Miscellanea: On Knowing and Unknowing
“For what is time? Who can readily and briefly explain this? Who can even in thought comprehend it, so as to utter a word about it? But what in discourse do we mention more familiarly and knowingly, than time? And, we understand, when we speak of it; we understand also, when we hear it spoken of by another. What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not (…)” St. Augustine, Confessions
In this passage we are presented with one among the true loci classici of traditional thought.
While pointing this out we’ll put aside the actual treatment of the being of time offered in Confessions, all its insightfulness aside; rather we’d like to focus on the seeming paradox inherent to the question that Augustine expresses so succinctly, making it comprehensible not only to metaphysician, saint or the student of some other among higher sciences, but also to a proverbial layman:
We all know what the time is, yet at the same instant we don’t have a clue how to articulate what we know.
Does this mean that we both know and don’t know?
Modern-cum-postmodern philosophy delights in such questions for their own sake. Its proper procedure would be to point it out, sharpen the paradox and then go forward multiplying similar “paradoxes”, eventually pronouncing the “death of philosophy”, while retaining philosophical departments at universities apparently to employ generations of professors who’ll keep stressing the fact that they are just pointing out, sharpening and multiplying irreconcilable contradictions. While, on the other side of the historical divide, through confessing his personal history the saint gives an account of the nature of personal life and relationship of man and God undividedly, today we have a prevalence of professors professing nothing indifferently.
Obviously, the real implications of St. Augustine’s insight are not mere delight in paradox and they are as much pedagogical as they are metaphysical.
The fact that we know, but can’t articulate our knowledge to an extent that we cannot answer the question about “what is it” that we know represents the act of immediate introspection into nature of the relationship of human intellect and reality; whereas the true purpose of Confessions is indeed to point the reader towards the objects of Christian askesis as well as those of metaphysics and theology, the relationship of knowledge in act, i.e. articulated and potential, i.e. not yet articulated knowledge is at the same time something that concerns, and is obvious to, everybody.
Nothing is purely nothing, so we cannot really say that we know nothing if we can’t articulate or enact the knowledge; it only means that we are not able to communicate it because it is still only a possibility.
In philosophy, one of the first obstacles is to learn how to overcome this. Same goes for other spheres of human activities, both practical and technical, save perhaps some forms of art where to a certain extent one can indulge in sinking what is actual into what is possible as to provide the open ended body of expression.
However, when someone hits you with a question about something like the nature of time itself, the stakes are raised infinitesimally and the situation becomes quite different.
In this case we are faced with truly elusive yet omnipresent being that concerns us to the utmost, so much so that we deal with and think about it every day, yet initially we have no clue what it is.
The reason for this is quite simple.
Time is a reality that acts in the visible world, yet at the same time it is not a visible being; a fact unmistakably perceivable because time cannot be perceived at all.
We can talk about time as a measure, a span of life, duration of something yet all we say is what time does and not what the time is.
In the language of metaphysics we could formulate it as comprehending the act but not the substance out of which the act flows.
In this sense St. Augustine’s question brings us to the point of starting to comprehend the incorporeal reality and how it is disclosed to us even in the midst of the most mundane things. Time acts on us and we know this yet we don’t know what it is and, more importantly and implicitly, we don’t know the why of it.
Incorporeal being is usually understood as a hypothesis over which the philosophers clash, one saying it exists, the other denying it, yet, as we can see, it is something that precedes both affirmation and denial.
Or should we say that existence of time is just a hypothesis?
The peculiarity of existence is that the purer it is the less it admits the negations; and the degree of the purity of the existence corresponds to the degree of it being incorporeal.
Also, when something is intrinsically undeniable, it can be denied only in imagination. Yet imagination admits of all kinds of negations, up to the point of the absolute one.
So, it’s quite possible to state that time does not exist or, to put things on the more mundane level, that friendship, love, masculinity, femininity and all kinds of modes of existence do not exist, simply by reason that we cannot at first fully articulate what they are.
As we see from St. Augustine’s example this is completely unwarranted. The difficulty of articulation rises in the proportion of the purity of existence one is poised to articulate; for example, while it is already not easy to articulate what the masculinity is, it is well nigh impossible to articulate what the particular person is.
This brings us to another determinant of the incorporeal being and that’s its intrinsic character.
The incorporeal being, to a degree that it is unconditioned by the body, is intrinsic because it can always project and revert back into itself.
Being of human person is certainly a good example of this, because the body is only its extrinsic aspect, i.e. the part of it that cannot be taken in itself without being imbibed by the soul which contains it in its own activity; as the soul is incorporeal we cannot pinpoint it in any particular part of the body, but as it animates it, it is undividedly present in all of them.
To say that person does not exist would merit only if particular person would say it, because such purity of existence as personal life is properly comprehensible through unmediated contact – knowledge of one’s heart, as the phrase goes.
Yet no person could say for itself that it doesn’t exist, save in imagination or, in the worst case, if it should identify itself with products of its imagination.
We could thus paraphrase Augustine’s question:
“Who then am I? If noone asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.”
Does this mean that I don’t exist?
It is surprising how easy it became to answer in the affirmative. One peculiarity of the contemporary mentality as expressed in supra individual, institutional and semi-institutional forms of science and art is that this simple fallacy of identifying articulate knowledge with the initial act of knowing itself, as opposed to correctly understanding it as a first step in the process of conforming to reality, has a strength of dogma.
Tragically, one can observe that there are parts of the world where this extrinsically existing body of misunderstanding has been intrinsically assimilated by the people. In the normal circumstances, where majority still retains inner autonomy towards ruling mentality, more or less consciously – but prevalently unconsciously – recognizing it as something alien that has to be endured but not really intimately accepted, we have a situation akin to enemy occupation or dictatorship: everybody is coping with what he knows he cannot overturn overtly, but in his heart he is free not to take it seriously.
The situation is not to be taken lightly, because, as we could see above, the negation of incorporeal, invisible and intrinsic realities does not end in mere rejection of some philosophical proposition.
It is ultimately the rejection of both God and human being as such.
One clear symptom of this actually coming to pass among the particular people is the prevalence of indifference – indifference manifested through ignoring the implications of any given act provided that account can be given that it doesn’t endanger some other indifferent individual’s freedom for not being bothered by it. From abortion, gender liquidation to dissolution of classical culture it all comes to pass only if the questions like the one put by St. Augustine are reduced to absurdity.
As a matter of fact those questions are the life of human intellect and are putting the man in the proper relation to reality. They’re rather implicit in the lives of most people, never actually posed, but present in the back of the mind.
This is what makes them easy prey to those who replace the invisible realities that guided lives of generations, with counterfeits: while former don’t actually need to articulate what is real, the later intuit that they have to make it up altogether because they want to be liberated from it.
The best remedy for this, at least in personal life, is to enact potential into actual, begin the struggle to articulate the truth. The funny thing is that it’s not even that hard and yet temptations to lay it aside are so numerous – from convenience of easy answers to fear of being rejected by society it all boils down to temptation of indifference.
So, the conclusion would be that being indifferent and being person is at odds, because being person implies reflection and insight into very thing the mood of indifference is supposed to protect us from.
People who are indifferent are shallow to the point of not being people any more.
And in the end what would be the absolute negation of the invisible, incorporeal and intrinsic reality but the absolute shallowness?
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