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Truth and Science
GA 3

IV. The Starting Point of Epistemology

According to everything we have seen, investigations at the beginning of a theory of knowing (epistemology), everything that already belongs to the arena of knowing must be excluded. Knowing itself is something that comes with the human condition, something arising through daily activity. If a theory of knowing is really to extend to illuminating the entire field of becoming familiar with, of knowing concepts and ideas (Erkennens), then it must take as its starting point something that has remained completely untouched by this activity, from which the latter itself receives its impetus. What to begin with lies outside of knowing cannot be knowing itself. Therefore, we must look for it immediately before the familiarity of knowing (cognition, Erkennens), so that the very next step that the human being takes from this precursor is an activity of knowing. The way in which this absolute first is to be determined must be such that nothing that already comes from knowing, from cognition, flows into it.

But such a beginning can only be made with the immediately given picture of the world, the world picture that is available to man before he has subjected it in any way to the cognitive process, before he has made even the slightest statement about it, before he has made the slightest mental judgement about it. What passes before us, and what we pass by, which is a disconnected world view, not separated into individual components,61Differentiation of the given, indistinct, world picture into distinct entities is already a mental activity (ein Akt gedanklicher Tätigkeit). in which nothing is separated, nor related to, or determined by anything else, that is what is immediately given. At this stage of existence-awareness (des Daseins), if we may use the expression, no object, no event is more important, more meaningful than any other. The rudimentary animal-organ, devoid of meaning for development and for life itself, has the right, perhaps for a later stage of recognition-illuminated existence-awareness, to be considered the noblest most essential part of the organism.

Before all cognitive activity, nothing presents itself in the world picture as substance, nothing as accident, nothing as cause or effect; the opposites matter-spirit, body-soul, have not yet been created. But we must also keep away any other predicate from the worldview held at this stage. It can be understood neither as reality nor as appearance, neither as subjective nor as objective, neither as accidental nor as necessary. Whether it is a “thing in itself” or a mere idea cannot be decided at this stage. We have already seen that the findings of physics and physiology, which lead to subsuming “the given” under one of the above categories, must not be placed at the forefront of epistemology.

If a being with fully developed human intelligence were suddenly created from nothing and confronted the world, the first impression that the world would make on its senses and thinking would be something like what we call the immediately given world view. However, the same thing is not present to a person in this form at any moment of his life. There is nowhere in his development a boundary between pure, passive turning towards what is immediately given and the thinking recognition of it. This circumstance could raise concerns about our positing a beginning of epistemology. About this Hartmann says, “We do not ask what is the content of consciousness of the child who is awakening to consciousness, or of the animal standing at the lowest stage of living creatures, because the philosophizing person has no experience of this. He cannot infer or reconstruct the content of consciousness of primitive biologic organisms at any stage from fertilization to death, as such attempts must always be based on personal experience. We must therefore first determine what is the content of consciousness found by the philosophizing person at the beginning of philosophical reflections”.62Hartmann, Grundproblem, S. 1. The objection to this, however, is that the world view that we have at the beginning of philosophical reflection already contains predicates that are only conveyed through cognition. These must not be accepted uncritically, but must be carefully peeled out of the world picture so that it appears completely pure of everything that has been added through the cognitive process. The boundary between what is given and what is known will not coincide with any moment of human development, but must be drawn artificially. But this can happen at any stage of development if we only correctly draw the line between what comes to us without mental determination, before recognition, and what is made from it through determination and recognition.

Now one can accuse me of having already accumulated a whole series of mental characterizations, so that I may separate that supposedly immediate world view from the one that people have completed through cognitive processing. But the following must be said against this: the thoughts we have brought up should not characterize that world view, should not indicate any properties of it, should not say anything at all about it, but should only guide our consideration, in such a way that it is taken to the boundary where recognition is placed at its beginning. There can therefore be no talk of the truth or error, the accuracy or falsity of those statements, which in our opinion precede the moment in which we stand at the beginning of the theory of knowledge. They only have the task of leading appropriately to this beginning.

No one who is about to deal with epistemological problems is at the same time confronted with what is rightly called the beginning of knowing, for he has already developed knowledge to a certain extent. To remove from this everything that has been gained by cognition, and to establish a pre-cognitive beginning can only be done conceptually. But concepts have no cognitive value at this stage; they have the purely negative task of removing everything from the field of vision that belongs to knowledge and leading it to where knowing begins. These considerations are signposts pointing to the beginning of the act of knowing, but do not yet belong to it. In everything that the epistemologist puts forward before establishing the beginning, there is only expediency or inexpediency, not truth or error. But even in this starting point itself, all error is excluded, because the error can only begin with recognition, with knowing (Erkennen), and cannot therefore lie before it.

The last sentence cannot be claimed by any epistemologist not proceeding from these considerations. Where the starting point is made by mentally evaluating an object (or subject), an error is possible at the very beginning, namely right at this evaluation. The justification of this depends on the laws on which the act of knowing is based. However, this can only emerge during epistemological investigations. Only if one says that I separate all mental determinations acquired through knowing from my picture of the world and only hold on to everything that comes into the horizon of my observation without my intervention, then all error is excluded. Since I fundamentally abstain from making any statements, I cannot make any mistakes. Insofar as error comes into consideration epistemologically, it can only lie within the act of cognition. An illusion is not an error, so if the moon appears larger to us at its rising point than at its zenith, we are not dealing with an error, but with a fact well founded in the laws of nature. An error in knowing would only arise if we incorrectly interpreted “bigger” and “smaller” when combining given perceptions in thinking, but this interpretation lies within the act of knowing.

If one really wants to understand cognition in its entire essence, then one must undoubtedly first grasp it where it begins, where it sits in the world. It is also clear that what lies before this beginning must not be included in the explanation of cognition, but rather must be assumed. Penetrating the essence of our assumptions is the task of scientific work (wissenschaftlichen Erkenntnis) in its individual branches, where we do not want to gain special knowledge about this or that, but rather we want to examine knowing itself. Only when we have understood the act of cognition can we come to a judgment about the significance of statements about world-contents that are made with cognition.

That is why we refrain from making any attribution, any characterization about what is immediately given, so long as we do not know how such an attribution relates to what is determined. Even with the concept of the “immediately given” we say nothing about what lies before cognition. Its only purpose is to point out the same thing, to focus attention on it. The conceptual formation is here, at the beginning of the theory of knowing, only the first connection in which knowing sits in relation to world-content. This designation itself provides for the eventuality that the entire content of the world is only a web of our own "I", and that exclusive subjectivism therefore rightly exists, because there can be no question of this first connection (dieser Tatsache) being “given”. It could only be the result of cognitive consideration. In other words, it could only turn out to be correct through epistemology, but could not serve as a prerequisite for it.

Everything that can arise within the horizon of our experiences in the broadest sense is now included in this immediately given world content: sensations, perceptions, views, feelings, acts of will, dream and fantasy images, images, concepts, and ideas. At this level, illusions and hallucinations are also on an equal footing with other parts of the world content. For what relationship these perceptions have to other perceptions can only be learned by cognitive observation. If a theory of knowing starts from the assumption that everything just mentioned is the content of our consciousness, then the question immediately arises of how we get from mere consciousness to knowledge of being, to being aware of being. Where is the springboard that leads us from the subjective to the trans-subjective? For me, the matter is completely different. For me, consciousness and the "I" idea are initially only parts of the immediately given, and what relationship the former has to the latter is only a result of cognitive awareness. We do not want to determine cognition from consciousness, but vice versa; consciousness and the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity is determined by cognition. Since we initially isolate the given without any predicates, we must ask how we even arrive at a characterization of it. How is it possible to begin the activity of knowing? How can we designate one part of the worldview, for example, as perception, and another part as concept, one as being, the other as appearance, one as cause, another as effect. How can we separate ourselves from the objective, and regard ourselves as "I" compared to the "not-I"?

We must find the bridge from the “given” worldview to the one we develop through our knowing. The difficulty is that so long as we just passively stare at what is given, we cannot find a fundamental starting point to build on, on which to continue to develop knowledge. We would have to find a place somewhere in the given where we can intervene, where there is something of the same nature (Homogenes) as cognition. If everything were entirely just given, then it would have to be a matter of simply staring out into the external world and a completely equivalent staring into the world of our individuality. We could then at most describe things as external, but never understand them. Our concepts only have a purely external connection to what they refer to, not an internal one. For true knowing, everything depends on us finding an area somewhere in the given where our knowing activity not only presupposes something given, but actively stands in the middle of the given. In other words, it must turn out, especially when we strictly adhere to what is merely given, that not everything is just given. Our prerequisite, through its strict adherence, must partially cancel itself out. We set it up so that we do not arbitrarily fix any beginning of the theory of knowing, but truly seek it out. Everything can be “the given” in this sense, even what is not given in its innermost nature. It then only appears to us formally as a given, but upon closer inspection it reveals itself to be what it really is.

All the difficulty in understanding knowing lies in the fact that we do not produce the content of the world from within ourselves. If we did that, there would be no recognition at all. A question for me can only arise from a thing if it is “given” to me. Onto whatever I bring forth, I bestow characterizations myself, so I don't need to ask about their authentication. This is the second point of my epistemology, namely the postulate that there must be something in the realm of the given where our activity does not float in the void, where the content of the world itself is the active agent.

We determined the beginning of the theory of knowing in such a way that we placed it entirely before cognitive activity, so that no prejudice would cloud knowing itself. In the same way we determine the first step that we take in the development of our discourse, so that there can be no question of error or inaccuracy. For we do not make a judgment about anything, but only point out the requirement that must be fulfilled if knowing is to come about at all. It all depends on us being aware, with full consideration (Besonnenheit, basking in the Sun’s clarity), that we put forward as a postulate the characteristics which that part of the world's content must have on which we can use our cognitive skill.

Anything else is quite unthinkable. The content of the world as given would be completely undermined. No part can give the impetus of itself to create order in such a chaos. Therefore, cognitive activity must make a power statement and say that certain parts must be such and such. Such a power statement in no way affects the quality of the given. It does not bring arbitrary assertions into the science of clear thinking. It doesn't claim anything at all, but just says that if knowledge is to be clarified at all, then one must search for an arena as described above. If such is present, then there is a clarification of knowing, otherwise not. While we began the theory of knowing with the "given" in general, we now limit the requirement to keeping a specific viewpoint in mind.

We now should examine this stipulation more closely. Where do we find anything in the world picture that is not just a given, but is a given insofar as it is at the same time something produced, brought forth (Hervorgebrachtes) in the act of knowing?

We must be completely clear that what is brought forth in the act of knowing must have been given fresh and unmodified. Conclusive inferences are not necessary to recognize this. This already shows that the sensory qualities do not satisfy our requirements, because we do not know directly that these do not arise without our activity, but only through physical and physiological considerations. But we do know directly that concepts and ideas always first enter the sphere of unmodified-given in and by the act of knowing. Therefore no one is mistaken about this characterization of concepts and ideas. One can certainly consider hallucinations to be something given from outside, but one will never believe that its concepts are given to us without our own work of thinking. A madman considers certain things and conditions to be real, and endows them with the label “reality”, even though there are no facts to back that up. A madman will never say, however, of his concepts and ideas, that they enter the world of the “given” without his own activity. Everything else in our worldview has such a character that it must be ‘given’ if we want to experience it, and only with concepts and ideas does the reverse hold true. We must produce Ideas and concepts if we want to experience them.

Only what we call concepts and ideas have been given to us in a form we call “the intellectual view”. Kant and the more recent philosophers who follow him completely deny that people have this ability, because all thinking is supposed to incorporate only objects standing in the vicinity (Gegenstände) and brings forth absolutely nothing out of itself. In the intellectual view, however, the content must be given along with the think-form (Denkform). But isn't this really the case with pure concepts and ideas? — By concept I mean a rule according to which the unconnected elements of perception are combined into a unity. Causality, for example, is a concept. Idea is just a concept with a larger content. Organism, taken completely abstractly, is an idea. — One only must look at concepts and ideas in the form in which they are still completely free of any empirical content. For example, if you want to grasp the pure concept of causality, you must not stick to any specific causality or to the sum of all causalities, but rather to the mere concept of it. We must look for causes and effects in the world (Ursachen und Wirkungen, primal circumstances and how they work themselves out), but we ourselves must produce causality as thought-form before we can find it in the world. But if one wanted to hold on to Kant's assertion that concepts without intuitions are empty, it would be unthinkable to demonstrate the possibility of characterizing the given world through concepts. Suppose two elements of the world's content are given, a and b. If I am to look for a relationship between them, I must do so with a rule that has a certain content, but I can only produce such a rule in the act of cognition itself. I cannot take the rule from the object, because any characterization of the object is done with the help of the rule. Such a rule for the determination of actuality, of being real (Bestimmung des Wirklichen) arises completely within a being capable of pure inner grasping, of pure inner understanding (der rein begrifflichen Entität).

Before going any further, let's first eliminate a possible objection. It seems as if the idea of the “I”, the “personal subject”, plays a role unconsciously in our thought processes, and that we use this idea in the progress of our thought development without having demonstrated the justification for it. This is the case when we say, for example that we produce concepts, or when we make this or that demand. But nothing in our statements gives reason to see such sentences as more than stylistic twists. As we have already said, the fact that the act of knowing belongs to an “I” and proceeds from it can only be established by cognitive considerations. So, for the time being we should only speak of the act of knowing without even mentioning its bearer. For everything that has been established up to now is limited to the fact that there is something "given" and that the postulate stated above arises from one point of this "given", and finally that concepts and ideas are the in the arena that corresponds to this postulate. This is not to deny that the point from which the postulate arises is the “I”. But for now, we limit ourselves to presenting these two steps of epistemology in their purity.