Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Essays Towards a Theory of Knowledge by Alexander Philip

“Towards,” perhaps, but never gets there
Essays Towards a Theory of Knowledge was originally published in 1915. The author, Alexander Philip, was a Scottish lawyer best known for his advocacy of calendar reform. Among other modifications to the Gregorian calendar, he proposed taking a day from August and adding it to February and permanently fixing the date of Easter. You may wonder how someone of Philip’s background would end up writing a philosophical treatise on the workings of the human mind. After reading his book, I’m still asking myself that question.

Essays Towards a Theory of Knowledge offers an in-depth investigation into epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge. To what extent do our sense perceptions accurately represent reality? Is our faculty of reasoning entirely dependent on sense data or are we born with some form of innate knowledge? How do we judge the accuracy of our perceptions and thoughts? These concerns of epistemology are some of the questions that Philip addresses in this book. The fundamental dilemma of epistemology goes back to Plato and Aristotle, whose doctrines of idealism and empiricism, respectively, differed on whether we have an innate understanding of abstract concepts or whether all our knowledge is derived from sense data. Later philosophers have tried to reconcile these two opposing viewpoints, and here Philip puts his two cents in.

I hesitate to offer a summary of Philip’s argument because I must confess I really did not understand a great deal of it. His prose is written in such convoluted syntax, it is extremely difficult to follow his labyrinthine train of thought. The universe is made up of energy, which is constantly transmuting itself into different forms. So far, so good, if one thinks of matter as a form of potential energy. Not only do we perceive this universe of energy, we are a part of it. “It is only by a visual fiction that we come to regard our active selves as distinct from the dynamic system.” Philip goes to great lengths to emphasize that we experience reality not only with our senses but also through activity, exertion, dynamism. We form a conception of space by moving through it. “The laws of space, therefore, are laws, so to speak, of motion, not of position.” Philip draws heavily on Kant’s theory of a priori knowledge and on Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the Will. The way he states his case is so confusing, however, it is hard to tell exactly where he agrees or disagrees with them. Even the most fundamental aspects of Philip’s philosophy is vague. Throughout the entire book he seemed to be describing a form of materialism (or rather, energism), until the very end, when he mentions Spirit for the first time, as if it were an established fact. Though I don’t claim to understand Philip’s book, I will say that I didn’t recognize any new ideas that I hadn’t encountered in the works of better known philosophers. Philip’s contribution to the field reads more like mere hair-splitting of terminology rather than any unique view on the subject.

A real philosopher would no doubt get more out of this book than I, but would probably rather be reading Kant, Schopenhauer, Hume, Locke, or any of the other philosophers Philip draws from. For the curious armchair philosopher less well-versed in epistemology, I would suggest Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy, which is much more accessible in its delivery and more rewarding in its conclusions.
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