Knowledge by means of discernment (prolegomena to discernibility)

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In my latest essay on the ten modes of Skepticism, as well as in my Notes on the Thinkable, I suggest that perhaps the essential feature of knowledge is discernibility: the capacity of distinguishing the specificity from the totality. Permit me to begin probing into the matter by way of indirectness: how do I know that I am typing this? How can I tell whether what I am now doing is indeed typing rather than something else? And how may I conceive of the ‘this’ or the ‘other’ or the ‘else’ as meaningful?

My assertion is that what provides an answer to such questions is that the thinker possesses certain innate faculties for processing impressions and, therefore, can trace the abstract pattern — the common in the multitude — of all that is conceivable. This is an object of intelligence. From said pattern concepts are formulated which are constant relative to themselves qua concepts under the bifurcated understanding of reality which distinguishes between the realms of sensible and intelligible objects, predicated on the hypothesis that the thought of the thing is not the thing as such and, a fortiriori, suggesting that the idea of the thing can be held constant even when its corresponding object is differentiable.

Discernibility entails negation: the recognition, identification, of the specificity as opposed to — or as differing from — the totality. The definition of ‘dog’ as a “four-footed animal” does not necessarily provide for positive acquaintance, for the idea of ‘four-footed’ is contrasted with that of ‘two-footed’ or of any other number, as is the notion of ‘animal’ from ‘plant’ or any other entity and so on. The ‘dog’ is thus conceived as if by a negative delineation of its peculiarity: of ruling out all that it does not necessarily or universally partake of. A specification derives from the subtraction of all factors inessential to the object of consideration: there lies the very gist of tracing the abstract pattern, where what is not constitutive of the object is omitted, to engender a clearer image of [what becomes] the specificity.

Clarity — or the need for clarity — also implies negation, as it is sought out — or brought forth — to discern the object of concern from its own multiplicity and/or from the totality of all that can be thought and sensed. It is by juxtaposing abstract patterns to one another that distinctions are identified and, moreover, it is by refining the tracing of such pattern — clarification — that there can be taxonomies, consisting of elements, classes, categories, types etc., all of which form an overarching abstract structure. The exhaustiveness of a definition or the lack thereof does not ramify to the mode of conceiving now elaborated upon, since it impacts only the degree of clarity, not the very form of discernment.

So I can discern this from that. Does that suggest that I can tell what ‘this’ and ‘that’ are? If indeed acquaintance is of a negative sort, then it can be posited that whatever specificities it reveals can be subject to change should further examination cast them under a scope that alters their outline. Furthermore and in conjunction with the assumption that the connection of abstract patterns fosters a given order, it can be claimed that what is constitutive of knowledge is the acquaintance with an order that remains robust in a refinement of clarity. Put differently, where a further consideration does not disturb the relation of abstract patterns, there is firmer conviction that said relation can be unconcealed. Contrariwise, where the relation of abstractions undergoes change in the occasion of an increase in clarity, then no claim partaking of certainty can be made for it.

What the latter leads to, is the proposition that the separation between knowledge and acquaintance can be stated in retrospect or ex post. It cannot be defined with precision and ex ante what impact may a clarity yet-to-be-attained have on the order of abstract patterns, for if it could then such information would already be factored in the structure-to-be-impacted — it would already be part of that given knowledge.

Discernibility does provide the conduit to specification by means of negation, though it is after the fact that its product will be considered as constituting knowledge or acquaintance. Lastly, it can be noted that one interested in normative epistemological claims could make use of the aforementioned prolegomena to discernibility to suggest that they provide the impetus to the philosopher-scientist for remaining dubitative and inquisitive, while not underestimating the level of clarity theretofore reached.

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Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
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