Knowledge: Its Origin & Consequences

Nasanbayar Ulzii-Orshikh, 11/10/2019

The first instinct that arises in our minds when we think of knowledge, objective and true, is, perhaps, to look outward at objects that we can see or hear. We could not think of how the knowledge that is gained from these experiences could be false, as we clearly sense their sources. Or could we? Basing on the philosophical works of Aristotle, René Descartes, and Immanuel Kant, as well as David Hume, this paper explores the concept of knowledge, namely, where it originates from and what conclusions we might derive from it regarding errors. In doing so, the paper attempts to outline two approaches to understanding how knowledge is, where one requires an undeniable foundation to build new knowledge upon, and the other supposes that knowledge is rather an ever-evolving net of assertions. To investigate the latter approach’s consistency, the paper interrogates its consequences in contexts of such concepts as the form and source of fire and mathematical objects, as well as the views on change and causality, clarifying where the approach stands in relation to the existing philosophical ideas.

Knowledge, for Aristotle, indeed arises from senses: inquiry starts at what is “more perspicuous to us” and advances to what is “better known by nature” (184a10 15-20)[1]. There, things that are better known to humans, he deduces, must be the “inarticulate wholes” arising from perception, and decomposing them into parts, we arrive at a system of knowledge (184b)[1]. For instance, a name ‘circle’ signifies an indefinite whole, while the definition of a ‘circle’ articulates what it is from its properties. That is, the process of decomposition, through which we acquire pieces of knowledge, roots from the sensory information of their respective whole and indefinite objects.

External bodies, about which we construct knowledge, then, must have their forms encapsulated in themselves, while human reflexivity pulls their truth out of them. For instance, observing how fire flows upward and realizing its form is to flow in such a way, Aristotle is then able to categorize wood as partially consisting of fire, as it flows to the surface of water rather than sinking into it. Similarly, reflecting on how a wooden bed placed into a soil would grow into a tree and not a bed, Aristotle concludes that artifacts behave in accordance to the principle of motion determined by the nature of their primary constituents. This paradigm of constructing knowledge from processing of sensory information extends even to mathematical objects, as we derive their form from observing external objects that resemble them: “geometry investigates natural lines, but not insofar as they are natural” (194a 5-10)[1]. That is, though geometry, in contrast to optics or harmonics, might exist in abstract and beyond nature, it is our perception of curves, which are found in nature, that gives rise to forms of geometric objects.

Though plants also have the ability to perceive, yet they can not construct knowledge in the way that humans do. Despite the fact that plants sense not only which nutrients are needed for their growth, but also where to turn their leaves in order to maximize their area receiving sunlight, they lack the idea of what sunlight is. Therefore, there must be a faculty in a rational mind that enables it to construct knowledge, as in the case of humans, it is our ability to reflect on sensory information and extract the form of the perceived object through it. Consistent with this notion, an explanation of making a knowledge error, then, must mainly arise from an erroneous reflection based on the sensory information. Although this presupposes that the act of perception transmits the true property of an object to a perceiving mind, a construction of knowledge, for Aristotle, from the processing of sensory information is indeed possible, as he claims that “perceptions are always true” (428a 10-15)[1].

Descartes radically puts this claim under a deep framework of doubts, intending to transform our way of thinking about the mind's knowledge of the world. According to him, not only can our senses fool us with illusions, making a perceptual information unreliable (19-20)[2], but also the set of experiences we regard as real could simply be dreams we see while asleep (20-21)[2], since it would be similarly hard to distinguish a dream when dreaming as it is in what we regard as reality. Moreover, let the deriving of mathematics, whether expressed in theorems or propositions, from nature be possible; even then, we could not trust our knowledge about them, as we constantly encounter inconsistencies in mathematics, which are continuously corrected (20-21)[2]. Ultimately, the simplest mathematical operation of adding or subtracting is not a reliable source of knowledge either, since there is a metaphysical doubt of God’s deceiving us into counting incorrectly (21-22)[2]. Hence, for Descartes, Aristotle’s foundation for knowledge is not an undeniable one.

Undermining Aristotle’s perceptual foundation of knowledge, Decartes is able to propose an alternative foundation for knowledge, namely, the internal content of the mind. Instead of relying on perception as the foundation for constructing knowledge, he starts with his experience of thinking. As he could not see how the fact that he is thinking at the moment could be false ‒ hence, this fact is ‘clear and distinct’ ‒, his thinking and thus existence becomes the undeniable foundation, based on which he is able to prove God’s existence (45-46) and good-will (52)[2] and acquire knowledge about the relationship between the mind and the world. As for mathematics, while the one arising from perception, such as the act of counting, is unreliable, that which “deal only with the simplest and most general things”, including how the sum of the interior angles in a triangle “equal two right angles” (64-65)[2], is just as immutable and indubitable as his “thinking and thus existing” is, since clarifying the properties of a triangle is “not the one [as in mathematical concept] of counting, but of being what it is”[3]. Therefore, although Descartes undermines the ground of Aristotle’s approach to constructing knowledge, he proposes an alternative approach that is similarly based on some basis, in this case, a mind’s internal content, as well as the clear and distinctness of concepts, as the immutability of a triangle’s properties only further solidifies this experiential foundation.

Knowledge about the external world in Descartes’ Meditations seems to arise mainly from this foundation of a concept being clear and distinct enough. That is, it must be virtually impossible for an object being considered to be false or unpresent. For instance, Descartes recognizes that he has an ability to imagine a triangle quite easily in his mind. However, as he adds more sides to it to form a chiliagon - a polygon with a thousand sides -, he realizes he has to put in a “peculiar effort of mind” (73)[2] to imagine even a confused polygon, closest to but not quite a chiliagon, while he is able to understand how chiliagon is as easily, if not more, as imagining a triangle was. Since he considers the power of imagining as not a necessary constituent of his essence, when a mind imagines, it must turn into the body, should it exist, in search of a sensory information that “conforms to an idea understood by the mind”. Then, as God is not a deceiver, it must be true that a body exists (74)[2], since the act of imagining is being experienced by his mind and thus is clear and distinct.

Error in knowledge, according to Descartes, depends on “two concurrent causes” (57)[2], namely, the faculty of knowledge, or intellect, and freedom of the will. Since intellect enables him to only perceive ideas which are subjects for possible judgements, it could not be a source of error as itself. However, as it allows the mind to realize that the current understanding of the world is lacking - hence, Descartes philosophizes -, yet the will and freedom of choice are not restricted in any way, conclusions that are made about the world become prone to error, when the mind is guided by a will so large that it exceeds the current understanding of the world (62)*.

Though, we could employ the same strategy of undermining with doubts to Descartes’ foundation. Indeed, in non-Euclidean geometry, the sum of interior angles in a triangle was later found to be not equal two right angles: the clear and distinctness of Descartes’ mathematics is not as indubitable as he thought after all. That is, even for the clear and distinctness of thinking, as Frege expressed, while we could not imagine the incorrectness of our current knowledge, for how obvious or logical it might seem, we still could imagine arriving at the realization of its incorrectness as done throughout history[4]. Therefore, building knowledge based on some seemingly undeniable foundation, regardless of how it is based on perception or experience, creates a tension as itself in whether the foundation and thus the tree of knowledge are truly valid. Yet, if there is no solid foundation on which to build knowledge, how is knowledge possible in the first place?

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason seems to offer an elucidating insight into this question. In his philosophy, the world itself is not decomposable into pieces of information that objectively reflect what or how it is, and thus the very nature of having a foundation to attain knowledge about the world does not fit into the structure of how the world tells its story to human beings. Instead, “objects must conform to our cognition” (Preface, 110)[5], as such model presupposes that knowledge about the world is not objective in the first place, as it is in Aristotle’s Physics, and thus there is no need for doubt about its objectivity, which Descartes casts in Meditations. That is, the knowledge we gain is dependent on, on the one hand, the faculty of sensibility in terms of to what extent and form our bodies can sense external objects and, on the other hand, the faculty of understanding in terms of to what degree our minds can recognize these objects based on our previous conceptual preconditions. Therefore, “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind” (B75/A51-B76/A52)[5]: as we receive a sensory representation from an external object, it has to conform to the representation brought forth by the mind’s understanding for the object to be cognized. Since the knowledge about the world is dependent on the wiring of our minds, and thus no objective knowledge is possible, there is no guarantee that no errors would be made. As it fundamentally negates the notion of having an undeniable basis for knowledge, the structure of acquiring it must resemble a network of claims, free of an absolute certainty and ever-evolving with the power of making and correcting our errors.

Such an approach to viewing the world and our knowledge about it results in an interesting reinterpretation of the concept of change. According to Aristotle, change consists of an underlying element, which goes through a process of lack of some property becoming form (193a 25)[6]. For instance, in a man who is unmusical changing to be musical, the underlying element would be the man who does not himself change but undergoes the process of it, whereas being unmusical, in this case, lack, becomes musical, giving the man a form of being musical. Though, there seems to be another layer to change when the concept is tested in practice. For instance, suppose a man loses his arm. Looking at him, we would still consider him as a man, though he has undergone a change in terms of becoming from a man with two arms to a man with one arm. Now, suppose he becomes faceless. Although he has undergone a similar change in his body, we would not consider him as a man anymore, perhaps, for he has no ability for language, an intrinsic property of human beings that differentiates us from other animals. This is because we determine what the properties and values should be for a human being for them to be considered as one as they undergo a change. In other words, processes like change that take place in the external world not only exhibit what they entail, but also must conform to our understanding.

As for the aspect of knowledge construction, this alternative approach becomes highly relevant for understanding causality. We can trace back to Aristotle, when he derives from his observations four categories of causes in nature: matter ‒ what the object constitutes of; form ‒ how the object is; efficient ‒ due to what the object does what it does; end ‒ why the object does so (194b 24-34)[20]. The third cause is especially intriguing because, as Hume highlights, there is no ground, based on which we can formalize such causality in nature. According to him, there are two kinds of objects of human reason: relations of ideas and matters of fact (11)[7]. That the sum of a triangle’s interior angles is equal two right angles would be an instance of a relation of ideas, or a traingle’s property, in this case. This kind constitutes of objects that can be discovered by “the mere operation of thought” independently of the empirical world. Meanwhile, matters of fact describe precisely the actions that take place in it such as the falling of a leaf or rising of the sun. However, no logic could explain why the sun should rise tomorrow or not, as they are both equally plausible as external events; no experience could result in an inductive conclusion about causality, as all past futures resembled past pasts. Therefore, for Hume, no causality seems possible (14)[7].

Yet, for Kant, there has to be an explanation to this, as otherwise, it would undermine all mathematical knowledge, and the alternative approach to knowledge construction offers exactly that. Beneath the understanding and sensibility, there are a priori and a posteriori, analytic or synthetic. The knowledge of humans being rational, for instance, is an analytic a priori, or a relation of ideas, where the predicate of being rational is an intrinsic part of what being human means, and such knowledge is achieved exclusively through the exercise of thought. Realizing what kind of wood is the source of a fire, on the other hand, is a synthetic a posteriori, or a matter of fact, where the predicate of the wood being of birch and not of elm is not necessary for a fire’s wood-source, and the construction of this knowledge is carried by attending by our senses to external objects. An aspect that Hume failed to realize, according to Kant, is how a mathematical knowledge is, in fact, a synthetic a priori as opposed to an analytic one. That is, when constructing a knowledge about the sum of a triangle’s interior angles, one must attend abstract objects ‒ a priori ‒ outside the subject ‒ synthetic ‒ to realize that the predicate belongs to the subject (B14-B16)[5]: that the sum equals two right angles, whether using diagrams or mathematical signs. Therefore, as opposed to deriving mathematical knowledge about triangles from nature or basing it on its property of being clear and distinct, both of which are deniable, through the understanding and empirical intuition, or senses, we are able to both correct and create knowledge about the world, using the proposed ever-evolving network of claims.

One might argue that this approach itself might be erroneous, since no undeniable basis for knowledge construction is possible. However, since the knowledge content that is acquired through it presupposes errors and their corrections, the approach itself must also be consistent with the making and correction of errors. In fact, we must remember that the approach itself, as with anything that is constructed with it, is achieved to describe the patterns and objects in one’s own mind. In that sense, we might never have a knowledge that is not erroneous in its objective sense, for an absolute certainty is not possible, but the truth without it is, and that makes it worth striving for the truth.

Throughout the essay, we have explored the concept of knowledge, focusing on from where it originates and how it affects the arising of errors. Analyzing the individual works of Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and Kant, we have distinguished two approaches to constructing knowledge about the world, one that is based on an undeniable foundation, whether it is perceptual or experiential, upon which to build knowledge, and the other, which considers knowledge to be a constantly changing and correcting net of claims about the world. In doing so, the paper closely investigated the latter approach’s place in relation to the concepts of the form and source of fire and mathematical objects, as well as specifically the views on change and causality, revealing the approach’s consistency with the existing philosophical ideas.

* I decided to intentionally leave out how the infinite will is something of God’s nature, as talking about the objective and formal realities of objects would make the essay digress from discussing how knowledge is constructed and where errors arise from, as the “Outsmarting Yourself: How Descartes Doubts & Finds” essay discusses these aspects in great detail.


[1] Aristotle, Introductory Readings, translated by T. Irwin and G. Fine (Hackett, 1996).

[2] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by J. Cottingham (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[3] Nasanbayar Ulzii-Orshikh, “Outsmarting Yourself: How Descartes Doubts & Finds” (PHIL H110 Mind & World, Midterm II, 11/10/2019).

[4] Danielle Macbeth, PHIL H110 Mind & World, Office Hours.

[5] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by P. Guyer and A.W. Wood (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[6] Aristotle, Introductory Readings, translated by T. Irwin and G. Fine (Hackett, 1996).

[7] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748).