The Value of Knowledge (chapter 2)

The Possibility of Knowledge:

In this chapter Martyr al-Sadr is concerned not with the 'value' of knowledge but rather with the possibility of knowledge as such. To what extent does 'knowledge' (i.e. that which is considered to be knowledge) capture the essence of reality and the secrets of the external world?

Marxism believes in the possibility of knowledge of objective realities and rejects skepticism and sophistry. The world does not contain anything that cannot be known. But is it appropriate for Marxism to claim that definite knowledge is possible? Can it escape skepticism in the ultimate analysis?

In order to understand the Marxist and Islamic positions on this issue, the author considers it essential to review important doctrines formulated by philosophers, beginning with the Sophists.

Greek Philosophy: In the fifth century B.C. a class of teachers emerged in Greece that devoted itself to teaching of rhetoric and giving professional advice to their clients in matters of law, court procedure and politics. Protagoras (b.c. 500 B.C.) and Gorgias (fl.c. 427 B.C.), two major skeptics, were the products of this class. Gorgias, for instance, taught that the Real, about which the pre-Socratic philosophers had argued, does not exist. If a world-stuff existed we could never know what it was like; it is not what it appears, since the senses lie. Even if Reality could be known, knowledge is incommunicable; for, language, being mere noise, cannot convey the knowledge of reality to other minds.

The Sophists rejected the possibility of knowledge and made truth a purely subjective and relative affair. Hence metaphysics is idle speculation and its results are worthless. There is no reality that reason can know except the ever-changing flux of sensible experience.

Sophistry wished to destroy what philosophy had built hitherto. They were opposed by Socrates (d.399 B.C.), Plato (428-347 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who tried to maintain reason on its throne. Aristotelian epistemology validated reason and recognized the value of experience, and posited the possibility of certain knowledge.

The skepticism that reemerged after Aristotle was a compromise in that it did not deny reality but denied the possibility of certain knowledge. However, skepticism could not prevail in philosophy, and reason mounted the throne offered to it by Aristotle, until skepticism emerged again in the 16th century in an atmosphere of doubt and rebellion against the authority of reason. Descartes emerged in this atmosphere and he tried to bring back certitude to philosophy.

Descartes: Descartes (1596-1650) began his philosophy with sweeping doubt. Ideas, he reasoned are susceptible to error and sense perception is often deceptive. The point of departure for philosophical certitude was the existence of his thoughts, which leads him to infer his own existence: 'I think, therefore, I am'. This statement is true because it is clear and distinct. He therefore adopts as a general rule the principle that all things that we conceive very clearly and distinctly are true.

Ideas seem to be of three sorts: (1) those that are innate, (2) those that are foreign and come from without, (3) those that are the mind's constructs. Descartes disposes of skepticism by first proving the existence of God, whose idea belongs to the first class. Since we as imperfect beings are not sufficient reason for the idea of perfection we entertain the idea of God being the idea of an absolutely perfect being the idea of God must have been caused by Him. God is thus the first objective reality posited by Descartes. Now since God is good, the innate ideas (which include the ideas of external bodies) which we have such strong inclination to believe must be true. This is how Descartes posits external reality and the possibility of science.

Al-Sadr points out that 'I think, therefore, I am', contains a concealed syllogism: 'I think, every thinker exists, therefore I exist'.

Moreover as pointed out by Ibn Sina, this argument from thought to existence is invalid; for the thinking subject admits his existence in the first phrase 'I think'.

Secondly, Descartes confuses between the idea of a perfect being and the objective reality it represents. It is God, not the idea of God, which is more sublime than human beings.

Descartes bases the whole edifice of existence on the proposition:

"It is impossible for God to deceive". He confuses between 'deception is impossible', and 'deception is abominable', which is not a metaphysical (judgement of fact) but an ethical (judgement of value) proposition.

In any case, the author's purpose is not an elaborate criticism of Descartes' philosophy but to present his view regarding the possibility of knowledge. Descartes accepts the validity of innate rational knowledge.

Locke (1632-1704) is the founder of modern empiricism. While he claims that all knowledge is derived from experience there being no innate ideas or principles he divides knowledge into three types:

(1) by intuition, (2) by rational demonstration, (3) by sensation. Our knowledge of our own existence is intuitive, our knowledge of God's existence is demonstrative, and our knowledge of things present to sense is sensitive. This division of knowledge into three groups is inconsistent with his empirical doctrine.

Locke makes a distinction between what he calls primary and secondary qualities. The primary ones are in separable from bodies, such as solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number. The secondary qualities are only in the percipient, such as colour, sound, smell, etc.

Since there is no way, according to Locke, of knowing the primary qualities except through the senses, this division is also inconsistent with his empirical doctrine.

The Idealists:

The Platonic theory of Ideas, generally called 'realism', is referred to as 'idealism' by the author. Whatever we may call it, it did not involve any denial or doubt about reality. In metaphysics, idealism is the theory that reality is of the nature of mind or idea. To al-Sadr, it is an attempt to shake the foundations of objective reality and to exterminate certainty. In order to study the role of idealism in the theory of knowledge, he proposes to examine three tendencies in idealism. These he calls 'philosophical', 'physical' and 'physiological'.

Philosophical Idealism: Its founder was Berkeley, who declared, 'To exist is to know or to be known'. He denies existence to objective realities existing independent of minds. Mind and its ideas exist. All we know of 'matter' are the qualities of our sense (the secondary qualities of Locke). Berkeley's idealism has been interpreted differently and al-Sadr has selected an interpretation that he considers best-known. He cites Berkeley's proofs in support of his doctrines.

The first one is intended to prove that all knowledge is based on and comes from the senses. The main criticism against Berkeley is that he takes for granted the law of contradiction in his proofs while denying that there is any knowledge not rooted in sense experience. The author interprets Berkeley as denying the independent existence of things and offers reasons for rejecting this alleged denial of Berkeley.

The fact is that Berkeley's position is not understood clearly by the author. Berkeley does not deny the reality of external objects. What he denies is that such objects could exist by themselves and independent of the Divine mind. That is, existence for him is synonymous with being the object of consciousness. Things cannot exist except as ideas inside minds. Why does Berkeley deny what Locke calls primary qualities? That is because he is reluctant to recognize such qualities as extension, number, motion, solidity and figure as being attributes of the Divine mind, perhaps in accordance with the theological notions of the scholastics.

If external objects are to be conceived as ideas in the Divine mind, there is no place for matter and materiality in the external world, matter being the main obstacle in the way of conceiving external objects as Divine ideas. Hence he denies the primary qualities as representing attributes of material bodies, and thus he annihilates matter. In some ways Berkeley's thesis that existence is mental is similar to the theory of God's 'knowledge by presence' ('ilm huduri) propounded by some Muslim philosophers. In both the cases; things are conceived as objects of knowledge, not as things in themselves independent of a perceiving mind. On the whole, one may say that the reasons behind Berkeley's denial of matter and corporeality are mainly theological, because he regards the idea of material substratum as the base on which the concept of thing-in-itself rests. Since corporeality cannot be a quality of Divine ideas, Berkeley will not have any things-in-themselves. According to him everything that there is thing- in-consciousness.

The Nature of Judgement:

However, to return to al-Sadr's criticism of Berkeley, it is obvious that Berkeley's denial of the objectivity of thought leads to solipsism. Berkeley's proofs involve a misunderstanding of the nature of knowledge. Knowledge has two main divisions according to al-Sadr: conception and judgement. The forms of objects exist on three levels in our intellect:

(1) as percepts, on the level of sense perception, (2) as images, on the level of imagination (and perhaps memory), and (3) as concepts, on the abstract level of intellection. Mere concepts, in isolation from one another, do not ensure the mind's movement from the subjective to the objective realm. The presence of the form of an essence in our intellect is one thing, while the objective presence of that essence in the outside is something else (it is not clear whether this is true of sense perception or only of imagination and conception).

Judgement, however, is different from conception. It is the point of departure for the movement from conception to objectivity. 1. Judgement does not arise in the mind by way of senses. It is rather an act of the knowing mind.

  1. Most importantly, it is an inherent property of judgement to reveal a reality beyond the mind. Although the mind has no direct conjunction with anything except its knowledge, it is inherent in judgement to be essentially disclosive (kashfan dhatiyyan) of something outside knowledge.

Berkeley's argument is based on a confusion between conception and judgement. The empirical doctrine that all knowledge arises from perception relates to the stage of conception. By failing to recognize the difference between concepts and judgements, it makes it impossible to move in the direction of objectivity.