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Knowing That We Know

An open letter replying to Chris at The Journals of Doc Surge as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome!

brain-vs-heartDear Chris,

How do we know that we are right, or that something is true, or that what we think is actually knowledge? Or, to come at this issue from a different conception: what is the emotional component of knowing? Despite a gap of four centuries, our understanding of the world still owes a philosophical debt to the French philosopher René Descartes, who perhaps more than anyone else in the Western traditions of thought wrestled with questions of doubt and certainty. It is Descartes who first raises the sceptical challenge: if I cannot eliminate all doubts, how can I be certain?

Many thanks for your blog letter Validation, Conviction, and Doubt, from June this year, in which you pick up the themes of knowledge as a practice that I introduced in the Why the Wikipedia Knows Nothing serial, and run off in rather surprising directions. I have spent a considerable amount of time pondering the points you raise here, not because I disagree with your general position, but because I want to be clear in my own mind as to the relationship between our emotions and our knowledge. Part of the issue here is that the conventional view of knowledge that I critique in Why the Wikipedia Knows Nothing makes knowing into an entirely rational and testable affair, and this is a disastrous way of understanding this subject since it means we can never know anything, and our conception of what it means to know does not reflect the experiences of knowledge at all.

You cite Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist I have a rather conflicted relationship with, in terms of the idea that our intuitions precede our strategic reasoning. Haidt has been a brilliant voice in the intersection between liberal and conservative politics in the United States, and this aspect of his work I adore. I am rather less impressed with his relationship to philosophy, and particularly moral philosophy. Haidt was a philosophy undergraduate, and quit this degree to pursue another direction. Reading between the lines, I suspect he had violent disagreements with one or more of his philosophy teachers and still bears a chip on his shoulder. His writing (particularly in the book you cite) has so lost perspective on the subject of philosophy that he reads as an almost vindictive critic, bending over to try to justify why philosophy isn’t needed. So, inevitably, when he has to discuss philosophical topics he goes horribly awry – because he knows so little about the topic!

Haidt makes the claim that because our intuitions precede our strategic reasoning about moral judgements that rational philosophy cannot be trusted on ethical matters since it does not describe how people actually engage with moral subjects. I am in a agreement with him that the force of our moral intuitions is greater than that of our ethical reasoning, and also that rational philosophy is problematic, but this latter claim needs some qualification. Rationalism has its roots in the episteme (to borrow Foucault’s term), or conditions-of-knowing, that Descartes gives us. It begins with the conception of knowledge as a necessary entertaining of all doubts, in order to overcome them all and reach certainty – a kind of epistemic Battle Royale. But the principle purveyor of this kind of rationalism are today are the sciences, and thus Haidt very quickly paints himself into a corner. The knowledge he would have us accept is indelibly connected to the rationalism he would have us question. How can we trust the testimony of someone who cannot reliably account for his own knowledge?

At root, Haidt is still operating in the epistemic space opened up by Descartes that involves splitting the world into mind and body or, as Kant refines this, into subject and object. We have gained a great deal from these perspectives, but they also risk misleading us. There is a constant danger of equating subject (mind) with doubt, and object (body) with knowledge – a perspective readily apparent in the insistence that we must think objectively in order to get at the truth i.e. that we must think like something that cannot think in order to reach the facts. Thus we get to a distorted understanding of the sciences where the scientist is merely a priest-like conduit for knowledge that magically arrives from the objective world, distorting the impressive work that scientists actually conduct to get the world to ‘speak’ to us (as the suffix ‘-ology’ implies).

When we look at knowledge as a practice, this whole scheme of understanding becomes inverted – because it is evident that objects cannot know, and that knowledge is something that only beings with minds can possess, and they can only acquire it through interacting with the body of the universe (with the sole exception of logic and mathematics). What made it seem plausible that knowledge could be equated with objects was the idea that knowledge was simply a matter of accurately reporting the status and relationships of objects. But scientists do not learn about the world this way: they develop practices that turn objects into reliable witnesses; they make the world speak. In doing so, they trust their emotions in order to judge when they have an effective practice – and when they don’t (as Haidt quite often doesn’t), their emotions deceive them as to the importance and reliability of what they are claiming.

The whole process of knowing – in all its many guises – is inseparable from its emotional element. Our inquisitiveness or desire compels us to begin to acquire knowledge, either from learning an existing practice (as in the case of most knowledge) or by trying to develop a new practice (as researchers in the sciences do). Our excitement, commitment, curiosity – or stubbornness! – helps us maintain the repetition required to establish the habit upon which our practices are built. And the experience of triumph or satisfaction when we are able to execute a practice correctly – when our knowledge is shown to work in the way we expect – is foundational to knowing that we finally know how to do something, even if we sometimes need someone else to confirm for us that we are doing it right. Even (especially!) in the sciences, knowledge and emotion are intimately entwined. As Pascal suggested: “We know the truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.”

Your discussion of conviction and doubt goes further than I am able to adequately address in this letter, and displays a quintessentially Buddhist appreciation for the wisdom of doubt. I think, perhaps, that conviction is not an aspect of knowledge, as such, and falls under Hannah Arendt’s warning that whenever we resolve to take action, we are committing to a course of events the outcomes of which we cannot actually know. She calls the capacity to take action “the most dangerous of all human abilities and possibilities” and suggests, in 1961:

The totalitarian systems tend to demonstrate that action can be based on any hypothesis and, in the course of consistently guided action, the particular hypothesis will become true, will become actual, factual reality. The assumption which underlies consistent action can be as mad as it pleases; it will always end in producing facts which are then “objectively” true. What was originally nothing but a hypothesis, to be proved or disproved by actual facts, will in the course of consistent action always turn into a fact, never to be disproved.

Here is the danger of believing that knowledge is passively produced by excluding mind from matter: when we divorce knowledge from the emotions that guide the process of beginning to know, we banish doubt and glorify certainty by simply ceasing to know and calling it truth. It is this risk – that of premature certainty, of manufacturing truths to support any action – that is an ever-present danger in all our lives.

With love and respect,


Any and all replies welcome.


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Dear Chris,

Your response gave me a strike of insight about how I view Philosophy. I finally wrote a bit of a potboiler in summarizing my thoughts. It took me months of editing because I vacillated about my tone and intention.

In reading your work I believe that you wear your informal title of 'outsider philosopher' with some pride, so I hope that you find my letter to be in some alignment with your views. Just because I have a bias against Philosophy, I don't mean to pick a fight with rebel philosophers like you. ;-)

You can find my letter here:


Once again, thank you for the opportunity to engage in virtuous discourse and the republic of bloggers. It has become a source of meaning and enjoyment for me.

With affection and respect,

Chris Billows

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