EPISTEMOLOGY, ANXIETY, FAITH, SIN (pt. 1)

EPISTEMOLOGY, ANXIETY, FAITH, SIN

Background Considerations:  Kierkegaard describes two approaches to knowledge in Philosophical Fragments:  recollection and revelation.  “Recollection” is originally the Platonic theory, and more generally refers to the theory that knowledge is immanent:  humans have the knowledge within them already, and each individual must simply bring that knowledge to the surface.  “Revelation” is the Christian view that we are in fact ignorant, even trapped in ignorance and hostile to the truth, until God bestows it through grace.  Hamann used the distinction between recollection and revelation in his critique of Kantian transcendental idealism.  Kant made knowledge inherent in the human mind; what we know when we know nature is in fact the universal structures of our human experience of nature, the categories and ideas, so we can have knowledge that is certain because any experience that we could possibly have must conform to those structures.  We experience reality through the tinted lens that is our reason, and thus everything we can possibly experience will be tinted; knowledge is knowledge of the nature of our lenses.  Hamann said if that is your epistemology, Christian revelation is impossible since there can be no knowledge that isn’t already contained in human reason; so instead of developing an epistemology and then trying to force theology to conform to its strictures, he began with the idea that revelation is real and developed his epistemology on the assumption that knowledge in general comes to us from the outside.  In fact, what he developed was a “mitigated credulity” in reply to Hume’s “mitigated skepticism:”  while Hamann accepted Hume’s empiricism and hence also his conclusion that all knowledge is uncertain, Hamann was less afraid of making a mistake by assuming too much than he was of rejecting the truth by assuming too little.  Therefore, he chose to believe what his senses told him, but with the caveat that he might be mistaken and must be ready to admit an error when one is discovered.

If one lumps Hume’s empiricism and Kant’s idealism into the general category of “recollection,” one can begin to see how a Kierkegaardian/Christian critique of epistemology can be useful.  What Hume and Kant share is the view that whatever knowledge is, it is a human undertaking; we know the world ourselves.  All knowledge is immanent.  But the fundamental premise of knowledge is “know thyself;” if we don’t know ourselves, how can we know anything?  Whether empiricism or idealism, our knowledge is distorted by our anxiety.  We believe ourselves more capable than we are, and at the same time we feel threatened and anxious in the world and seek to reassure ourselves of our knowledge and control of the world around us.  We cannot just let things be, and let them appear to us as they are in themselves, in their self-centeredness; we perceive everything through the filter of our needs and wants and fears.  When faith overcomes anxiety, we are able (insofar as faith does overcome, which is never total) to see what is as it is.  Humility is essential to allowing truth to give itself, and humility is the fruit of faith.  Hubris and fearfulness are both fruit of the lack of faith (Greek pistis, trust).

All of this is a distortion of Christianity, of course.  Christianity is not an epistemological theory, and sin is not primarily an epistemological problem; however, it has epistemological ramifications.

Beginnings of an Epistemology:  There should therefore be two stages to developing an epistemology.  First, consider carefully what one can know and how one can know.  Second, consider how one’s own nature can distort this knowledge.  (To be continued, I hope.)

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