Beginnings of Knowledge

Beginnings of Knowledge

Beginnings of Knowledge
By Dr. Maria Cecilia M. Genove, Dean, College of Mass Communication

A cursory reading of the book, The Beginnings of Knowledge, by eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) made me ponder and realize that somehow, philosophy has ramifications in practically anything that we do, not to mention the way our elected officials run the affairs of government and whether they are conscious of good governance or not.

For one, equating these to what is happening in our midst today, appearance is what things seem to be, while reality is what things are. Since time immemorial, this has been one of the distinctions that has caused most trouble in philosophy as we relate it to our everyday lives.

Russell argues about the nature of matter when he used the table as an example – its color, texture, shape, and so on. He posed two very difficult questions: Is there a real table at all? If so, what sort of object can it be?

We might ask: Why is there a problem here? Why not just accept physical objects as physical objects and let it go at that? Why should a tree or a stone or a human hand or a table be anything different from a tree or a stone or a hand or a table?

First, particular things like trees, stones, and hands seem to change. At least, they undergo alterations in their outward form. The table on which I am using to lay my laptop, for example, was once part of a growing tree or trees. Before that, the tree was once elements in the soil and the atmosphere. Even seemingly permanent things like rocks and minerals are in the process of being built up or broken down. Through weathering or erosion, the stone may become dust and blow away. These processes are going on about us all the time.

Second, physical objects undergo or are affected by inner transformations of various kinds. They may pass back and forth from a solid state to a liquid state to a gaseous state. Are these three states to be treated as completely different, to be described in different terms, or are they to be brought under one explanation?

Third and last, we can contact or experience particular physical objects by means of our various sense organs, but matter itself seems to be something different. Matter is an abstract term, a concept, which is applied to any or all conceivable physical things.

The conclusions in philosophy are always tentative and are set forth in the form of hypotheses, theories, or possibly laws, which after further observation and research may need to be modified or changed. The process of building up the great body of scientific knowledge is a slow process which involves the labor of countless persons in many parts of the world. This knowledge enables us to exercise considerable control over our world, and it is of constant service in our daily lives.

How do we know that water will freeze or that it will revive the drooping plant? How do we know that it is better to be courteous than discourteous or that democratic governments can be successful? We may say that we know these by means of our sense organs or by our past experiences.

What we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste – that is, our concrete experiences – constitute the realm of knowledge. The view that knowledge comes through the senses is empirical in nature. This means that we have to “look and see” rather than “stop and think,” which is rationalizing. We put emphasis on observation or what the mind receives from the environment. To put it simply, we know what we have found out from our senses.

In some situations in life, intuition appears to be of great value. Some persons will insist that every experience includes an intuitive element. Total situations are grasped by intuition or gut feel. However, if these are uncontrolled and unchecked by reason and the senses, intuition may lead to serious errors. Sometimes, this may even lead to abuses and to protests.

A society guided by any one-sided view of knowledge tends to be led astray and to lose its appeal and its creativeness. The testimony of others retains a dominant position in dealing with the past and with areas which we are unable to investigate for ourselves. Our views, however, must be accepted critically or with caution.

Possibly, this has been one important reason for the decline of some societies and civilizations, as well as the cause of numerous problems in the world.

Perhaps, we can learn a thing or two, nay, many things from Bertrand Russell and other philosophers in the way we think, in how we deal with people, in the manner by which we articulate our thoughts to our colleagues, in the diversified positions that we take regarding certain issues in the country, and in the way we lead our lives in general.