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Discovering the Philosopher in You Part 5: Knowledge and Experience: Where Does Knowledge Come From?
Continuing the series on Discovering the Philosopher in You with Prof McGinn, lecture five is on Knowledge and Experience: Where Does Knowledge Come From? Here Prof McGinn says that we're going to move on from the basic building-blocks of philosophy and getting to the more meat-and-potatoes questions of philosophy. So here we are and where does what we know come from? This is a question from epistemology (the theory of knowledge). In the lecture Prof McGinn talks about two specific sides of this argument, the empiricists and the rationalists.
Before we cover those two sides of this issue, let's first talk about what we mean by knowledge. It's not what you and I know. It's more like how people attain knowledge in general. One of the ideas set forth in different theories of knowledge is that we can and do know certain things without experiencing them. Keep in mind this is not that you learned something without experiencing it. Take math, you say you learned it from your teacher, which is a type of experience, but that's not what we are talking about because that teacher learned it from some other teacher. What we're trying to get at, is where the first person learned math. That's one way of looking at it; another is the idea that to know that 1+2=3 doesn't take experience. Think about it. How do you experience the numbers 1, 2, or 3. The concepts of plus or equals? It's not like you can experience these things like this cup of water I'm drinking.
The empiricists, notably all British, claim that knowledge can only be attained experientially. One of the first things Prof McGinn mentions about the empiricists is one of the main things that makes me doubt their views and neutrality on philosophical questions. He talks about one of the primary motives behind the empiricists was a desire to depart from religion. If one starts out with a specific motive it's hard to stay impartial. I know I'm not, but at least I'm honest about it, and I try to maintain impartiality in most things. So, in order to get away from the ideas of revelation that religion relies on, which it does at least in some ways it relies on the idea that God reveals knowledge to His followers that is outside the realm of experience for those not involved in the revelation. So to empiricists all knowledge comes from someone's experience.
The rationalists held an opposing view that at least some knowledge doesn't come from experience. They don't deny experiential knowledge, that would seem counterintuitive. However, they held that some knowledge is not derived from experience. It's commonly referred to as "a priori" knowledge. As opposed to "a posteriori" knowledge, which is experiential knowledge. So, as opposed to the empiricists' claim that all knowledge comes from someone's experience, the rationalists claim that at least some knowledge is innate and cannot come from experience. This other source of knowledge is often called "pure reason" hence Kant's writing The Critique of Pure Reason and a Critique of Practical Reason.
For this discussion I've always liked the example of the dark side of the moon. Now I know astronauts have landed on and encircled the moon and they have experienced that in a way, but before they did. Did we know experientially that there was a dark side of the moon? No. No one had ever experienced it or seen it or photographed it. So at that time we knew from logical conclusions that if an object has one side it must also have another side, and even though we may have never seen it, we know it's there.
Others argue that language is an a priori knowledge. Most notably the famous linguist Noam Chomsky who argued that some form of grammar and linguistic ability is innate/a priori. I tend to agree with this concept of a priori, except that it doesn't seem like it'd be knowledge as we typically think of knowledge. More like skills or abilities, or even ways of thinking and pattern recognition, not necessarily knowledge.
One last comment... The discussion of a priori (about which I had some interesting comments from a Google+ discussion) is NOT exactly like the debate of nature vs. nurture. Also, genetically hardwired instincts technically don't fit with a priori knowledge either (sort of). Whatever your view these are all very interesting questions about knowledge and while the debate isn't as heated as in the days of John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume (British empiricists) with René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, and Immanuel Kant (not all rationalists but mostly), it is still an interesting discussion in epistemology.
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