In the previous blog, I discussed the ontology presuppositions and the conditions of the theory of knowledge. Now, I will go over the limits of the theory of knowledge and the Bataillean concept of non-knowledge.
Limits of the theory of knowledge
The combination of classical empiricism, the platonic distinction and the natural sciences provided a fertile ground for the modern theory of knowledge (TK). This theory implies that knowledge is pre-structured and that it cannot be acquired independently of this structure. Kant implies as much in his critique of traditional metaphysics, with the categories and the synthetic a priori, and so does Husserl’s later phenomenology that was concerned with the transcendental conditions of knowledge. The same implication of knowledge is found in many other variants: paradigm, language games, lebenswelt, unconscious, hard core, and so on.
Then a particular question becomes obvious: can a proposition at all be true independent of the structure, the very language that expresses it? The realization that such interrogations are incoherent, even incredulous, for language is the limit of all thought possibilities, also marks the initial “linguistic turn” in Anglophone philosophy, a turn from the inherent foundationalism of the correspondence theories to coherentism. The TK shifted from earlier empirical concerns or conceptually constructed knowledge to language, where propositions are the only possible candidate for the expression of true knowledge.
But here’s the rub: what do we really know about this structure that makes knowledge and the TK intelligible? Put this in another way: how do we gain knowledge about this structure that consists of the conditions of knowledge, if these conditions are given by the TK, which is intelligible only within the structure that is the object of the investigation? This circular and narrow question, along with the platonic notions of truth, knowledge and the distinction has made knowledge impossible.
First, the TK is the attempt to discover how true knowledge is acquired. This is achieved by identifying the conditions for what is acceptable as knowledge for philosophy. Such discursive reconstruction of our understanding, in the development of the concepts that explain how we gain knowledge, investigates human experience in order to determine which sort of experience can become candidates of knowledge. Yet, the consequence of the investigation, based on those concepts, is that knowledge by its own conditions seem impossible to locate in human experience.
Bataille called this knowledge, as understood by the TK, is “closing itself around itself.” All other types of human experience, despite the fact they are understood, true and communicated, are ruled out of bounds. Serious and grave philosophers limited their concerns to the legitimate type of human experience that contributes to knowledge, which makes other experiences unimportant or inessential. Yet given the inaccessibility of TK, only non-knowledge and inner experience is possible. Since this cannot possibly be the case, we must find a better view of how human experience and knowledge are related. Perhaps we should take another look at the least controversial condition of the TK, that knowledge must be stated in the form of a proposition.
How do you know you’re in love or that someone loves you? That sort of knowledge does not come from a mere communication of linguistic means. A perfectly valid and sound argument is insufficient, for something more is required. Love is communicated and experienced by extra-discursive means: with facial expressions, being caressed, the time spent together, even if the conversation happens to be mostly bad arguments and unreasonable demands.
While it is true that we can present such experiences discursively, the knowledge gained from the discursive representation does not provoke love itself. That is why we are unable to explain why a particular joke is funny. The communication of something funny makes us laugh and creates an experience, but this experience is a type of knowledge that escapes propositional knowledge.
Such experiences are termed as “inner experience,” the sort one gains from living life, and the accumulated experiences of both the extreme and the ordinary, in solitude or with others, constitute ‘non-knowledge.’ These terms are not to be confused with the expressions of mysticism or esoteric thought, but since the concept of knowledge in the TK is so narrow, religious or mystic experiences also belong to non-knowledge.
Limits of philosophy
Going back to the schism between Anglo-American and continental philosophy, the lack of ontological concerns and naïve beliefs about language and experience indicate an institutional ignorance among the academics in philosophy that oversimplifies the reality of human experience.
It is not a matter of locating an intelligible path to the truth, but that the project of philosophy is, in principle, impossible. The concept of knowledge in philosophy misrepresents human experience, and demonstrates how little the philosophers actually understand about human knowledge, and how they marginalize human experience.
This extreme attention to truth and knowledge has made philosophers blind to what human experience actually is in reality. Philosophical knowledge does not deliver its promise of the truth, due to its inability to account for the rich material of human experience. However, all philosophers seek the truth, and they all must express themselves discursively in order to be recognized by other philosophers.
In the book Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, Bataille argues that non-knowledge is actually rebellion. This means, for Bataille, knowledge is an establishment that enslaves people, for in knowledge there is a servility where one inherits a world view. Rebellion lies at the limits of discursiveness, the limit experiences that go beyond philosophical knowledge, but not too far for communication. Bataille contests the legitimacy of the will to knowledge as traditionally expressed by the philosophers, but he is also driven by the same will, at the same time convinced of its futility, that the will to knowledge in philosophy inevitably leads to non-knowledge. Unlike the others, Bataille investigates taboos – what civilization suppresses and expels – and in doing so he questions the institutions and ideals of the civilized people. He has made human experiences a legitimate subject for philosophy, even though the inherent morality of academia has yet to welcome him to the pantheon of philosophers.