learns to speak, and speak more or less correctly, before he or she forms any concepts him- or herself, or acquires such otherwise.
A typical philosophical misconstrual – which has, in some or other form, survived and continues to do so until today – is to assume that knowledge, nay all kinds of cognitive processes are accessible to, or even governable by, consciousness; which, in its turn, relies upon the assumption of an immaterial ‘mind’ that, in some or other mysterious way, connects to the physical side of our existence, especially the brain. That this is wrong can be easily shown by demonstrating the existence of intuitive knowledge. Every competent speaker of English whose senses are not impaired, and who is not in any other manner distracted or prevented from hearing and understanding, comprehends intuitively what they are expected to do, if someone says to them, ‘Tell me the truth!’. No competent speaker of English under the aforementioned conditions is required to have analysed and pondered the concept of truth, so as to be able to comply with the request or imperative. We know that, for instance, literally saying ‘The truth!’ is neither what is expected from us nor what, apart from ironic intentions, satisfies the conditions the imperative sets for us to fulfil, and that it will not be accepted as a serious reply or reaction. The mere question how one know something is often enough unanswerable because both the knowledge in question and its coming about are inaccessible to conscious enquiry. But although this knowledge be, perhaps only momentarily, without support, it would be absurd to conclude that it did not exist, or were not (a kind of) knowledge.
The traditional philosophical analysis has always connected the concept of knowledge to the concept of truth. Thus, Plato’s third hypothetical definition, as given in his dialogue Theaetetus, assumes knowledge to be, formulated in a modern variant, justified true belief.2 Even though the dialogue ends without a final conclusion what, exactly, knowledge is, this definition has been accepted as the standard analysis.
Only much later the account has come under severe attack, notoriously by Edmund L. Gettier in his essay ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’.3
The concept of truth has, in philosophical circles, been considered both primitive, that is to say, basic, and, often at the same time, intransparant. Actually, it is neither. The concept of truth, the abstract idea, is not primitive; indeed, the term ‘abstract’ claims the direct opposite of this. If truth be a concept, it can, by defintion, not be primitive. What is primitive instead is the ability to understand that something be true. From the fact that it is, usually owing to complexity, not always transparant what, for instance, true statements, or whatsoever else be assigned truth conditions, have in common, it does by no means necessarily follow that we do not comprehend what it means for a statement, or whatsoever else, to be true, or that truth does not exist. It would be equally absurd to assert that we do not know or comprehend what a game is, or that games do not exist, just because we cannot point out what, exactly, as Ludwig Wittgenstein famously showed, all games have in common.4. Only much later, long after we have intuitively comprehended what it be for something to be true, do we come to learn the concept, the abstract idea, linguistically represented by the term ‘truth’.5
What continues to baffle me is that, for aught I know, most philosophers have never entertained the thought that not only the analysis may be wrong, but that it be no analysis at all. It appears to me that the alleged analyses are constructs, that is to say, complexes built by construal, rather than resolutions into parts of the respective analysandum.6 Stated differently, the seeming philosophical analyses actually proceed into the opposite direction of their aim as determined at the outset.

Notes

1. Confer the corresponding entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism-ancient/#AgrFivMod.
2. Plato’s words (201d) differ somewhat from this. The corresponding entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy translates them as ‘Knowledge is True Judgment With an Account’ (confer http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-theaetetus/#ThiDefD3KnoTruJudAcc201210). I suggest to translate it rather as ‘Knowledge is true opinion with an explanation’, which is a more literal translation of the original Greek words.
3. Gettier, Edmund L.: ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’, in: Analysis 23; Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1963; pp. 121–123. For reasons I am not going to explicate in this article – since I am not mainly concerning myself with this specific definition of knowledge here –, Gettier’s account has always failed to convince me, however.
4. Confer Wittgenstein, Ludwig: Philosophical Investigations; The German Text, With a Revised English Translation; Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1953, 1958, 2001; p. 27, § 66. Whether Wittgenstein’s solution to this problem by searching for ‘family resemblances’, as he suggests in the following paragraph, 67, be correct is another question, of course.
Confer also the corresponding entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wittgenstein/#Lan.
5. This requires further discussion which, for the sake of brevity, I have to save for another article I hope to be able to provide in due course.
6. That which is to be analysed.

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