For reference:


I came close to abandoning this question for it seemed just another version of: "Do objective facts exist?", "Is there non-empirical knowledge? and so on. But trying to express my meaning of "structure", I realized all examples had one thing in common: the human mind. Then realized that any non-human-mind related (objective?) structures I manage to communicate would actually be subjectively imposed. (So maybe now I truly get what "A-thing-in-itself" is?)

But we're talking about structure, not things. And immediately I hear "Structures can be described and studied, hence they are knowledge also." However I submit that this is like English being its own meta-language, and that these are human-mind constructions. Mostly, we cannot assume there is similar relations between objective knowledge and structure as there is between our own constructs.

Edit: As pointed out by Conifold, thus far we just have a faint echo of Kant. Now as I understand Kant's "categories of experience" they are structural phenomena, we situate facts, or objects of knowledge, in frameworks such as dichotomy or a formal system, for example. It must be noted that the focus inquiry can be these frameworks themselves such as in programs like Structuralism. However we always find that (at least as far as human pursuits are concerned) there are "things" that may be termed "data" and some sort of frame of reference, or structure, within which they can be made sense of.

Kant rightly realized that we cannot arbitrarily extend these experiential reference frames. Our understanding is limited by the scope of our perceptive history. However the present question is wondering whether there are some meta-structural knowledge, maybe something about the relationship between data and data structures, that may be gleaned from our experience based knowledge and extended to the metaphysical. (In some sense this is a rehash of my earlier question about gaining knowledge that would hold inside and out outside a simulation.)

Question: Are there any philosophers who have studied the (possible) metaphysical difference between knowledge objects and objective structures?

Where "objective structures" are structural entities that exist independent of human experience, like how many would see Mathematics or Logic. And "knowledge objects" are things existing without a need for observation, like how physicalists sees most of the universe.

  • See e.g. Mathematical Structuralism : "The theme of mathematical structuralism is that what matters to a mathematical theory is not the internal nature of its objects, such as its numbers, functions, sets, or points, but how those objects relate to each other." – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Oct 23 '19 at 8:22
  • 1
    See also Structuralism in Physics. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Oct 23 '19 at 8:23
  • And obviously we have the well-known approach of Claude Lévi-Strauss to Structural anthropology. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Oct 23 '19 at 8:24
  • You may find the math called category theory and its history useful. – Rusi-packing-up Oct 23 '19 at 9:06
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA Thanks Mauro, I would have included "Structuralism in Physics" as a reference but for the obvious human-mind connection of theoretical systems. But "Mathematical Structuralism" does come closest to the idea I'm exploring, given that mathematical objects have independent existence from human recourse. – christo183 Oct 23 '19 at 11:14

Can knowledge exist without structure?

The answer to this question is no, and it relates to the definitions of knowledge and structure.

Knowledge is often taken by epistemologists to be some sort of verified belief, and the process of verification whether it be establishment of adequate justification and truth or otherwise (thanks to the Gettier problem) subscribes to the idea that some form of inference is required to move the state of a proposition from belief to knowledge status. It is on the definition of inference, then that the answer to your question hinges.

What is inference? For some people, justification may exclusively be based on intuition such as those who believe in divine revelation. But most philosophers, including many theologians, reject this, and instead rely on deduction, induction, and abduction to justify conclusions from premises. A quick survey of history of philosophy will reveal that this is a central metaphysical aim.

Ultimately, then, if you, like the Ancient Greek physiki, reject revelation soley, and instead rely on reason, then you are relying on structure for your knowledge. How? Well deduction is a structural pattern among premises and conclusions. In modus ponens, for instance, P then Q and P imply Q regardless of any P and Q. So:

P1 If Socrates is in the kitchen, he is in the house.
P2 Socrates is in the kitchen.
C Socrates is in the house.

The certainty (which is the aim of characterizing belief as knowledge) is established by the structure of the method of justification, in this case deduction. A weaker form of certainty can be established with induction, though Hume noted its problems.

P1 Socrates is often in the kitchen on Mondays.
P2 Today is Monday.
C It is likely Socrates is in the kitchen.

Notice how language of frequency and modality make this an entirely different argument. Note that logicians consider deduction a far more reliable method of justification than induction.

So, does knowledge rely on structure? Yes, if one takes the simple introductory definitions of knowledge and structure as used by philosophers generally, and reduces them to more fundamental meanings in ordinary language, one can conclude with certainty that logical structure is necessary for knowledge.

This is a fact to many analytical philosophers who know it to be true. If you're interested in the connection between objectivity and knowledge, you might want to start with the logical positivists like Mach and Hempel from the Vienna and Berlin circles and move your way forward to the present day.

EDIT 2019-10-25 @christo183

Note, if one believes that epistemology partially reduces at a minimum to psychology, then the structures of neurocomputation provide a grounding for qualia. Hence the epistemologically privileged source of belief, perception, is a composition of sensory input such as a visual field; Searle recognizes both an objective and subjective visual field in his essay Perceptual Intentionality. In this way, one can see directly which two phenomena correlate in supervenience. Quine talks briefly about supervenience as why he rejects Cartesian duality here.

  • 1
    We can go even deeper: Take for instance color, we have a primitive sensation of 'red' long before we learn the words to express it. As a communication, or information transfer, device language is a knowledge structure; but there is also a physical (brain) structure that informs us of the redness we perceive. This tells us there are multiple kinds of knowledge and/or structures to make sense of them. Kant said (see edit) that we cannot gain knowledge beyond our "categories of experience", but here (in essence) I'm wondering whether we can gain knowledge of structures on a metaphysical level. – christo183 Oct 25 '19 at 13:11
  • @christo183 If one believes that epistemology partially reduces at a minimum to psychology, then the structures of neurocomputation provide a grounding for qualia. Hence the epistemologically privileged source of belief perception, is a composition of sensory input such as a visual field; Searle recognizes both an objective and subjective visual field in his essay Perceptual Intentionality It seemed over the top to include, but I'll add an edit. – J D Oct 25 '19 at 15:02

Generally the answer has to be NO, which is the main reason why radical skepticism is bound to fail since it questions the very structures which the meaningfulness of the position and of expressivity itself rely on. For a Putnamian (analytical) argument for this see Tim Buttons, Limits of Reality.

But, with Russell, we have to keep knowledge how (knowledge by acquaintance) and knowledge that apart. Of course, it kind of makes sense to say that animals and small children have some kind of knowledge and are able to appropriately behave in accordance with sensual input. On the other hand, what we think of when we are talking of knowledge proper usually is conceptual knowledge which is present in absence of the object in relation to which it stands or which relates to other knowledge or mere ideas/abstract entities. Basically, the small child may be acquainted with red colour and maybe even joyfully scream if and only if they see something red, yet it is hard to justify the proposition that they know that this is red. We simply project our knowledge onto the child (and our former self when we have been a child via memory) and treat them (/us) as if they(/we) already knew. For a nice treatment of this, see Rebecca Kukla, Myth, Memory and Misrecognition in Sellars' "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind".

That being said: To identify the structures which underlie knowledge was the original idea behind phenomenology, one of the most influential methodologies of modern philosophy. The philosophies of Foucault (Archeology of Knowledge), Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari all essentially aim to identify (and sometimes supposedly decompose) these structures. They, in line with what was first was conceived in the Critical Philosophy of the Frankfurt School, are structures which define Truth and Good and are thus potential instruments and elements of power which the free individual has to come to understand and manipulate in order to really become a free rational agent (something which, as IMHO at least Foucault and Derrida have come to understand, is impossible for a single social being who thinks and acts in terms of a social construct, ie language).

If you are generally interested in this line of thought, Foucault's book is a good start. I also strongly suggest to read Plessner's Levels of the Organic and the Human (recently published English translation), where he starts with phenomenological and scientific analysis and, as kind of a synthesis, develops categories/structures of life organising itself which are necessary to realise both of them (the historical a priority of life itself, one could say), ie unite the living processes and their physical basis. Towards the end of the book, he also develops accounts of knowledge and intelligence and how experience and thus knowledge is structured differently between higher mammals like apes and Man. What is more, Plessner is perfectly aware of the fact that even though the structures are evident, they are structures of knowing and living, ie not a rigid ontological structure but an ontic one which changes with modes of living. Thus, we know that any structures we identify are essentially us understanding ourselves as we live and understand and thus subject to change via living, researching, and development of language. As far as I know, he is one of the first philosophers being that explicit about this simple truth which has been reiterated in e.g. the Wittgensteinian tradition since.

This also answers the part of objective structures. Yes, they objectively structure our very understanding of objects, but calling them objective as opposed to subjective (as in, bound to our mind) kind of misses the point. The biological body with its sensual apparatus could be called an "objective structure" necessary for knowledge, but without an understanding subject processing the data and living the body - a phenomenological plane of experience - there would be no knowledge, no life, only electrical signals (Plessner explains why physicalism falls short of being able to explain the phenomenon of life). Therefore, prioritising one over the other (Physicalism or Idealism) is reductive and essentially misguiding since one cannot constitute knowledge without the other.

A more modern account of structures of knowledge and how they are bound to the biological and cultural development of our species, based on a lot of empirical science, can be found in the recent A Natural History of Human Thinking by Michael Tomasello.

  • An excellent Continental approach to the same question! – J D Oct 27 '19 at 14:06
  • 1
    @JD Cheers, upvoted your answer as well. Actually, I think both continental and analytic philosophy - at least those who asked the big questions and tackled them systematically - have culminated into some form of pragmatist philosophy, starting in the late fifties and finishing in the eighties. Thus, I'd question the analytic/continental divide, especially in metaphysics and epistemology. Mostly, the difference seems to be the approach via (abstract) conceptual vs. (material) procedural structures, both actually meeting somewhere in between by realising their methodological shortcomings. – Philip Klöcking Oct 27 '19 at 15:04
  • The question came up in the context of whether "confirmation bias" is a psychological quirk or metaphysical necessity. If I read you correctly, Plessner would favor necessity? What's his position on "knowledge" that fall (as yet) outside of our structures? Are there facts about Reality forever beyond knowledge? – christo183 Oct 28 '19 at 6:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.