The first part will cover the ontological implications and the necessary conditions of knowledge. The Limits of the Theory of Knowledge (ToK) is covered in here.
The ontology of the theory of knowledge
There is a schism, a fissure in philosophy that has been widening in the past 100 years between continental (French and German) philosophy and analytic (British-American) philosophy. Hopefully, I will explain how this gap, consisting of stylistic, temperamental, as well as methodological differences, owes much to the relationship between epistemology and ontology.
In ancient philosophy, all the way back to Plato, the theory of knowledge was intimately tied to ontology, which is the case for most thinkers. However, in the specialized nature of academia, professors of philosophy chose to concern themselves with only one branch of philosophy at the expense of others.
In the Anglo-American tradition, the theory of knowledge was developed independently of ontological concerns. This is not a matter of coincidence but most importantly, a theory of knowledge indeed does imply some form of ontology. Many thinkers in the analytic tradition lacked the formal training in philosophy, and came from disciplines like physics and mathematics. Because ontology is extremely speculative, the choice to focus on the theory of knowledge at the expense of ontology is typical of the natural scientist’s attitude towards anti-metaphysical, hard nosed empiricism that had already been entrenched in the English countries.
Despite such attitudes, no philosopher can make ontological-independent assumptions. The theory of knowledge implies ontological assumptions where reality is governed by permanent principles, which can be discerned by a systematic intellectual program, i.e., the laws of the natural sciences. This assumption that the philosopher can abstain from ontological concerns until after the truthful scientific knowledge about reality has been addressed hides a self-serving positivist attitude. Therefore, the development of the theory of knowledge as a fundamental philosophy presupposes positivism, or at least the faint whiff of the Vienna Circle.
The theory of knowledge dates back to Plato’s Republic, where knowledge is defined in contrast to opinions, in which the former is about what is, i.e., being, and the latter can be based on both what is and what is not, what both is and is not, i.e., what is becoming. Knowledge is always true, and opinions can be either truthful or erroneous, and Plato was interested in the conditions that opinions must fulfill in order to become true knowledge.
This model of epistemology is based on ontological presuppositions, where what is real cannot be the object of change, and what most of us already suppose as real is only protean appearance. Epistemology helps us decipher the stable and permanent reality underneath or beyond the appearances, for knowledge must be stable and constantly valid.
However, discourse of the theory of knowledge today abstains from such speculation about ontological matters, despite implicit assumptions about something permanent and established under the protean surface – the laws of nature – which are eventually identified by a systematic intellectual program. This is not the case for Plato, given the metaphor of the cave, which indicates an epistemology where true knowledge may be obtained through a sudden and involuntary enlightenment.
The modern theory of knowledge upholds Plato’s distinction between opinion and true knowledge, but not his ontology or epistemology. Yet, if form and content are inter-dependent, then the theory of knowledge that utilizes Plato’s distinction also includes preconditions that determines the structure of the theory of knowledge.
Conditions of Knowledge
This distinction in turns becomes an investigation in epistemology that analyzes the possible conditions that legitimize opinions as true knowledge. These conditions may be necessary, rather than sufficient, for they alone do not suffice for true knowledge. So far, I have identified at least four necessary conditions:
- Opinions must be articulated in propositions in order to be considered as potential candidates for true knowledge. Sensory data is insufficient to be considered as a candidate for it is glitchy and inconsistent, and Platonic Forms are far too ill-defined and indeterminable.
- Propositions must be meaningful, i.e., understandable for the language user, which indicates the condition for meaningfulness is linguistic competence. Propositions like “The world was here before man” cannot be verified without referring to ontological presuppositions, a conceptual scheme of philosophy. (See here for more exposition on such propositions)
- In addition to meaningfulness, propositions must also be true. Theoreticians of knowledge will never exhaust themselves over what exactly the “truth” of a meaningful proposition is. At least in analytic philosophy, there are two generic positions: a true proposition expresses a real “state of affairs,” and it cannot contradict another true proposition. This expression of a certain state of affairs is the first step towards a correspondence theory of truth, where a true proposition corresponds to reality. That true proposition cannot contradict each other is another step towards the coherence theory of truth, in which a true proposition is a part of a system of other true propositions.
- For both generic positions a proposition is true by reference to something else, which means there is a reason for the truth of a proposition. In principle, it must be always possible to talk about this reason in order to be confirmed or rejected.
Bottom line: these conditions are discursive requirements that knowledge is necessarily an opinion asserted as an intelligible, true, and well grounded proposition. Intelligible propositions presuppose a society of language participants, one with a proclivity for discursive communication. If an experience can be communicated discursively, then it is a candidate for knowledge. This means for the theory of knowledge, a singular, private or meta-discursive experience cannot be knowledge.
Human experience such as the Bataillean “inner experience” and “non-knowledge” lie beyond the bounds of modern philosophy that is concerned only with a theory of knowledge in order to ascertain true knowledge. If the theory of human experience is beyond epistemology, then it belongs to ontology. Many aspects of the human experience fail to meet the conditions for knowledge, despite their preponderance or importance to humanity. The philosophical concept of knowledge rules out the majority of the understanding and experience that people glean from their lives such as pragmatic moxie, wisdom, imagination, religious perception, physical suffering, anguish, ecstasy and etcetera. Even Plato’s concept of knowledge as the direct experience of the Forms fail to make the cut.