Harrison Middleton University

A Peek at Knowledge

A Peek at Knowledge

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


August 26, 2022

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

From Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

“I wonder whether what I see and seem to understand about nature is merely one of the accidents of freedom, repeated by chance before my eyes, or whether it has any counterpart in the worlds beyond Tinker Creek. I find in quantum mechanics a world symbolically similar to my world at the creek.

“Many of us are still living in the universe of Newtonian physics, and fondly imagine that real, hard scientists have no use for these misty ramblings, dealing as scientists do with the measurable and the known. We think that at least the physical causes of physical events are perfectly knowable, and that, as the results of various experiments keep coming in, we gradually roll back the cloud of unknowing. We remove the veil one by one, painstakingly, adding knowledge to knowledge and whisking away veil after veil, until at last we reveal the nub of things, the sparkling equation from whom all blessings flow. Even wildman Emerson accepted the truly pathetic fallacy of the old science when he wrote grudgingly towards the end of his life, ‘When the microscope is improved, we shall have the cells analysed, and all will be electricity, or somewhat else.’ All we need to do is perfect our instruments and our methods, and we can collect enough data like birds on a string to predict physical events from physical causes.

“But in 1927 Werner Heisenberg pulled out the rug, and our whole understanding of the universe toppled and collapsed. For some reason it has not yet trickled down to the man on the street that some physicists now are a bunch of wild-eyed, raving mystics. For they have perfected their instruments and methods just enough to whisk away the crucial vein, and what stands revealed is the Cheshire cat’s grin.”

Because of this and similar passages in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I began to question my definition of knowledge. And then, it occurred to me that I had never read the entry about knowledge in the Syntopicon. How can that be? I immediately read it and what struck me most is that knowledge might or might not involve certitude. I have – rather naively – always believed that knowledge holds some required and defined level of certitude. Merriam-Webster offers a few definitions of knowledge, such as: “the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association;” and, “the sum of what is known: the body of truth, information, and principles acquired by humankind.” I guess this means that we know – maybe even only peripherally know – what we are acquainted with. So, knowledge is subject to change as we become better acquainted with a thing.

However, as often happens over the years, authors disagree about whether or not knowledge is subjective and whether or not it is flexible. A passage from “Knowledge” in the Syntopicon examines this divide:

“For some writers, such as Plato, certitude is as inseparable from knowledge as truth is. To speak of a ‘false knowledge as well as a true’ seems to him impossible; and ‘uncertain knowledge’ is as self-contradictory a phrase as ‘false knowledge.’

“Others use the word ‘knowledge’ more loosely to cover both adequate and inadequate knowledge, the probable as well as the certain. They make a distinction within the sphere of knowledge that is equivalent to the distinction between knowledge and opinion.

“Spinoza, for example, distinguishes three kinds of knowledge. He groups the perception of individual things through the bodily senses, which he calls ‘knowledge from vague experience,’ with knowledge ‘from signs’ which depends on ideas formed by the memory and imagination. ‘These two ways of looking at things,’ he writes, ‘I shall hereafter call knowledge of the first kind – opinion or imagination.’ In contrast, that which is derived ‘from our possessing common notions and adequate ideas of the properties of things,’ he calls ‘reason and knowledge of the second kind.’

“The third kind, which he calls ‘intuitive science,’ is that sort of knowing which ‘advances from an adequate idea of certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the essence of things.’ Knowledge of the second and third kinds, he maintains, ‘is necessarily true.’ That there can be falsity in the first kind, and only there, indicates that it is not genuinely knowledge at all, but what other writers would insist upon calling ‘opinion.’

“The several meanings of the word ‘belief’ are determined by these distinctions. Sometimes belief is associated with opinions, sometimes with knowledge, and sometimes it is regarded as an intermediate state of mind. But in any of these meanings belief stands in contrast to make-believe, and this contrast has a bearing on knowledge and opinion as well. To know or to opine puts the mind in some relation to the real or actual rather than the merely possible, and subjects it to the criteria of truth and falsity. The fanciful or imaginary belongs to the realm of the possible (or even the impossible) and the mind in imagining is fancy-free – free from the restraints and restrictions of truth and reality.”

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek seeks knowledge of the first kind: association and observation. She inserts herself as carefully as possible into the environment to explore and investigate the creatures who inhabit Tinker Creek, but also couples close observation with a lot of reading. I admire the author’s courage not only in her voyages throughout the creek and throughout the seasons, but her honest and selfless undertaking. Ironically, then, I find that at the end of the book, the reader discovers as much about the author as we do about nature. It is as if she has inserted the book into my life in the same stance which leads to successful views of nature. (For more on that, read about her experience stalking muskrats.) I can definitely say that, for me at least, each of her discoveries on the creek feels intimately connected to me, the reader, as well. I connect with the sections of the book dedicated to investigating nature with a rawness and force that allows me to feel as if I am the observer.

And this style of close investigation got me thinking about how we obtain knowledge. There are so many layers to knowledge – how we obtain it, whether or not it’s flexible, how opinion is involved, how belief is involved, etc. I hope that you will join me over the next months as I continue to investigate the great idea of knowledge.

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