Taking Skepticism and Knowledge Seriously: The Ontology of Knowing

Dr. Greg R. Jesson, PhD

[Web Manager’s Note: The following is a book abstract generously provided by Greg Jesson about his forthcoming book with De Gruyter Publishers]

Taking Skepticism and Knowledge Seriously:

The Ontology of Knowing

Greg Jesson

Luther College


hilosophy, like all intellectual endeavors, necessarily begins with experience.  This truism can be interpreted in two ways, neither of which is a truism.  On the one hand, it could be taken to mean that philosophy must begin with our acquaintance with our private perceptual states—the egocentric viewpoint (the common thread in representationalism, idealism, Kantianism, and Humean skepticism).  On the other hand, this claim could mean that philosophy must begin by examining the objects that our private perceptual states are of or about—the direct realist perspective, which entails that these objects cannot be a part or a property of the acts that grasp them.  My purpose in this study is to present an extended defense of direct realism by providing an ontology of intentionality.  Just as skepticism presupposes an ontology of the epistemic act that makes knowledge impossible, so the possibility of knowledge presupposes an ontology of the epistemic act that accounts for that possibility.

If it can be shown, without begging the question, that the mind has the capacity to reach beyond itself and grasp objective facts, then it is not necessary to assume that metaphysical questions can only be addressed in the context of epistemological assumptions.  If we can describe how the egocentric viewpoint fails to account for our experience, and if we can demonstrate that it is impossible to consistently begin one’s philosophical inquiry as a methodological solipsist (i.e., if we can show that the mind is not sequestered from the world), then we will have secured a place from which to begin all philosophical investigations.  We will have established that the metaphysical problem concerning the nature of the mind and its acts must be logically prior to all epistemological questions.  While this may sound overly ambitious, even foolhardy, philosophy without such a beginning will continue to drift into skepticism and the closely related view of postmodernism.  Such metaphysical grounding of rational inquiry was exactly the radical philosophical vision of both Edmund Husserl and Gustav Bergmann.

While it usually seems that we are acquainted with ordinary physical objects, hallucinations and other non-veridical acts may make it appear as though we are not acquainted with such objects, but instead with some kind of mental object.  What else could it be that we perceive when hallucinating?  I critically examine ten different forms of this basic argument, such as the time-gap objection, the causal chain argument, and the perceptual relativity argument.  Once it is maintained that the immediate objects of experience are private mental objects, a veil is placed between us and the world of public objects, which are then forever beyond our immediate and direct knowledge.  I argue each of these arguments fail, and that thinking of what does not exist does not require that we introduce mental objects as the immediate objects of knowledge.  Consequently, I argue that no veil of ideas exists between us and the world. 

I examine the writings of Gottlob Frege, who, for his entire career, argued that the fundamental task of both the philosopher and mathematician was to distinguish what is objective from what is subjective.  Mathematics and logic seem to be part of an objective realm, while mental events seem to be part of the subjective realm.  Frege argued that psychologism was untenable because it confuses the activity of thinking with the propositional object that the thinking is grasping.  Psychologism includes an inadequate account of intentionality.  I also explore the writings of Gustav Bergmann, who began his philosophical career as the youngest member of the Vienna Circle, but later realized that Logical Positivism presupposes its own metaphysics, despite the fact that it denies the possibility of metaphysics.  Bergmann argued that the center of his own ontology was the distinction between the subjective and the objective, and that only intentionality can both preserve that distinction while linking the two realms together.  Even though Bergmann struggled to analyze intentionality (especially intentional inexistence), he always insisted that he was “a realist in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition.” 

Perhaps more than anyone else, Husserl laid the groundwork for an adequate ontology of knowledge.  I describe how he analyzed intentionality, both embracing the insights, and avoiding the pitfalls, of the past.  I focus especially on his early writings in mathematics and logic, and his Logical Investigations.  It is not coincidental that Frege, Husserl, and Bergmann were all mathematicians.  Although their philosophical pilgrimages differed, each was motivated by wondering how the subjectivity of the knowing process and the objectivity of the objects known could come together in our paradigm of epistemic achievement: mathematical and logical knowledge.  If mathematical and logical facts are mind-independent, then whenever we have such knowledge, we have as clear a demonstration as possible that the mind has the capacity to grasp things that are not a part or property of the mind.  Denial of such knowledge undermines the possibility of philosophy.  Further, to have such knowledge means that we must already be outside “the circle of ideas.”  It was these thinkers’ conviction of the reality of mathematical and logical entities, and the objectivity of mathematical and logical judgments, that grounded their epistemological realism, ontological dualism, anti-nominalism, anti-psychologism, affirmation of a priori truths, and fervent rejection of skepticism.

Husserl, while avoiding a positing of special philosophers’ objects and the psychologistic quagmire that trapped Kant (who “drops from the outset into the channel of a metaphysical epistemology”) sought, perhaps more than any other thinker, to describe how the mind reaches beyond itself and how knowledge is possible.

I argue that by accurately describing our epistemological position in the world, direct realism provides an ontology of the knowing process that accounts for the full range of the knowledge we have, and that knowledge of these facts makes justification of our scientific and philosophical theories possible.  To put it another way, without the range of knowledge we actually have, all rational endeavors become impossible.  Finally, I describe the contribution direct realism can make to the issues of skepticism, evidence, and justification.  In order to explicate the prospects for epistemic realism, I argue that only it can account for the stunning success of science.  On the other hand, the egocentric viewpoint has insurmountable difficulties explaining how we can rationally move from our mental states to mind-independent facts.  Philosophical extravagances are born out of intellectual despair; and the history of philosophy is strewn with those whose theories denied what is obviously true.  Because they rejected what can be known about the world, they rendered themselves incapable of accounting for both scientific and philosophical knowledge.  Ironically, such a self-defeating methodology undermines even the possibility of the inquiry in which they were engaged.