The Nature of Knowledge


Knowledge, Perception, and Sensation

Dr. Binswanger is writing as a philosopher. The subject is epistemology. Epistemology is the philosophical discipline that explains the nature of knowledge, what it is, how it is acquired, and how it must be used.

Philosophically, knowledge only pertains to human beings. Only human beings need knowledge, and only human beings are capable of acquiring it. It is the human mind that makes knowledge both necessary and possible. [See the chapter, "Mind."]

Philosophically, Knowledge Pertains Only to Verbal (Intellectual) Knowledge

Philosophically, only knowledge held in the form of statements called propositions is knowledge. Propositions are formed using concepts (words) which are our only means of identifying the facts of reality. Knowledge is knowledge of the facts of reality and that knowledge is held in the form of propositions that assert what is known about those facts. In other words, philosophically, only knowledge held by means of language is truly knowledge.

Unfortunately, Dr. Binswanger regards non-verbal things, like memory and conditioning, even perception, kinds of knowledge. He does not quite dare call it knowledge, so resorts to the term "cognition." There is a reason why he does this. He wants to make knowledge the result of some evolutionary process and is attempting to prove that all consciousness, even sensation, is a kind of cognitive (knowledge) process, and that ultimately human consciousness and the human mind are just advanced forms of what already exists in less advanced organisms.

The human mind, in fact, is unique. The behavior of all animals is determined by instinct, not knowledge. Human beings do not have instinct, and therefore must consciously choose all they do. To make choices that will be successful they must reason about their choices and judge which will be successful and which will not. But to think, they must have knowledge, knowledge about their own nature and its requirements, and knowledge about the world and its nature and what is possible and what is not and what the consequences of any action in that world will be. Only human beings need knowledge or are capable of acquiring it.

Knowledge is strictly a human attribute. Only human beings require knowledge to live, and only human beings have the faculties required to acquire and use knowledge. All other organisms are provided by their nature with the equivalent of knowledge which in the higher animals is called, "instinct." [See, "The Nature of Instinct," the last section of the chapter, "Animal Life."]

What Knowledge Is Not

The following is some of what Dr. Binswanger considers knowledge:

"Consider some examples of knowledge. ... A dog knows where it buried a bone; a baby knows its mother; a savage knows how to hunt; a student knows the multiplication table; a physicist knows the laws of motion." [Page 21]

Only the last of these is knowledge.

Colloquially the word knowledge is used for all kinds of things which are not knowledge in the philosophical sense. People say, "my daughter knows her alphabet," "the dog knows its way home from the store," "I know what I like," "I know everyone who works there," "I know how to drive, or type, or cook."

There is nothing wrong with using the word "know" in everyday speech about these kinds of things, but a philosopher should never mistake them for identifying that knowledge which is the subject of epistemology.

The human consciousness, like all other human faculties, must be developed. In addition to gaining and retaining knowledge, and using that knowledge to think and choose, there are other skills of the mind we develop, such as learning the alphabet, the times tables, and language. We call such things knowledge, but they are not really knowledge in the philosophical sense. An individual may have such mental skills greatly developed (being a polyglot, for example), and still be quite ignorant.

Knowing a language includes real knowledge (the vocabulary, syntax, and rules of spelling and pronunciation, for example) but being able to speak it is a skill, not knowledge. Though we think of the following as knowledge, philosophically, they are not:

Developed skills, such as reciting the alphabet, counting, typing, driving are not true knowledge. Memory, is often only a skill, not knowledge. Many people have their memories filled with things they can recall and recite and this ability is frequently mistaken for knowledge. What is remembered will be knowledge if it consists of true propositions, but a great many things which are remembered are not knowledge at all.

Acquaintance, as when one says, "I know John," is often mistaken for knowledge. Your dog's acquaintance with the neighbors cat is not knowledge.

Familiarity, as when one says, "I know the area", or, "I've seen one of these before," may imply knowledge, but by itself is no more knowledge than one's pet has in its usual surroundings.

Experience, as when one says, "I know what that feels like," or, "I had that (disease, problem, or other experience) last year," is not knowledge. One may learn things from experience, but neither having the experience or remembering it are in themselves knowledge. Most people actually learn very little from their experiences.

All real knowledge is held in the form of propositions. [See the section, "All Knowledge Propositional," in the chapter, "Nature of Propositions."] Our knowledge, therefore, consists of all the propositions we understand and have stored in our memory that are true statements about any aspect of existence. Now let us consider what Dr. Binswanger has to say about knowledge.

Dr. Binswanger's View of Knowledge

My neighbor is not a philosopher. If he said to me the kind of thing Dr. Binswanger says, "my dog knows where he buries his bones," I would disagree that the dog had any such knowledge, but would not complain about his use of the word knowledge. He's not a philosopher and would be using the word knowledge in that colloquial way that includes anything that relates to consciousness, memory, experience, or skill development.

When a philosopher says, "Consider some examples of knowledge. ... A dog knows where it buried a bone; a baby knows its mother; a savage knows how to hunt; a student knows the multiplication table; a physicist knows the laws of motion," implying they are all the same kind of thing, perhaps differing only in degree, such a gross misuse of the term knowledge must be identified.

I do not know why the differences between recognition (a baby knowing it's mother), a developed skill (a savage knows how to hunt), memorization (a student knows the multiplications tables), and real knowledge (a physicist knows the laws of motion), are not obvious to a philosopher, unless it is because Dr. Binswanger is attempting to rationalize the view that all aspects of consciousness are "biological" and "survival oriented." Since he has stated that explicitly [See the chapter, "Animal Life"], I must assume it is on that premise his conclusions are based. Because the premise is false, it leads to endless philosophical errors.

How Dr. Binswanger can call himself an Objectivist and either ignore (or remain ignorant) of the founder of Objectivism's views is a wonder.

"There is an enormous breach of continuity between man and all the other living species. The difference lies in the nature of man's consciousness, in its distinctive characteristic: his conceptual faculty." [The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. II, No. 17 May 21, 1973, "The Missing Link--Part II"]

Ayn Rand never identified what the "enormous breach" between men and animals is, except to identify man's, "conceptual faculty," which no animal has. I will identify what that breach is. It is the human mind. The attributes of the human mind already identified, volition, reason, and intellect, [See the chapter, "Mind"], are human attribute that makes human beings a different kind of living being from all other animals.

The specific difference is that all animals except man are provided by their nature with an automatic program of behavior called instinct which directs all of an animals behavior. Man has no instinct, instead he has a mind with which to discover all that a human being must do to live a life appropriate to man, and how to do it. [See "Instinct" in the chapter "Animal Life."]

How Dr. Binswanger could confuse or conflate animal consciousness with the knowledge made possible and required by the human mind is unforgivable for someone so closely associated with Ayn Rand and her philosophy. Animals' instinctive nature makes knowledge both unnecessary and impossible.

[NOTE: The following comments on Binswanger's views include some of his views of sensation and perception, because Binswanger regards all consciousness as "cognitive" by which he means a form of knowledge.]

"All knowledge, whether perceptual or intellectual, is of something, something that exists. Any claim to knowledge is a claim to know that something is the case, that some state of affairs exists." [Page 22]

There is no such thing as perceptual knowledge. Knowledge is about what is perceived, but perception provides no knowledge at all. Perception is only conscious awareness of existence and nothing else.

"'Man' stores all the characteristics of men: that they have a certain range of size and shape, that they walk, talk, think, learn, have parents, form societies, buy and sell things, create works of art. Having the concept 'man' is cognitively valuable not because it 'labels' men, but because it stores knowledge of their characteristics." [Page 175]

"Man," is a concept. A concept does not store anything, it only identifies an existent or category of existents. It means (identifies) those existents with all their qualities and attributes and all that can possibly be known about them, but the concept does not store any of that information. If a concept stored any such knowledge it would make the concept "man" a different one for every individual depending on how much knowledge an individual had stored in their concept about the referents.

Knowledge is stored in the form of propositions. All the propositions one knows about a thing or things identified by the same concept, when learned well enough, will be recallable whenever the concept is in one's consciousness. It is those recallable propositions that constitute one's knowledge about the existents identified by the concept. There is no knowledge without propositions. [See the section, "Conceptual Relationships to Knowledge," in the chapter, "Nature of Propositions."]

"The biological function of consciousness is to guide action, and basic source of guidance is cognition. A cognitive process is one devoted to gaining information about reality. Cognitive activities range from an animal's perception of the entities in its immediate environment to man's complex processes of scientific investigation. However primitive or advanced, the cognitive functions of consciousness are directed toward providing awareness of what things are, of their identities." [Page 57]

Consciousness is not a "cognitive function." Consciousness (perception) is awareness of existence and nothing more. (See the chapter, "Perception."].

Consciousness does nothing but be aware of existence; it does not guide anything, provide any kind of information about reality or anything else. This is another attempt to conflate all consciousness with human knowledge, ignoring the fact that animal instinct neither requires or is capable of acquiring knowledge. Consciousness is incapable of providing awareness of what things are, only that they are. "Awareness," of a thing's identity is only possible by means of concepts. Except for those existents and animal's instinct has provided an automatic recognition of, animals cannot "identify" anything. A dog, for example, cannot identify the difference between a tree, a telephone pole, and a fire hydrant.

"(Some phenomena of consciousness, such as emotion and imagination, are not cognitive. E.g., to feel fear is to have an experience, not to acquire information. Fear is a reaction to content acquired by other means. Cognitive information. Cognitive acts--acts of awareness--are the faculty's base, making possible the rest.)" [Page 57]

The use of cognition as the range of consciousness from lowest creature to man is wrong. If it were "perception," the idea could be correct. Perception is the only kind of consciousness there is for man or animal, but cognition implies knowledge, which is only possible to human beings.

Feelings are the perceptual experience of one's physiological state in response to the content of consciousness. Recognizing those states and discovering what causes them (which one could not do if they could learn nothing from them) is real knowledge. The mistake is in supposing that feelings give knowledge about anything other than the feelings themselves and their relationship to their perceptual/conscious causes. (They also give awareness of physiological states such as hormonal imbalances.) [See the chapter, "Feelings and Emotions."]

"Sensory perception is an animal's or man's primary form of cognitive contact with the world. Knowledge begins with, develops out of cognitive contact with the world. Knowledge begins with, develops out of, and is tested against sensory observation." [Page 57]

Here begins a confusion originally found in Rand's and Peikof's writings, only it was less confusing there. Rand did carefully differentiate between what the concepts sensation, perception, and conception mean, though they did not always stick to their own definitions in writing, often mixing sensation and perception, and they both mistook conception for a kind of consciousness.

Binswanger not only confuses the very important distinctions but confounds them as, "sensory perception." No animal is conscious of sensations. (It is not even certain that there are such things as sensations beyond the behavior of the nerve endings which are the source of the neurological aspects of perception (consciousness) of it. It would not be possible for knowledge to, "begin with, develops out of," or be "tested against sensory observation," because there is no such thing as sensory observation, only perceptual observation, (as awkward as the phrase is). [See the Chapter "Perception."]

"A 'sensation' as I use that term, is the most primitive form of conscious response, the response to energy impinging on receptors, not to objects in the perceived world. ... A sensation is a conscious response to a stimulation at the receptors, and that response lasts only as long as the stimulus is applied. A sensation is thus stimulus bound: it is a sense of feeling, in response to what is currently stimulating the receptors." [Page 60]

1. This disagrees entirely with the facts and with Rand: "When we speak of 'direct perception' or 'direct awareness,' we mean the perceptual level. Percepts, not sensation, are the given, the self-evident. The knowledge of sensations as components of percepts is not direct, it is acquired by man much later; it is a scientific, conceptual discovery." [Introduction to Objectivism Epistemology, Page 5]

2. "What energy?" Is a particle of a chemical not an entity? Is another organism not an entity. What provides the "energy" that impinges on the receptor? Is there anything else that exists to impinge on receptors except entities? Aren't all entities objects? If there is such a thing as a sensation it is a response to existents in the world. The organism does not have to "know" they are existents, but there really is nothing else to react to. [Sound and light are not entities, but are certainly metaphysical existents.]

3. If it were possible for an organism to be conscious of sensations, it could not be known. No one can be aware of another's consciousness, much less the consciousness of other animals (especially ones Dr. Binswanger assumes are below the level of perception). There is no reason (or basis for) calling "sensation" consciousness. There might be a way a prokaryote's "awareness" could be considered "sensation," but for eukaryotes, any awareness would have to be perception, however primitive that perception might be.

A philosopher's job is to provide fundamental understanding of the nature of things, to provide the kind of knowledge that enables us to discern the truth in spite of the complexity and confusion one will face in the intellectual world. Dr. Binswanger's confused notions about the nature of knowledge have unfortunately done the very opposite by confusing animal consciousness with the human mind and failing to clearly distinguish between them.