Book Review: Retrieving Knowledge

Dr. Owen Anderson

My friend, Dr. Kelly Burton, has a new book out that can be found here.  In this book she looks at the idea of knowledge in early Greek philosophy and its connection to the logos.  Contemporary philosophers have attempted to get around problems in defining knowledge by weakening the definition to something that does not include certainty.  Dr. Burton begins her study by picking up with the Socratic problem of distinguishing between true opinion and knowledge.  Weaker contemporary definitions of knowledge still fall under “true belief.”

Socrates asks us to consider what is necessary to have knowledge.  When we know we have a belief, it is true, and we can show or give an account (a logos) of why it is true.  In this way, Socrates tells us that knowledge is permanent where true opinion is not.  When we have a true opinion and are questioned on it we are unable to explain why it is true and it slips away from us.  But when we actually have knowledge we are able to give this account and it is still with us, it is permanent and unmoving.

Contemporary attempts to define knowledge in a way that avoids “giving an account” nevertheless affirm our need for this in knowledge by attempting to give an account.  The externalist, or fallibilist, or reliabilist all attempt to give an account that their view is true.  Whatever new definition arises tomorrow will nevertheless have this in common with the early Greeks.  It is an essential part of the philosophical enterprise and has been there from the beginning.  More broadly, it is an essential part of the human search for meaning.

Dr. Burton uses the insights she finds in Socrates to consider attempts at anti-reason, or anti-logos.  The most notorious of these is Friedrich Nietzsche.  Could it be that reason is not ontological?  Could it be that reason only applies within a language but does not apply to being?  Nietzsche claimed that all of our thought is determined by our language.  He argued that reason cannot get us to reality.

It seems true that language has a significant influence on us.  But could it be the case that our thought is only a reflection of language and does not apply to being?  The century after Nietzsche has been dedicated to the philosophy of language so that we can see his shadow down to the present in both the continental and analytic traditions.  And yet to say that all thought is determined by language is itself a claim about being.

It is in this sense that reason it ontological.  This is an inescapable truth about reason and thought.  Any attempt to deny it affirms it.  When we deny reason we are using reason.  Thinking is itself an activity of being and so there is not a strong distinction between thinking and being such that reason can be about one and not the other.

Dr. Burton traces some of the impacts of this anti-reason position on philosophy in our day.  She makes the case that there is a connection between this strong form of skepticism and nihilism.  Nihilism, as the loss of meaning, is the consistent outcome of denying reason.  However, this meaninglessness is also unbearable.  She offers a solution to this in our need to revisit the concept of the logos and more consistently apply it in philosophy.  Can we retrieve the concept of knowledge?

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