Note: The following entry is from Dr. Owen Anderson (Arizona State University), a Fellow of the Institute for Classical Education
This is the third part in my series on the Academy. In my previous post I considered the pre-skeptic. You are a pre-skeptic when you think you know but you do not know. There is the appearance of knowledge but not the reality. To have the reality of knowledge requires having understanding. This will take us to the post-skeptic stage. Maybe we can call this the recovering skeptic stage. Remember, the kind of skepticism we are speaking about is not simply the sense of asking questions. This kind of skepticism is the claim that no knowledge is possible. This is really the shutting down of all question asking since knowledge is not possible.
To have understanding requires two things. First, a grasp of the nature of things and second noticing the order of beliefs. The philosopher Michel Foucault, in his book The Order of Things, makes the case that things can be given any order. The order is arbitrary. This is because Foucault was a radical empiricist who denied that there are natures to things. His view is nothing new. It is the view that all is flux and change. There are only the particulars of passing experience. This is the skeptic stage and we have already advanced beyond that.
Because there are natures to things there is an order to beliefs. The nature of a thing is what distinguishes it from all else. And in understanding we are trying to understand precisely this: what is it? This is the process of naming. Think about it, if we give something a name that could stand for what it is and also what it is not then we haven’t really done anything. This is called philosophical ambiguity. And we are right back to skepticism.
In understanding we are naming the parts and how they make the whole. This is the order I mentioned above. Call this the order from basic to complex. Or from less basic (not basic) to more basic to most basic. We begin with grammar and work to literature. We being with arithmetic and work to calculus. This is a logical order not an experiential order or psychological order. This means that in our experiences or in our development we may not start with what is logically basic. But as we learn we need to identify this and begin here. The first things.
Finally, if we have understanding of the basics then we can demonstrate this. This unites what are sometimes called the theoretical and practical uses of reason. If a person claims to understand something we expect them to be able to show us. If they cannot show us then we conclude they do not really understand.
Let me illustrate this with an example that also highlights the order of beliefs. Before we can understand anything else about a thing we would have to know if it is or is not. Is it real or not real? Now think about a hot topic that my students like to ask me about: God’s existence. Is God real or not real? Put together what we have learned here. When we are asking about God the nature of God that distinguishes God from all else is being eternal. Without beginning. The eternal nature of God. To understand if God is real we would have to understand first if anything is eternal. There are those, like Foucault, who would deny this.
Here we have brought together three points as we move from skeptic to post-skeptic. The first is that there is a nature to things and an order to beliefs. The second is that in understanding we are grasping this nature and order. And the third is that if we understand we can show what we understand. I begin to illustrate this by thinking about a favorite question: God’s existence. Next time we will return to this to ask if we can know, if we can understand, that something is eternal. The schools of the Academy can be categorized in terms of what they believe is eternal.
Dr. Anderson is professor of philosophy and religious studies at Arizona State University’s New College. A research fellow of the James Madison Program at Princeton and a prolific author, Dr. Anderson also serves as a Fellow of the Institute of Classical Education.