Socrates declared in order to live a good life it is a necessity ‘to know one self’. To have knowledge of who we are. But, what is the ‘self’? Before we can answer that question, first we must ask, what is knowledge? Knowledge is an irrefutable truth proven by evidence. As knowledge is absolute, belief is not. A belief can be irrational, knowledge cannot. You can have a false belief, but not false knowledge.
Philosophers of the enlightenment age often fell on either side of the epistemological coin of skepticism. Either being an empiricist, who believed knowledge could only be obtained through the senses or a rationalist, who believed knowledge could only be gained through reason. Knowledge was viewed in two categories: analytic and synthetic.
For Hume, who was an empiricist, experience was necessary for knowledge gained from the physical world. For something to be considered knowledge, it must be based on impressions or ideas derived from impressions. Impressions are sense data and emotions, while Ideas are thoughts and memories related to these impressions. Since Hume believed that knowledge relies on our perceptions, assertions of knowledge are ultimately meaningless. Thus, any metaphysical argument is worthless due to the lack of empirical evidence. Hume asserted that human behavior was governed by belief rather than reason, declaring “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of passion.”. Hume goes on explain the nature of belief, and why it has such a powerful influence on our lives, “The difference between belief and fiction is that feeling is attached to belief, excited by the nature of the situation the mind is placed in . . .this sentiment arises from the customary conjunction of objects.” Hume had a somewhat pessimistic view on humanity and our behaviors, saying,” Human nature remains unchanged in principle . . .
Our motives produce the same actions … Mankind is much the same through all space and time.” We are in definition thinking beasts, influenced by an external world in which we try to conceptualize. Hume thought that personal identity didn’t really exist. It was merely the human mind finding a connection between the sequence of relatable events. Our mind simply forms these memories and experiences into a unified whole which we use to define our personal identity, with no evidence of an underlying ‘core’ pulling these ideas together. Hume found the self to be the illusion, as this idea of self doesn’t persist over time. There is no you that is the same person from birth to death. We’re all just an ever bundle of impressions that our minds are fooled into thinking of as constant thing, because they’re retained in these bodies that more or less looks the same day after day. We cannot observe ourselves in a unified way, as there is no impression that ties the impressions together. We have no real ‘awareness’ of ourselves but only our experiences. There is simply no empirical evidence to suggest that we are nothing more than the culmination of memories and experience formed by our impressions. The correlation between these individual aspects does not imply causation by association.
The concept of ‘self’ is produced by our habit to assign a unified existence to any collection of relatable parts. Locke, who was also a empiricist, rejected the concept of ‘original sin’ and also the notion of ‘innate’ ideas, believing ‘Tabula Rasa’, that the human mind is a ‘blank slate’ at birth and we our influenced by the impressions of an external world. Experience makes who we are. Locke proposed a concept known as ‘Memory Theory’, which asserts that our idea personal identity persists over time because we retain memories of ourselves at different points, and each of those moments are connected to the one before it. As we our formed by experiences, each new experience changes who we are. Thus our ‘self’ is constantly changing. Unlike Hume, who saw this as evidence that the idea of personal identity was illusionary, Locke stated, “For as far as any intelligent Being can repeat the Idea of any past action with the same consciousness it had of it at first, and with the same consciousness is has of any present action; so far it is the same personal self.”.
Descartes argued for rationalism, believing that human reason was sufficient to understand the world. Where experience is anecdotal, reason is based in logic. Any knowledge that was gained pertaining to the external world was through intuition of the mind, asserting that, “Thinking is the only attribute that belongs to us that cannot be separated from us independently . . . This body is not known empirically but rather by understanding the mind. Things are not known from the result of the senses, but because they are understood.”. Descartes believed that certain concepts innate to our human condition helped us to gain understanding. In relation to dualism, the separation between body and mind, saying, “The mind is separate to the body, as the body is divisible and the mind indivisible.”. Descartes asserted that the mind is the ‘existing’ aspect of our self and the body to be a mere extension, stating famously, ‘Cogito ergo sum” which means “I think, therefore I am” and “All thinking things exist”, based on his argument formulated in his work ‘Meditations’.
Descartes concept of substance helps further to understand the connection between the ‘self’ and the mind. ‘Substance’ is something that exists independently of the external world, in this instance the mind. ‘Essence’ of the mind would be thought itself, and the ‘Modes of Substance’ would be various types of thinking we experience. Thus, we can interpret Descartes idea of the self to be an abstract individual consciousness intrinsic to the human condition. Kant opposed the empiricist assertion of ‘Tabula Rasa’, that the mind is a blank slate at birth, influenced by the sensory experience of an external world. He found this model to be inadequate at identifying the reasoning behind our beliefs. As certain aspects of our beliefs influence experience through means of the mind. For example, if I hold the belief in divine intervention, and experience a near fatal ‘close call’, I’d naturally assume that a supreme being had an interest in my personal wellbeing.
My belief in a higher power influenced my perception of this experience to be of a extraordinary nature. We ultimately define experience through our mental reasoning as we draw conclusions from the cause and effect of actions. According to both rationalists and empiricists, the mind is of a passive nature. Where rationalists proposed that the mind possessed innate concepts and empiricists asserted that the mind is a blank slate which receives ideas. Kant argued that the mind is not passive but rather active, playing a significant role in the structuring our reality. Experience of an external world is only possible if the mind provides a systematic structuring of theses representations in which to draw conclusions from. Kant believed that we are born with these innate mental structures. Kant argued that we cannot be sure of knowledge that cannot be known empirically, as we can only experience objects that exist in time in space.
Even though Kant was partial to certain empiricist ideas, it was not a sufficient explanation of our experiences. Opposing the notion that we only receive and record sense data, Kant asserted that we actively order, organize, select and interpret these impressions. Thus, the mental structuring of experience makes understanding of this knowledge possible. The epistemological and metaphysical theories formed by the observations empiricists and rationalists analyzed, failed to sufficiently identify the way in which we understand knowledge. This is due to these skeptics only considering the results of the minds interactions with the external world and not the nature of the minds influence itself.
In conclusion, Kant’s concept of Knowledge is that it is constructed by an active mind through both reason and experience. This ‘unity of consciousness’ is the metaphysical framework of the self.
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