Theory of Knowledge -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Theory of Knowledge

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As we have seen, the fundamental problem of philosophy is the relation between thought and being. What is the relation between consciousness (knowledge) and the objective world? Kant claimed that there was an unbridgeable gap between the thinking subject and the unknowable Thing-in-Itself. Hegel poses the question differently. The process of thinking is the unity of subject and object. Thought is not a barrier separating man from the objective world, but, on the contrary, is a process linking ("mediating") the two. Taking as its starting point the reality immediately given in sense perception, human thought does not merely passively accept, as Locke imagined, but sets to work, transforming this information, breaking it down into its component parts, and putting it together again. Man uses rational thought to go beyond immediate reality. Dialectical thought, in analysing a given phenomenon, divides it into its component parts and demonstrates those contradictory features and tendencies which give it life and movement.

Scientific knowledge does not consist of a mere catalogue of particular items. If we say "all animals," that is not yet zoology. Above and beyond the facts, it is necessary to discover laws and objectives processes. It is necessary to uncover the objective relations between things, and explain the transitions between one state and the other. The history of science, like that of philosophy, is a permanent process of affirmation and negation, a ceaseless process and development, in which one idea negates another, and, in its turn, is negated in a never-ending process of deepening man’s knowledge of himself and the universe. A similar phenomenon may be seen in the mental development of the infant.

Hegel’s great merit was to show the dialectical character of the development of human thought, from its embryonic phase, passing through a whole series of stages, and finally arriving at the highest stage of reason, the Notion. In Hegelian language, it is the process from being "in itself" to being "in and for itself," that is to say, from undeveloped, implicit being to developed and explicit being. The human embryo, is, potentially, a human being, but it is not a human being in and for itself. In order to realise its full potential, a whole period of development is necessary, in which infancy, adolescent and middle age constitute necessary stages. The thought of a child evidently has an immature character. But even a correct idea expressed by a youth does not have the same weight as the same idea expressed by an old person, who has experienced life, and consequently has a deeper understanding of what these words actually mean.

In Hegel, the real development of human beings is presented in a mystical form, as the development of spirit. As an idealist, Hegel had no real conception of the development of society, although there are some brilliant anticipations of historical materialism in his writings. Thought appears here as an expression of the Absolute Idea, a mystical concept about which the only thing we learn, as Engels ironically put it, is that he tells us absolutely nothing about it. In reality, thought is the product of the human brain and nervous system, inseparable from the human body, which, in turn, depends upon food, which, in turn, presupposes human society and productive relations.

Thought is a product of matter that thinks, the highest achievement of nature. Inanimate matter possesses the potential to produce life. Even the lowest forms of life posses sensibility, irritability, which has the potential to produce, in higher animals a nervous system, and a brain. Hegel’s "self consciousness" is merely a fantastic way of expressing the historical process by which real human beings gradually become conscious of themselves and the world in which they live. This does not come about easily or automatically, any more than the individual human being automatically acquires consciousness in the transition from infancy to adulthood. In both cases, the process takes place through a prolonged and often traumatic series of stages. The development of human thought, as reflected in the history of philosophy and science, and of culture in general, reveals itself as a contradictory process, in which one stage supersedes another, and, in its turn, is superseded. It is not a straight line, but one that is continuously interrupted, with periods of stagnation, faltering and even reversals, which, however, merely prepares the ground for new advances.

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