The Nature of Knowledge


[NOTE: There are two chapters dealing with logic, "Logic and Reason," and "Dr. Binswanger's View of Logic." Since logic proceeds entirely by means of propositions the two chapters on propositions, this one and "Dr. Binswanger's View of Propositions," somewhat overlap and are closely related conceptually to those on logic, it is suggested the four chapters be read as close together as possible.]

Propositions are at least as important to understanding the nature of knowledge as concepts. There are a number of things wrong with Dr. Binswanger's exposition of the nature of propositions. Those mistakes cannot be easily addressed without understanding the true nature and function of propositions. The following is, therefore, a very brief overview of the most important aspects of propositions.

The True Nature of Propositions

All knowledge is propositional. That means that all we know is in the form of propositions, which are nothing more than statements that assert things about other things.

[NOTE: All our thinking (reasoning) also proceeds by means of propositions. Since all knowledge is in the form of propositions, thinking would be impossible without them, because knowledge is all we have to think with or think about.]

Some philosophers regard concepts as knowledge. This is not a terrible mistake, but can lead to confusion in terms of logic. A concept only identifies things and that is a concept's only function. It is true that to identify something it is necessary to know something about it, that is, some of its qualities and attributes must be known in order to identify it. Verbal definitions always illustrate this fact. A definition consists of a proposition or propositions that assert something about that which a concept identifies: "An apple is a fruit, etc." A definition, therefore, is knowledge, because it is propositional, and its purpose is to indicate exactly what the concept identifies. If one says, "a concept is knowledge," meaning it implies the knowledge of its definition, and not that the concept as identification is knowledge, it is true enough, but must not be construed to mean a concept is itself knowledge. To know what a concept means is knowledge, but the concept itself is only the mental means of identifying existents which are its meaning.

The reason it must be understand that, all by itself, a concept is not knowledge is because knowledge is about things. Simply saying or thinking, "apple," is not knowledge of anything, and nothing true or false can be understood from it until something is asserted (by means of a proposition) about, "apple," such as, "an apple is poisonous and never should be eaten," which is obviously false, or, "an apple is nourishing fruit," which is true.

In classical logic, a concept, like apple, is called a, "simple apprehension," because it identifies something without saying or implying anything about it. It is understood that what is identified is by means of a definition that does say something about it, but the definition only describes what the concept identifies and is not itself what the concept means, because it means what it identifies, not what describes it.

Everything known about apples is by means of propositions, including those that are the concept's definition. The concept identifies apples, and means apples, including all that can be known about them; so, every concept means what it identifies as it actually is including everything that can possibly be known about it as well as its entire metaphysical identity or nature, but the concept itself does not imply or contain any of that knowledge. The right relationship between concepts and knowledge about a concept's referents would be allusion: consciousness of a concept alludes to all the propositional knowledge about the referents of the concept. [See, "Conceptual Relationships to Knowledge," below.]

Formal Propositions

Very few of the sentences we use in every day speech, writing, or thinking will very closely follow the formal structure of propositions. Following the formal explanation, how everyday sentences can be understood in formal terms will complete the explanation of propositions as the holders of all knowledge.

Every formal proposition consists of three terms, a subject, about which the assertion is being made; a predicate which is what is being asserted about the subject, and a copula, which joins or connects the subject and the predicate.

In the proposition, "coffee is a beverage," the terms are, "coffee," "is," and "a beverage." "Coffee," is the subject, "a beverage," is the predicate, and "is" is the copula. In formal propositions, the copula is always a form of the verb, "to be."

The copula, "is," in formal propositions does not mean "equal to," or, "identical with," but simply that the subject term has, implicitly or explicitly, whatever quality, relationship, action, or category of existents indicated by the predicate.

It is very important to understand that a proposition does not assert a relationship between the concepts or the terms of the proposition, but between the existents the concepts identify. In the example proposition, it is not the "concept coffee" that is "a beverage" (you cannot drink concepts) and "coffee" is not the concept "a beverage" (its an actual drink), and the "concept coffee" is not the "concept a beverage" (else they would be identical concepts). The proposition asserts that it is coffee, the actual liquid substance itself that is a kind of drink.

The terms, "subject" and "predicate" in formal propositions are not identical with the same terms in English grammar. The subject may consist of any number of words as may the predicate. In the proposition, "the last person leaving the room is responsible for turning out the lights," "the last person leaving the room," is the subject, and, "responsible for turning out the lights," is the predicate.

It is formal propositions that are the basis of formal logic, because it is formal propositions that make it possible for the basic logical operation, the syllogism, to be understood. [See the chapter, "Logic and Reason."]

Informal Propositions

Very few of the propositions we use when thinking, writing, or speaking are formal propositions, but almost any proposition or statement we make that is true can be put into the form of a formal proposition.

[NOTE: One way of assuring that what we think, write, and say is true, is to determine if it can be put in the form of a formal proposition, or series of formal propositions. It is not only possible, but very common, to say things in ways that are so complex and convoluted that, whether they are true or not, or even if they actually say anything, is difficult to determine. The virtue of the formal propositions is that what they assert is always explicit and whether what they assert is true or not is much easier to discern.]

Every proposition, formal or informal, is a statement that asserts something about something else. The "things" may be single things, groups of things, classes of things, and may be any existent or existents identified by a concept.

In the proposition, "the concert begins at eight o'clock," what is being asserted is not about the concert, but at what time the concert begins. To put the proposition in formal form it might be rewritten, "the beginning of the concert is eight o'clock." It is now clear the subject is, "beginning of the concert," and the predicate is, "eight o'clock." Whether the proposition is true or not is determined by whether or not the scheduled time for the beginning of the concert is really eight o'clock, which can be determined by checking the concert program schedule.

[NOTE: There is a point about this particular example that must be made. The statement is only true if what is being asserted is the time the concert is scheduled to begin, it is not true if it is being asserted as a prediction that the concert actually will begin at eight o'clock. No statement about the future is either true or false, which will be explained below.]

What Propositions Assert

Every proposition asserts something about something else:

  1. that something belongs to a category. (A is a B)
  2. that something has a quality or qualities (A has quality B)
  3. that something is doing (or does) something (A does B)
  4. that something has a relationship to something (A has relationship x to B)

A proposition may assert the negative of any of these:

  1. that something does not belong to a category. (A is not a B)
  2. that something does not have a quality (A has no quality B)
  3. that something is not doing (or does not do) something (A does not do B)
  4. that something does not have a particular relationship to something (A has no relationship x to B)

That about which something is being asserted (A, the subject) may be a single existent or a combination of existents, material or epistemological including: entities, qualities, events/actions, or relationships, or an idea incorporated in another proposition or series of propositions or a category of any of these. That which is being asserted about the subject (B, the predicate) may be a single existent or a combination of existents, material or epistemological including: entities, qualities, events/actions, or relationships, or an idea incorporated in another proposition or series of propositions or a category of any of these.

[NOTE: The propositional copula "equals" implies, "the value of (the subject)." For example, "A equals B," means, "the value of A is B." The kind of value or measure being compared must be specified (if not understood). The other possible propositional assertion is identity, A is B. Since in reality, no two things can be the same identical thing, the proposition A is B is not possible or simply means A and B are different names or terms for the same thing. Propositions that state A is B, where A is an identity and B is a description are actually propositions of A has quality B, where B is the descriptive attribute of A, e.g. "Bill is the culprit," does not say Bill and "the culprit" are two things which are identical, it says Bill has the attribute of being the culprit (the one who committed the crime). If Bill and "the culprit" were identical the question of who committed the crime could be answered by saying, "the culprit is the culprit," which, though true, obviously is not the answer.]

Propositions about the past can be true so long as they are valid.

Future Propositions

Since everything a human being does must be consciously chosen, the thought processes used to make choices are always about the future, whether that future is the next moment or many years later. Propositions about the future are different from all others, because they are neither true or false.

Future proposition asserts something that will be true about something else:

  1. that something will belong to a category. (A will be a B)
  2. that something will have a quality or qualities (A will have quality B)
  3. that something will be doing (or will do) something (A will do B)
  4. that something will have a relationship to something (A will have relationship x to B)

Every future proposition is hypothetical (or a statement of intention). It is hypothetical in the sense that it is conditional, contingent on all things being what they are presently known to be. Future propositions are certain to the degree they are based on principles and whatever they are contingent on is known. A proposition that states the velocity of an object falling toward the earth is almost perfectly certain while a proposition about tomorrow's weather is much less certain.

[NOTE: Universal and conditional propositions based on principles are sometimes stated in future form but are not really future propositions. For example, "triangular braces will provide rigid support," or, "water will freeze at temperature below minus 32 degrees F."]

The reason these are all the possible propositions there are, is because existents, (physical entities, epistemological ideas, psychological phenomena) events, attributes, and relationships are all there is. [Events, attributes, and relationships exist, so are also existents, and can be identified by concepts and related to other existents in propositions. No event, attribute, or relationship, however, exists independently of the existent(s) it is the action of, the attribute of, or the relationship between. Any proposition that treats any action, attribute, or relationship as existing independently is an invalid proposition.

All Knowledge Propositional

No doubt, Ayn Rand would attribute the human intellect to the ability to form concepts, and it is true, without that ability the intellect would be impossible. But philosophically, concepts are not knowledge.

All human knowledge consists of propositions. Knowledge is about things: about existence itself, about the existents that are existence, and about their nature, their attributes, their actions, and their relationships to each other. It is by means of propositions that state what is true about existents, their nature, attributes, actions, and relationships to each other that knowledge is expressed and held.

Though most philosophers, including Rand and Binswanger, consider concepts knowledge, and even though no knowledge is possible without concepts, concepts alone are not knowledge.

All supposed knowledge must be either true or false. Except by implication, no concept is either true or false. Concepts can be good or bad, that is, they may identify confused ideas, or be vague and poorly defined, or may identify what does not materially exist, (as though it did), as most mystic concepts do. What those concepts identify are fictions, but the concepts are neither true nor false. A concept only identifies things, and is just as valid when identifying fictional things as when identifying actual things.

Only propositions can be true or false. A proposition is a statement that asserts something about an existent or class of existents. For example, "Zeus is a god worshiped by the ancient Greeks," asserts something about Zeus. If what is being asserted is correct, the proposition is true; if what is being asserted is incorrect, the proposition is false. The assertion, in this case, and therefore the proposition, is true, even though the concept "Zeus" identifies a fictional existent. The same concept can be use in both true and false propositions. "The phoenix is a common bird found in the forests of Colorado," is false, but, "the phoenix is a mythical bird of ancient Egypt," is true.

Since only propositions can be true or false, knowledge consists entirely of propositions; but all propositions are constructed of concepts, without which no knowledge would be possible. Concepts identify the existents all our knowledge is about. Technically, concepts are not knowledge, but a definition, if correct, is knowledge because it is stated as a proposition.

One might say, all correctly defined concepts constitute a kind of knowledge, but notice, it is really only the definitions that are the knowledge, not concepts as identifiers, which is their only function. Concepts imply knowledge, and most concepts would be impossible without knowledge, but attributing knowledge to concepts themselves is an epistemological mistake. It is that mistake that is the source of such confused ideas as those that suggest knowledge somehow changes the meaning of concepts, so that what a child means by an apple, and what a botanist means by an apple are different things. Binswanger's idea that concepts, "store knowledge," would also make the child's concept of an apple different from a botanist's concept of an apple. [Please see the chapter, "Concepts."]

I very much resent the tone of philosophers who presume to tell others how they must view and express things. So long as someone understands that concepts identify existents and that all a concept means is those existents it identifies with all their attributes, known or unknown, and all that can be known or learned about them and that anyone who uses the concept identifies the very same existents, no matter how much or how little they know about those existents, it does not matter if they choose to consider the fact that one knows what a concept identifies means the concept is knowledge (or at least implies knowledge) or not. The important point is that a concept's function is to identify existents, and all our knowledge is about the existents that concepts identify, and it is only by means of propositions that our knowledge about existents is possible. In the case of most concepts, their meaning (what they identify) could not be known without the propositions which are their definitions. So long as it is understood that it is not a concept's definition that is the concept's meaning, how one chooses to understand the relationship between concepts and knowledge is not a serious philosophical issue.

Our knowledge, then, consists of all the propositions we understand and have stored in our memory that are true statements about any aspect of existence.

Conceptual Relationships to Knowledge

A concept itself only identifies existents, it is the existents all our knowledge is about, not the concepts. Nevertheless, because a concept identifies existents and means those existents with all their attributes and all that can be known about them, the concept acts like a reference to all that we know about those existents.

The concept itself does not hold any of that knowledge or actually do the referencing, but our ability to ask and answer the question, "what do I know about the existents this concept identifies?" is made possible by the concept. In that sense every concept can be used like a key-word in a search engine that will find all the propositions we have in memory that begin, "this concept is ..." where the predicate of the proposition is something known about the concept's referents.

[The key-word/search-engine explanation is only an analogy for the relationship between consciousness and memory. It is always what we are conscious of that prompts recall from memory. It is when we are consciously considering a concept that propositions we have in memory will be recalled, in most cases the ones we use or consider most often first followed by lesser used ones. Some propositions are very difficult to recall if not often used. An example is that case of thinking, "I'm sure there is something else I know about this but can't remember it." No analogy is perfect. I use it because it is much closer to the true relationship between concepts and knowledge than the very wrong metaphor for concepts being file-folders for knowledge. Concepts do not store anything.]

Using the concept "dog" for example, the answer to the question, "what do I know about dogs," can call up every proposition we can remembered that begins, "a dog is ..." where the predicate is some concept that is true about dogs in general, or any dog in particular.

Some of the propositions regarding dogs might be, "a dog is a mammal," "some dogs are dangerous," "some dogs are used to help people," "some dogs are pets," "dogs are not allowed in this building," "that dog bites." As each proposition is recalled, the concepts from which the propositions are constructed can begin a new series of recalled propositions. The concept "mammal" in the proposition, "a dog is a mammal," may act as a key-word to search for all that is known about "mammal" by means of the propositions, "a mammal is ...." Since there will be an indefinite number of possible such propositions for every concept indicating what is known about them in terms of other propositions, the interrelationships between concepts and propositions in this manner is indefinitely complex.

It is neither necessary or possible to identify or "unscramble" the nearly infinite complexity of the cognitive relationships between concepts and propositions, however, because concepts themselves are the means of maintaining the order and understanding those relationships. It is because all our propositional knowledge is only recalled in relation to concepts we are currently conscious of that propositional ideas always relate to what is currently important to our own thinking. The memory does not spontaneously pop ideas into our heads as Dr. Binswanger suggests page 51: "The emotions one has and the thoughts that occur to one are generated by the brain."

The Meaning of Propositions

What concepts mean are the existents they identify which are called their units, referents, or particulars. Since propositions assert something about something else, which specifically attributes the predicate of the proposition to the subject, the proposition means: "whatever is specified by the predicate is true of the existents identified by the subject."

A proposition is a "logical connection" between the existent or existents that are the referents of the subject concept and the existent or existents that are the referents of the predicate concept. (Existents includes physical existents (entities), material existents (life, consciousness), mental existents (concepts, propositions, ideas, fictions), psychological existents (consciousness, ideas, dreams, emotions) as well as their attributes, relationships, and their behavior or actions.)

  1. If the predicate is a universal concept, the existent or existents identified by the subject must really be a referent or referents of that concept.
  2. If the predicate is a concept of a quality or qualities, the existent or existents identified by the subject must really have that quality or those qualities.
  3. If the predicate is a concept of action, actions, behavior, or behaviors, the existent or existents identified by the subject concept must really exhibit the action, actions, behavior, or behaviors.
  4. If the predicate is a concept for a specified relationship or relationships, the existent or existents identified by the subject concept must really have the specified relationship or relationships.

[NOTE: These of course apply to all the negative and future forms as well.]

In most general terms, therefore, a proposition means the actual connection between the existents identified, that the predicate is true of the subject. A concept identifies existents. A proposition specifies a connection between existents.

[NOTE: It would not be incorrect to say a proposition "identifies" a "relationship" between existents, but I prefer "specify" to distinguish the operation from the function of concepts to "identify" existents, and I also prefer "connection" to "relationship" because one of the possible connections is relationship.]