The Nature of Knowledge


Dr. Harry Binswanger's How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation is intended to be an "uncompromising defense of reason, logic, and objectivity," demonstrating how it is, "possible to achieve rational certainty." The book is addressed, "to the intelligent layman," who has "a definite interest in understanding how we know."

Since he believes the epistemology of Ayn Rand best explains how we know, it is her epistemology that he uses as a foundation for his own, and since Ayn Rand called her views on philosophy Objectivism, Dr. Binswanger describes his book as, "Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation."

[NOTE: Ayn Rand's epistemology can be found in her book, Introduction to Objectvivst Epistemology, which is further delineated, with her approval, by Leonard Peikoff in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand]

My interest in Dr. Binswanger's book arose out of my own views. I know that reason, logic, and objectivity are the only means to knowledge, that intellectual certainty is possible, and that knowledge is necessary to human life, just as water and food are necessary to all biological life. I was curious to see if Dr. Binswanger was able to correctly defend those views; I am disappointed, but not surprised, that he has not succeeded in that defense.

The root of Dr. Binswanger's problem is in Objectivism itself, and the root of Objectivism's problems is a lack of a solid ontology, on which any sound epistemology must be based.

Objectivism's Appeal

Ayn Rand was a novelist. Writing was her vocation. Philosophy was her avocation. She was, nevertheless, a serious philosopher, because her whole reason for becoming a philosopher was her writing. When she discovered no philosopher had provided the philosophical foundation necessary for the kind of characters and events she intended to write about, she was compelled to write that philosophy herself.

Ayn Rand's success as a novelist contributed greatly to her appeal as a philosopher. Many readers of Rand's novels discovered in the characters and events she wrote about something that appealed to their own sense of individualism, independence, and love of the intellectual, and they looked to her philosophy to provide the fundamental principles of those ideas.

The principles that most interested her readers were covered in her two major philosophical works, The Virtue of Selfishness, her views of ethics and, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, her views of politics and economics. Most of the ideas in these two books were further delineated and applied practically in her lesser known non-fiction works, For the New Intellectual, The New Left, The Anti-industrial Revolution, and her periodicals, The Ayn Rand Column, The Ayn Rand Letter, The Objectivist, and, The Objectivist News Letter.

As a serious philosopher, Ayn Rand understood a true philosophy had to be a consistent non-contradictory explanation of the fundamental principles of existence, knowledge, and values. She knew that for her philosophy to be complete she had to explain the foundations of knowledge itself, at one end, and the ultimate purpose of that knowledge at the other. To that end she wrote two more serious philosophical works, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, her views of the nature of knowledge, and The Romantic Manifesto, her views on aesthetics. To a large extent, the latter explains the aesthetic principles behind her own artistic work.

Most people who have any interest in Ayn Rand's ideas beyond those found in her novels are most likely to be interested in her ethics, The Virtue of Selfishness, and, politics, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Most people are not really interested in philosophy itself, but do like the ideas of individual political freedom they believe are embodied in Ayn Rand's views of ethics, politics, and economics. It is those subjects that most people who identify themselves as Objectivists are primarily concerned with, and their understanding of Rand's views on those things is usually very shallow, turning her ethics into a kind of subjective hedonism, her politics into libertarian license, and her economics into a worship of big business, no matter how crooked or politically connected those businesses might be.

Dr. Binswanger's book is not likely to be of interest to such Objectivists, nor will this book be, because such objectivists are very unlikely to be the kind of people who will have, "a definite interest in understanding how we know." Whether one self-identifies as an Objectivist or not, it is to those who really want to understand the nature of knowledge this book is addressed.

The Mistakes

The reason Dr. Binswanger has failed to defend (or correctly define) the true nature of knowledge is because he bases much of his discussion on several wrong premises which have resulted in a number of serious mistakes: he is wrong about the nature of perception and about the nature of concepts: he is wrong about the nature of knowledge itself; he is wrong about the nature of cause; he is wrong about induction; he is wrong about concepts doing anything but identifying existents; his explanation of propositions does not identify their true relationship to knowledge; he is wrong to reduce everything to biology; he is wrong about the nature of emotions and desires; he is wrong to attribute knowledge to animals and ignore their instinctive nature; and he is wrong to use science to support any philosophical principle, as Ayn Rand correctly emphasized.

More important than identifying his mistakes, however, is explaining what the correct views of all these things are. For that reason, and to make it unnecessary to explain the correct view every time a wrong view is encountered throughout his book, seven chapters in this book address the true nature of the following concepts: ontology, consciousness, perception, mind, emotions, desires, and concepts, each entitled with the corresponding concept. Corrections of his other mistakes will be discussed in the context of Dr. Binswanger's own material.

The primary reason for this book is not to criticize Dr. Binswanger's mistakes, but to explain how we really know; to present the true principles of life, consciousness, perception, the human mind, knowledge, and reason.

[NOTE: In addition to Ayn Rand's and Dr. Peikoff's works on epistemology, there are two other books that need to be mentioned: David Harriman's The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics, written with Leonard Peikoff, (2010) and Dr. Binswanger's earlier work, The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts (1990). These are important because they discuss concepts Dr. Binswanger uses frequently in his latest book, based on his contentions that survival is the ultimate objective, all life demonstrates cognition as the means to that end, and that induction is a valid method in logic. None of these concepts will be found delineated in Objectivist sources, though both Rand and Peikoff did believe in the validity of induction.]

The eighth chapter, "Cause, Induction, and Math," is actually a brief review of the concepts introduced in David Harriman's book. The chapter covers concepts Dr. Binswanger has used throughout his book. Rather than repeatedly showing what is wrong with these concepts as used by Dr. Peikoff, Dr. Binswanger, as well as David Harriman, and Ayn Rand herself, they are all fully addressed in this chapter.

There is one additional short chapter dealing with a major misunderstanding by Dr. Binswanger and company concerning the nature of intellectual methods. It is entitled, "Knowledge Methods." It is very short, but very important.

The Method of this Book

It is not absolutely necessary to be familiar with either Dr. Binswanger's book, or the other books I have referred to, although that familiarity would help the reader to more fully understand the principles that will be presented. This is not a chapter-by-chapter commentary on Dr. Binswanger's book, but an explanation of the most serious philosophical mistakes. Each of those will be addressed in detail by addressing exactly what Dr. Binswanger has written. Every quote from his book will be followed by the number of the page where the quoted material appears. The same method is used in the eighth chapter reviewing David Harriman's book, except that the page numbers refer to that book.

A Note On Rand

I have quoted Ayn Rand in two ways: 1. when required for context, I have reproduced those quotes Dr. Binswanger himself uses, and 2. on several occasions where Dr. Binswanger contradicts or misinterprets Rand's own views, I provide quotes to demonstrate what Rand's views actually were. In the latter case I quote Rand only as the authority for her views; I do not quote Rand at all as an authority on any philosophical position. I do mention when I agree with her, however.