Thursday, 14 December 2017

Note on the Identity of the Knower and the Known

A theme that is showing up in my recent studies of Plato, Neoplatonism, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Charles DeKoninck, and Edmund Husserl: the identity of the knower and the known; or in other words, at least the intimate relationality of the knower and the known. Husserl is trying to eliminate the radical distinction between subject and object that was put forward by Kant, and which effectively makes knowledge imposssible. Husserl wants to make knowledge possible again by somehow bringing objects, in their very objectivity, into the sphere of subjectivity. How this is like and unlike Aristotle and Aquinas is a complicated question; it is difficult to see whether Husserl winds up forgetting or discarding the independent actuality of objects as beings; for Aristotle and Aquinas, things are knowable objects precisely in virtue of being in actuality, and the more actual they are, the more knowable they are in principle (though perhaps less knowable to us); and the more actual, the more subsistent and independent is their being. So it is confusing trying to square Husserl's insistence on the relationality of subject and object with Aristotle and Aquinas's insistence on the subsistence of objects, precisely by virtue of which they are knowable to a knowing subject. Nonetheless, Husserl's instinct is profoundly realist, and indeed Aristotelian, since Aristotle too asserts that knowledge is in some way the union of the knower and the known; knowledge comes to be insofar as the object enters into the immanent subjectivity of the knower, forming his intellect according to its own form and structure, but also being formed in its own way according to the intelligibility of the intellect itself; they enter into relation with each other.

Plato, likewise - as interpreted by Neoplatonists such as Plotinus (not as interpreted by many moderns) - posits an identity of Intellect and intelligible, in some sense. Knowledge in the ideal sense is precisely this identity - not a going out of oneself to some external object, but a profoundly interior self-reflection. Thus, the divine Intellect - the demiurge - is, for Plato, the locus of the Forms; indeed, it is itself the Forms. This is the Neoplatonic interpretation, at least. Moreover, this is the basis for the meaning of the myth of recollection and reincarnation in Plato's dialogues, in particular the Meno and the Phaedo. I am fascinated by the idea that Platonic reincarnation is not a doctrine, but a myth meant to symbolize a deeper truth about knowledge. Plotinus takes it to mean that knowledge is a matter of plunging the depths of one's own mind, to find the seeds of all truth hidden there, in the vestiges of the divine Intellect from one has fallen. The divine Intellect is the place of the Forms; and the individual human intellect is nothing other than a participation in this Intellect, therefore having within itself, from the beginning, the seeds of all knowledge. This conception of intellect is, in its essentials, Aristotle's own conception of the divine Intellect, the first mover, which he describes as "thought thinking itself," although, for complicated but fascinating reasons, Aristotle would not extend this simply to the human mode of knowing, as Plotinus and Plato would appear to do. Nonetheless there are important similarities; and the Platonic-Plotinian insight that knowledge is the identity of knower and known is also present in Aristotle.

So, there are lots of subtle similarities and subtle differences between all of these thinkers, and it is hard to nail it all down. It seems true to me to say that, in an ideal sense, knowledge is most properly an immanent activity, a self-reflection and self-contemplation, beginning and terminating the interiority of the self, self-identity of subject and object. Aquinas teaches that God is His own intellect, His own object, and His own act of understanding. Everything about knowledge, in God, is identical. All other created forms of knowing are participations in this way of knowing, grades of approaching this full identity of knower, knowing, and known. But they are also grades of falling-short of this full identity. (See also DeKoninck on the deduction of the infra-angelic universe.) Angels, in ascending hierarchical order, are more and more adequate unto themselves to represent to themselves the scope of their knowledge; they know by fewer concepts, the closer they are to God, and thus they are closer and closer to being identical with the very species by which they know. No angel is indeed the species by which it knows, but it approaches this identity as a limit. Every angel still receives its species-concepts from God; its knowledge is still, to this degree, ecstatic, because it is dependent on something external. Below the angels, there is man; his knowledge too is a mode of identity of intellect and the intelligible; but man more than angels must go outside himself. His object is not innate, as in the angel; it is not identical to himself from the very dawn of his intellectual life, except only potentially. He achieves this identity only by first going outside of himself and performing the feat of abstraction. And even the identity which achieves is a lesser identity than that possessed from the beginning of an angel's intellectual life: the angel is devoid of matter, so it lacks the composition by which man is not completely identical to himself, and thus, neither completely identical to his intelligible objects. Man achieves a partial identity to the intelligible only in what is itself a part of himself, namely his intellect; as a material being he remains separated from himself and from his object. At the level of sensation, this identity is severed at yet another level; for, lacking immateriality, all animal operations involve a greater procession towards the outside. Action is less and less immanent, and more and more transitive. And where all cognition and life is lacking, things are separated by absolute discontinuity.

There are levels of act and potency. God is pure Act, and it is on account of this that all the moments of His knowledge are identical. An angel is composed of act and potency, with a distinction of essence and existence; thus, the identity with its object which an angel possesses is already merely partial. Man is composed not only of essence and existence, but his essence is composed of form and matter. The more a being is composed of act and potency, the lesser is its identity with itself, and the lesser is the identity of its cognition with its object; and at the lowest level of being, where act is most of all limited by potency, there is no cognition, there is the least degree of self-hood and self-identity. 

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