Tag: John Locke

Epistemology: How do you Know that you Know what you Know?

The role of perception in knowledge

It is hard to imagine a world that exists outside of what we can perceive. In the effort to get through each day without crashing our cars or some other calamity, we make assumptions about the objects in our physical world. Their continuity, their behaviour.

Some of these assumptions are based on our own experience, some on the knowledge imparted by others of their experience, and some on inferences of logic.

Experience, however, comes through the lens of perception. How things look, how they feel, how they sound.

Our understanding of, and interaction with, the world comes through particular constructs of the human body – eyes, ears, fingers, etc. Most people intuitively understand the subjectivity of some of our perceptions.

Colors look ‘different' to people who are color blind. Our feeling of temperature is impacted by immediate contrast – People stepping outside the doors of an airport will have a different impression of the temperature if they have just come from Moose Jaw or Cancun.

Even more substantial understandings come to us through the lens of our senses. We can see the shape of a tree, or we could close our eyes and infer the shape through touch, but in either case, or even combining the two, we are relying on our senses to impart an understanding of the physical world.

The question of what objectively ‘is', is something that has long been one of the subjects of philosophy. Philosophers from Descartes to Kant have tried to describe our existence in such a way as to arrive at understanding of the physical world in which things can be conclusively known.

Descartes introduces the idea in his Meditations: “Surely whatever I had admitted until now as most true I received either from the senses or through the senses. However, I have noticed that the senses are sometimes deceptive; and it is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once.”

Descartes famously employed systematic doubt, questioning all knowledge conveyed by his experience in the world until the only knowledge he couldn't doubt was the fact that he could doubt.

Therefore I suppose that everything I see is false. I believe that none of what my deceitful memory represents ever existed. I have no sense whatever. Body, shape, extension, movement, and place are all chimeras. What then will be true? … Thus, after everything has been most carefully weighed, it must finally be established that this pronouncement “I am, I exist” is necessarily true every time I utter it or conceive it in my mind. (Descartes, Meditations)

Descartes confirmed we have a self. Unfortunately this self could be the one we see in the mirror each morning or a brain in a vat. If the only thing we cannot doubt is that we can doubt, essentially that guarantees us having only the mechanism to doubt. No body. We could therefore be isolated brains, being manipulated by things unknown, our entire world a mirage.

How then can we hope to claim knowledge about the physical world?

For Locke, our understanding of the world comes from our experience of it. It is this experience that provides knowledge. He says, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas: – How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store with the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety Whence has it all the materials or reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself.

He wrote that there were two types of qualities, ones that existed innately in an object or series of objects, such as size, number, or motion, and those that are wholly dependent on our perception of them, such as color or smell.

The particular bulk, number, figure, and motion of the parts of fire or snow are really in them, whether one's senses perceive them or no: and therefore they may be called real qualities, because they really exist in those bodies. But light, heat, whiteness, or coldness are not more really in them than sickness or pain is in manna. (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding)

Experience then, as long as we have an understanding of the limitations of our perception, will confer certain truths about the physical world we inhabit. For example, through experience we can claim knowledge of how many crows are perched on a telephone wire, but not how many of them have ‘black’’ as an intrinsic property of their feathers.

Quite in opposition to this was George Berkeley (pronounced Bar-clay), for whom ‘to be' was ‘to be perceived'. Berkeley wrote in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge:

Besides all that endless variety of ideas or objects of knowledge, there is likewise something which knows or perceives them and exercised divers operations, as willing, imagining, remembering, about them. This perceiving … does not denote any one of my ideas, but a thing entirely distinct from them, wherein they exist or, which is the same thing, whereby they are perceived – for the existence of an idea consists in being perceived.

Because our knowledge of the world comes from our perception of it, it is impossible to conclusively know the existence of anything independent of our perception. Berkeley, wrote:

Hence, as it is impossible for me to see or feel anything without an actual sensation of that thing, so it is impossible for me to conceive in my thoughts any sensible thing or object distinct from the sensation or perception of it.

This line of inquiry ultimately results in the entire physical world being called into question, as Berkeley observed:

If we have any knowledge at all of external things, it must be by reason, inferring their existence from what is immediately perceived by sense. {However} it is granted on all hands (and what happens in dreams, frenzies, and the like, puts it beyond dispute) that it is possible we might be affected with all the ideas we have now, though no bodies existed without resembling them.

If we can not know things outside of perception, and our perceptions are entirely unreliable, where does that leave us? It certainly isn't useful to imagine your existence as the sum total of your knowledge, or that our experiences are inherently mistrustful.

What these philosophies can be useful for understanding though, is that often what we consider knowledge is more of a general social agreement on a somewhat consistent comprehension of the things before us. For example, we appreciate that the color green can be perceived differently by various people, but we organize our language based on a general understanding of the color green without worrying about the particular experience of green that any individual may have.

For David Hume, there definitely was a physical world, our perception of which was ultimately responsible for all of our ideas, no matter how complex or abstract. He wrote in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

When we analyze our thoughts or ideas, however compounded or sublime, we always find that they resolve themselves into such simple ideas as were copied from a precedent feeling or sentiment. Even those ideas, which, at first view, seem the most wide of this origin, are found, upon a nearer scrutiny, to be derived from it.

Furthermore, since all of our perceptions of the physical world are coming from the same physical world, and the nature of perceiving works more or less the same in each person, we can achieve a consistency in our understanding.

So although it may not be possible to know things with the same certainty as knowing oneself, or to be able to really describe the construct of the world outside of our perception of it, at least we can get along with each other because of a general consistency of experience.

However, this experience still admits to a certain fragility. There is no guarantee that past experiences will be consistent with future ones. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume observes:

Being determined by custom to transfer the past to the future, in all our inferences; where the past has been entirely regular and uniform, we expect the event with the greatest assurance and leave no room for any contrary supposition. But where different effects have been found to follow from causes, which are to appearance exactly similar, all these various effects must occur to the mind in transferring the past to the future, and enter into our consideration, when we determine the probability of the event.

To simultaneously understand all effects when considering an event in the future is not necessarily a limitation, thanks to our amazingly sophisticated brains. Immanuel Kant thought that the way we process the information provided by our senses was an important component of knowledge. Kant wrote in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics:

The difference between truth and dreaming is not ascertained by the nature of the representations which are referred to objects (for they are the same in both cases), but by their connection according to those rules which determine the coherence of the representation in the concept of an object, and by ascertaining whether they can subsist together in experience or not.

Kant did not support the view that the existence of objects was called into question because of the subjectivity of the perceptions by which we must experience them, but neither that all knowledge of the physical world comes from experience. Kant argued:

Experience teaches us what exists and how it exists, but never that it must necessarily exist so and not otherwise. Experience therefore can never teach us the nature of things in themselves.

Knowledge then, is made up of things we infer, things we experience, and the way our brain processes both. The great metaphysical question of ‘Why it is all this way?’ may always be out of our reach.

Understanding some of this metaphysical uncertainty in knowledge does not mean that we have to give up on knowing anything. It simply points to a certain subjectivity, an allowance for different conceptions of the world. And hopefully it offers a set of tools with which to evaluate or build claims of knowledge.

John Locke’s Method of Organizing Common Place Books

“You know that I voluntarily communicated this method to you, as I have done to many others, to whom I believed it would not be unacceptable.” 

In 1685 English physician and philosopher John Locke published “Méthode nouvelle de dresser des recueils,” which explains his unique method of indexing his common-place book. Later translated from French into English as A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, with a preface by Monsieur Le Clerc, who augments and clarifies the work.

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Locke's Method

Locke first began keeping common place books in 1652, his first year at Oxford. His system, as unique at the time as it is today, can be found on pages [vi] and [1] in A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books (image below).

In his letter to Monfieur Toinard, which serves as the basis for A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, he explains the index, which contains a line for every letter of the alphabet and a subdivision along the lines of vowels:

I take a white paper book of what size I think fit, I divide the two first pages which face one another, by parallel lines, into five and twenty equal parts, with black lead; after that, I cut them perpendicular by other lines, which I draw from the top of the page to the bottom, as you may see (below) … Afterwards I mark with ink every fifth line of the twenty five that I just now spoke of. … I put at the beginning of every fifth space, or before the middle, one of the twenty letters which are defign'd for this use; and a little farther in every space one of the vowels in their natural order. This is the index or table of the whole volume, be it of what size forever.

John Locke
John Locke

Locke continues:

” If I would put anything in my Common-place Book, I find out a head to which I may refer it. Each head ought to be some important and essential word to the matter in hand; and in that word regard is to be had to the first letter, and the vowel that follows it; for upon these two letters depends the use of the index.

[…]

When I meet with any thing worth putting into my Common-Place-Book, I presently look for a proper Head. Suppose for Example, the Head were Epistola; I look in the Index the First Letter which the Vowel that follows, which in this Case E I. If there is found any Number in the Space marked E I, that shows me the space designed for Words which begin with E, and whose Vowel that immediately follows is I, I must refer to the word Epistola in the Page what I have to take notice of, I write the Head in pretty large Letters, so that the principal Word is found in the Margin, and I continue the Line in writing on what I have to remark. I constantly observe this Method, that nought but the Head appear in the Margin, and on and on without carrying the Line again into the Margin. When one has thus preserv'd the margin clear, the Heads, present themselves at First Sight.”

[…]

When the two pages designed for one class are full, I look forwards for the next backside of a leaf that is blank. … At the tip of this new backside of a leave, I set down the number of the page I filled last. By these numbers, which refer to one another, the first whereof is at the bottom of one page, and the second is at the beginning of another, one joins matter that is separated, as if there was nothing between them.

[…]
Every time I put a number at the bottom of a page, I put it also into the index; but when I put only a V, I make no addition to the index; the reason whereof is plain. If the head is a monosyllable, and begins with a vowel, that vowel is at the same time both the first letter of the word and the characteristic vowel. Therefore I write the word Ars in A a, and Os in O o.

People in the Renaissance broke texts into fragments and used these to assemble and connect. It was, perhaps, the original remix culture and ultimate foundation of creativity.

Locke also advises having several books, “one for each science upon which one makes collections, at least two for the heads, to which we may refer to all of our knowledge, viz. , moral philosophy and natural; and perhaps a third, which may be called the knowledge of signs, which relates to the use of words, and is much more extent than mere criticism.”

At the time Locke's method offered a solution to one of the biggest problems of commonplace books: how many pages to assign in a blank notebook to a new subject. By means of an example, one of Newton's notebooks, “Certain Philosophical Questions,” which he began at Cambridge in 1664, listed 37 heads with a rather unsuccessful guess at the number of pages each would require. Locke's method required no pre-assigned pages, which made it more useful for both the diversity of information one kept and the size of the repository.

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Not all were fans of Locke's Method

In a paper read before the Statistical Society at the close of the year 1840, and published in the Journal of the Statistical Society of London, Henry John Porter, commented:

It is strange, indeed, that such a man as Locke, impressed with the value of method, should ever have adopted so imperfect and arbitrary a plan, or having once adopted it, that he should not have improved upon it' for, surely, nothing can be more opposed to all method than the grouping of subjects together without any other bond of connection than an initial letter and a first vowel.

[…]

The object to Locke's “Common-place book” is this,—that a number of totally different subjects are entered in the same page, or succession of pages, which subjects are held together by no other relation than that of an initial letter and first vowel. It is true, that so long as these entries are few in number, there is little loss of time in refereeing to them' but if they become very numerous, many pages may be passed in review before the desired passage meets the eye. But even this inconvenience is not of sufficient moment to require the adoption of an improved method, where each of the several entries refers to a different subject. It is only from a great number of passages referring to the same topic as scattered through a succession of pages that the inconvenience of this plan is severely felt. It was this obvious inconvenience which induced me to adopt the improvement of devoting a separate page, or series of pages, to each separate subject. But even here I soon found the same objection to apply which lay against the common-place book of Locke. As long as the entries referring to any particular topic were few in number, my common-place book answered well-enough; but when the subject began to occupy many pages, I found that if I wanted to make use of it, to digest the materials which I had collected, to analyze them, or to write about them, I had to re-arrange the whole, and to place extracts or facts of my own observing which related to one part of my subject, or threw light upon any isolated question connected with it, by themselves, that by viewing them in connection I might better understand their bearing, and estimate their value. Thus the initial labour of inscribing the several extracts or facts in my common-place book had to be repeated with regard to all those parts of my subject to which I was induced to pay particular attention.

 

Locke's method was used for at least one hundred years.

Commonplace Books as a Source for Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity

Common Place Book

There is an old saying that the truest form of poverty is “when you have occasion for anything, you can't use it, because you know not where it is laid.”

The flood of information is nothing new.

“In fact,” the Harvard historian Ann Blair writes in her book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, “many of our current ways of thinking about and handling information descend from patterns of thought and practices that extend back for centuries.” Her book explores “the history of one of the longest-running traditions of information management — the collection and arrangement of textual excerpts designed for consultation.” She calls them reference books.

Large collections of textual material, consisting typically of quotations, examples, or bibliographical references, were used in many times and places as a way of facilitating access to a mass of texts considered authoritative. Reference books have sometimes been mined for evidence about commonly held views on specific topics or the meanings of words, and some (encyclopedias especially) have been studied for the genre they formed.

[…]

No doubt we have access to and must cope with a much greater quantity of information than earlier generations on almost every issue, and we use technologies that are subject to frequent change and hence often new. Nonetheless, the basic methods we deploy are largely similar to those devised centuries ago in early reference books. Early compilations involved various combinations of four crucial operations: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing, which I think of as the four S’s of text management. We too store, sort, select, and summarize information, but now we rely not only on human memory, manuscript, and print, as in earlier centuries, but also on computer chips, search functions, data mining, and Wikipedia, along with other electronic techniques.

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The Florilegium and Commonplace Books

One of the original methods to keep, share, and remix ideas was the florilegium, which was a compilation of excerpts from other writings taken mostly from religion, philosophy, and sometimes classical texts. The word florilegium literally means a gathering of flowers — flos (flowers) and legere (to gather).

The leading Renaissance humanists, who experienced perhaps the first wave of information overload, were fans of commonplace books as a method of study and note-taking. Generally, these notebooks were kept private and filled with the likes of the classical Roman authors such as Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca.

“In his influential De Copia (1512),” writes professor Richard Yeo, “Erasmus advised that an abundant stock of quotations and maxims from classical texts be entered under various loci (places) to assist free-flowing oratory.”

Arranged under ‘Heads' and recorded as ‘common-places' (loci communes), these commonplace books could be consulted for speeches and written compositions designed for various situations — in the law court, at ceremonial occasions, or in the dedication of a book to a patron. Typical headings included the classical topics of honour, virtue, beauty, friendship, and Christian ones such as God, Creation, faith, hope, or the names of the virtues and vices.

The aim of these books wasn't regurgitation but rather combinatorial creativity, as people were encouraged to improvise on themes and topics. Gathering raw material alone — in this case, information — is not enough. We must transform it into something new. It is in this light that Seneca advised copying the bee and Einstein advised combinatorial play.

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A Move Away From Memory

Theologian Jean Le Clerc, writing about John Locke's use of commonplace books, said:

In all sorts of learning, and especially in the study of languages, the memory is the treasury or store-house, … but lest the memory should be oppressed or over-burthen'd by too many things, order and method are to be called into its assistance. So that when we extract any thing out of an author, which is like to be of future use, we may be able to find it without any trouble. For it would be of little purpose to spend our time in [the] reading of books, if we could not apply what we read to our use.

Commonplace books, during the Renaissance, were used to enhance the memory. Yeo writes,

This reflected the ancient Greek and Roman heritage. In his Topica, Aristotle formulated a doctrine of ‘places’ (topoi or loci) that incorporated his ten categories. A link was soon drawn between this doctrine of ‘places’ (which were, for Aristotle, ‘seats of arguments’, not quotations from authors) and the art of memory. Cicero built on this in De Oratore, explaining that ‘it is chiefly order that gives distinctness to memory’; and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria became an influential formulation. This stress on order and sequence was the crux of what came to be known as ‘topical memory’, cultivated by mnemonic techniques (‘memoria technica’) involving the association of ideas with visual images. These ideas, forms of argument, or literary tropes were ‘placed’ in the memory, conceived in spatial terms as a building, a beehive, or a set of pigeon holes. This imagined space was then searched for the images and ideas it contained…. In the ancient world, the practical application of this art was training in oratory; yet Cicero stressed that the good orator needed knowledge, not just rhetorical skill, so that memory had to be trained to store and retrieve illustrations and arguments of various kinds. Although Erasmus distrusted the mnemonic arts, like all the leading Renaissance humanists, he advocated the keeping of commonplace books as an aid to memory.

While calling memory “the store-house of our ideas,” John Locke recognized its limitations. On the one hand, it was an incredible source of knowledge. On the other hand, it was weak and fragile. He knew that over time, memory faded and became harder to retrieve, which made it less valuable. In something the internet age would be proud of, Locke's focus was retrieval, not recall. His system was a form of pre-industrial Google.

Locke saw commonplace books not as a means to improve memory but as an aid in recollecting complex information gathered over years from multidisciplinary subjects. If only Farnam Street existed in his day.

Yeo writes:

Locke sometimes refers to his bad memory. This might seem to endorse the humanist conception of commonplace books as memory aids, but Locke does not believe that memory can be trained in ways that guarantee transfer across subjects and situations. This separates him from many of his near contemporaries for whom the commonplace book was still a stimulus in training memory to recall and recite selected quotations.

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Creativity

In his essay “Extraordinary Commonplaces,” Robert Darnton comments on the practice at the time, which was to copy pithy passages into notebooks, “adding observations made in the course of daily life.”

Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality. … The era of the commonplace book reached its peak in the late Renaissance, although commonplacing as a practice probably began in the twelfth century and remained widespread among the Victorians. It disappeared long before the advent of the sound bite.

Commonplace books are thus to be mined for information, not only on how people thought but also as a source of creativity. Darnton continues:

By selecting and arranging snippets from a limitless stock of literature, early modern Englishmen gave free play to a semi-conscious process of ordering experience. The elective affinities that bound their selection into patterns reveal an epistemology — a process of knowing — at work below the surface.

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The Art of Putting Things in Order

As for what to write in the commonplace books themselves, Le Clerc advised that we: (1) extract only those things which are “choice and excellent,” for either the substance or the expression; and (2) don't write out too much, and mark the place where we found it so we can come back to it:

At the entrance indeed upon any study, when the judgment is not sufficiently confirm'd, nor the stock of knowledge over large, so that the students are not very well acquainted with what is worth collecting, scarce anything is extracted, but what will be useful but for a little while, because as the judgment grows ripe, the things are despis'd which before were had in esteem. Yet it is of service to have collections of this kind, both that students may learn the art of putting things in order, as also the better to retain what they read.

But here are two things carefully to be observed; the first is, that we extract only those things which are choice and excellent, either for the matter itself or else for the elegancy of the expression, and not what comes next; for that labour would abate our desire to go on with our readings; neither are we to think that all those things are to be writ out which are called … sentences. Those things alone are to be picked out, which we cannot so readily call to mind, or for which we should want proper words and expressions.

The second thing which I would have taken notice of, is, that you don't write out too much, but only what is most worthy of observation, and to mark the place of the author from whence you extracted it, for otherwise it will cause the loss of too much time.

Neither ought anything to be collected whilst you are busied in reading; if by taking the pen in hand the thread of your reading be broken off, for that will make the reading both tedious and unpleasant.

The places we design to extract from are to be marked upon a piece of paper, that we may do it after we have read the book out; neither is it to be done just after the first reading of the book, but when we have read it a second time.

These things it's likely may seem minute and trivial, but without 'em great things cannot subsist; and these being neglected cause very great confusion both of memory and judgment, and that which above all things is most to be valued, loss of time.

Some who otherwise were men of most extraordinary parts, by the neglect of these things have committed great errors, which if they had been so happy as to have avoided, they would have been much more serviceable to the learned world, and so consequently to mankind.

And in good truth, they who despise such things, do it not so much from any greater share of wit that they have than their neighbours, as from what of judgment; whence it is that they do not well understand how useful things order and method are.

Locke also advised “to take notice of a place in an author, from whom I quote something, I make use of this method: before I write anything, I put the name of the author in my commonplace book, and under that name the title of the treatise, the size of the volume, and the time and place of its edition, and the number of pages that the whole book contains.”

This number of pages serves me for the future to mark the particular treatise and the edition I made use of. I have no need to mark the place, otherwise than in setting down the number of the page from whence I have drawn what I have wrote, just above the number of pages contained in the whole volume.

(Image source)