In the end of my last post, I implied two things that need elaboration. The first is that varying degrees of certitude and intelligibility can be found not only in our acts of knowledge, but also in the things themselves that we know. The second is that “less certain” is not the same as “uncertain.”
I also made a third, seemingly more incidental claim: I said that much of what has been said and written about the certitude of human knowing is “neurotic.” That might sound like unnecessarily poking fun at someone, but I meant it fairly literally, and not as an expression of scorn. This is closely related to the first two thoughts, and so I should start by explaining it further.
The Cartesian-Humean revolution marked a decisive turning point in our culture’s attitude to certitude. The change involved much more than merely how much certitude we were willing to settle for; it was, as we say, a “qualitative” change and not merely a “quantitative” one. To understand it one must go behind the question of certitude and observe what we value our knowledge for, however certain it might or might not be. The intellectual revolution inaugurated by Descartes had, as one of its principal aims, to redirect our attitude to knowledge, to see it not so something that lifts the mind up, but rather as the expression of our reason’s power of dominion over things. The ancient tradition inaugurated in philosophers such as Pythagoras saw the logoi present in the realities around us as something Divine, something which could not but lift up our very souls by beholding them. That was the very reason for philosophical pursuit, for seeing philosophy itself as the noblest of pursuits. But Descartes decisively shifted the focus of attention away from such intelligible logoi; it was not in them that the value of knowledge was to be found, but rather in reason’s own power of capturing the essence of things through a systematic method.
This shift, despite its full significance perhaps not being immediately apparent, is quite clearly expressed in Descartes’ desire for what he calls a “mathesis universalis” or universal method. It is significant that Descartes sees this both as a method (“methodos”) and as a full accomplishment of knowledge, a “mathesis.” The idea of a “method” for knowing certainly did not start with Descartes; Aristotle, long before, had held that the pursuit of knowledge without benefit of a method is likely to involve lost effort. In Aristotle, the proper use of logical tools was an example of a such a method. But what is new with Descartes is that the method becomes the knowledge itself. This, of course, would find even further development in Kant, and later in Hegel, for whom “logic” acquired a completely new meaning, one which nevertheless was evidently present already, at least seminally, in Descartes’ thinking.
But then what, we may ask, becomes the source of the dignity in the act of knowing? It can no longer be the intelligibility of the object itself, which before had been seen as capable of lifting reason up to the Divine, but now becomes as mere matter to reason’s activity. (Later, of course, this is taken up by Kant, who sees the inevitable need, following Descartes, to restore the role of the intelligible in giving dignity to knowledge; but this intelligible itself unavoidably comes, in Kant’s treatment of it, to be seen as reason’s own work.)
To see the full significance that this has in our understanding of certitude, we could describe our knowledge as having both a material and a formal element. The material element (in the present perspective) is the intelligible; the formal element is the certitude with which we possess this intelligible. But in the Cartesian vision, this intelligible ceases to be a real element at all. Certitude comes to be, as it were, the whole of knowledge, a form not appropriated to any matter at all. The meaning of certitude therefore becomes completely indiscernible as something to be judged in relation to real intelligible being; it must rather be be judged according to “purely formal” criteria bearing no relation at all to the real certitude of intelligible being itself.
But “purely formal” criteria of this sort must, by necessity, lead to a sort of “neurotic” attitude to knowing. For the original source of reason’s dignity has been removed; in place of intelligible being, possessed by the mind with such certitude as the object itself can support, there is now nothing but the certitude itself, not measured by anything. Certitude now therefore becomes an end in itself, an end which can never be adequately justified, and yet at the same time one which is quasi-infinite in its demands.
So… perhaps it isn’t yet fully apparent how all this bears upon “Thomism, Karl Popper, and the Existence of Oxygen.” But I’m out of time for now…. You, dear readers, will have to have your sense of wonder exercised for yet a while longer.