Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge

by Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D.

Editorial Note, 2013, 2019:

The following paper is reproduced from Ratio, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, December 1987. This turned out to be the last number of the original series of Ratio, which had been founded by Julius Kraft, a student of Leonard Nelson, to carry on the work of the Friesian School. However, subsequent editors perhaps found less and less Friesian work to publish, and the journal drifted into mainstream analytic philosophy. After 1987, the sponsorship and patronage of The Society for the Furtherance of the Critical Philosophy, previously staffed by Nelson's students, was allowed to lapse, and the journal was continued without Friesian connection by Basil Blackwell publishers.

The questions of Socratic Method and non-intuitive immediate knowledge are covered separately at this website in "The Foundations of Value, Part I, Logical Issues: Justification (quid facti), First Principles, and Socratic Method" and "The Foundations of Value, Part II, Epistemological Issues: Justification (quid juris) and Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge", respectively.

Another paper, "Ontological Undecidability," was first submitted to Ratio, but the editor confessed that it was too large for a small journal. The curent paper was then written instead, and accepted. "Undecidability" never did find a publisher.

This paper also appeared in the German edition of Ratio [1987; 29. Band, Heft 2, Felix Meiner Verlag Hamburg] as «Nicht-intuitive unmittelbare Erkenntnis». However, the nicht-intuitive of the title is a mistranslation. It should have been nicht-anschauliche. "Intuition" is the standard English translation of Anschauung; and Anschauung would have been the German translation of Latin intuitio for Leibniz and Kant; but Intuition and Anschauung were both used in German by Leonard Nelson to mean two different things. The editors of Ratio did not make the galleys of the translation available to the author before publication, and this mistake could not be corrected.

By Anschauung Nelson meant the Kantian sense of intuition as perception ("sensible intuition") and as immediate knowledge. This had gotten a bit confused in Kant, because of the complications of the theory of synthesis, but he and the Friesians continued to use the term pretty much in that original sense. On the other hand, when Nelson used Intuition, he meant the modern philosophical usage of "intuition" as an initial or spontaneous belief. "Intuitions" in that sense may be prima facie credible, but they may only be so at the very beginning of investigation. They are always fallible and corrigible. On the other hand, a Kantian Anschauung is neither fallible nor corrigible and in fact is not even a belief -- since all beliefs are fallible and corrigible in mediate knowledge.

The difference between Anschauung and Intuition is therefore part of a crucial and fundamental distinction for Nelson, who realized that "immediate knowledge" could not as such have a propositional form, i.e. express some predication ("S is P") or combination thereof ("S is P or Q is R"). A similar understanding has been used to dismiss the existence of immediate knowledge in most of recent philosophy; but Nelson simply inferred from it that only mediate, not immediate knowledge, is expressed propositionally. Immediate knowledge is what justifies synthetic propositions, and is therefore distinct from them. This only works well in a Kantian system where we can simultaneously say that immediate knowledge as experience is undecidably identical to phenomenal objects (Kant's "Empirical Realism"). These issues are covered in the essay "Ontological Undecidability".

While the appearance of this essay in the last Nelsonian edition of Ratio was a final and fitting expression of Friesian philosophy in that journal, the fact that it appeared in German with a mistranslation, even in the title, that betrayed a lack of familiarity with the German terminology of Friesian philosophy perhaps signified how far that the journal had strayed from its roots. Neither the translator nor the editor noticed that the terminology was wrong, and they didn't bother inquiring either of the author or of anyone more familiar with Nelson's philosophy in German to ask about it.

Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge

Ratio, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, December 1987

While the purpose of this paper is to explain and to defend the notion of non-intuitive immediate knowledge, as it was conceived by Jakob Fries (1773-1843) and advocated by Leonard Nelson (1882-1927)[1], my first concern will be with Plato; for this most peculiar and distinctive conception of Friesian philosophy addresses the same issues as, and is the functional equivalent of, some of the most important and characteristic theories of Platonism. Reaching back to familiar historic doctrines and spelling out the Friesian theory in the most fundamental terms seems necessary to me when I encounter so often sober and uncompromising assertions that intuition and immediate knowledge mean the same thing and that the Friesian doctrine can only be a kind of intuitionism. Through Plato -- though without the pretense of being Platonic scholarship -- these misconceptions can be dispelled before the special forms of Friesian philosophy are ever considered.

Although Whitehead has justly and famously stated that "the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,"[2] the ontology and epistemology of Plato remain in many ways unique and strange in comparison to what has come since. We have not seen the like of the full theory of transcendent Forms, knowledge through the recollection of prenatal perception, immortality, and reincarnation in any philosophers who have approached anywhere near Plato's stature. Even the Neo-Platonists discarded reincarnation and recollection in preference to Aristotelian epistemology. They were perhaps little troubled to be contradicting doctrines that both they and we might well regard as largely mythic and metaphorical. Indeed, Plato's most powerful statements concerning our prenatal direct acquaintance with the Forms come in the context of explicitly mythical stories, as with the myth of the chariot in the Phaedrus.

The question we should ask about all this, however, is whether, in attempting to provide a more literal doctrine of ontology and epistemology, later philosophers, including the most recent, have overlooked and erased Plato's most important and abidingly valuable insights by the substitution of only superficially more sensible ideas. From the continued relevance and fascination of Plato's works, we might suspect that, numerous epochal claims to the contrary, no philosophers have ever succeeded in actually going "beyond" Plato and in resolving once and for all the problems that he addressed. If we are to decide then about the functional adequacy of the theories that have replaced Plato's mythic system, we can only do so by addressing the same issues that Plato did and attempting to understand just how the doctrines that he proposed solved the difficulties that he identified.

For our purposes, one issue will be sufficient, the one that is probably the most enduring and explosive problem faced by Plato, namely the problem of cognitive and ethical relativism. The opposite of relativism -- the non-relative -- I would take to be the absolute; and the issue is usually and sensibly stated as the conflict between relative truths or values and absolute truths or values. "Absolutism," on the other hand, has come to have many meanings and associations that go beyond this simple definition. Much aversion for absolutism in general and favor for relativism rests on an understanding of the logically exhaustive nature of the contrast between them coupled with an understanding whereby objectionable characteristics are unnecessarily added to the former. An objectionable form of absolutism will also be identified here; and it is unfortunate that Plato himself, as an opponent of relativism, has inadvertently helped to perpetuate relativism by confusing his case with misconceived and wrong "absolutist" features.

Plato has Protagoras say, "The way things appear to me, in that way do they exist for me; the way things appear to you, in that way do they exist for you."[3] This is the heart of the issue, although even modern relativists can be disturbed by the subjectivism implied by this thesis. Out of a greater respect for intersubjective agreement, the modern versions of Protagoras employ an updated terminology and viewpoint where the relatively true worldviews are "forms of life" or "paradigms" that embody the belief systems of particular cultures, classes, linguistic communities, intellectual elites, or other consensus groups. Yet the issue is just the same whether we reduce the matter to the "private language" of an individual or to the intersubjective "language game" of a larger group. If the language or the game is merely one among many, it doesn't make any difference if the many are individuals or groups of individuals. The great strength of any cognitive or ethical relativism, in turn, is that in stating its case in terms of such identifiable individuals or groups, it seems to be doing no more than describing a matter of fact. A hard-headed empiricism is a great ally of relativism, for the only tangible and existing embodiments of knowledge or value that we can find are obviously and undeniably diverse to a profoundly and explicitly contradictory extent.

Much of the modern terminology of relativism I have given is due to Wittgenstein. In this tradition of linguistic philosophy we find, more recently yet, Richard Rorty, one of the most thoroughgoing and self-conscious relativists that one is likely to find in any age, although, as I shall note, he may not accept the label. According to Richard Bernstein, who does apply the label, Rorty holds that the failure of modern thinkers -- absolutists or objectivists (Bernstein's preferred term) -- is to imagine "that they must dignify the contingent social practices that have been worked out in the course of history with something that pretends to be more solid and substantial."[4] The key to relativism is, indeed, a disinclination to consider that there might be something apart from "contingent social practices" that could qualify as being "more solid and substantial" -- more real -- than these actual and empirically identifiable things. Even Bernstein, in attempting to go "beyond objectivism and relativism," must agree with the empiricism or actualism of this viewpoint. But the key to Platonism is just the conviction that actual beliefs or belief systems are only "opinion" and that, as Plato thinks it sufficient to say in the Timaeus, the only defense that the Forms need is an argument that knowledge is different from true belief.[5] Beyond belief then, in knowledge, is the source and foundation of all the "contingent" systems that strive to represent knowledge.

The fundamental insight or motivation for Platonism we may justly call the Discovery of Socrates. This Discovery, with a suitably Socratic irony, is the self-discovery of ignorance. On such a point we are not likely to accidentally confuse Socrates with Plato's own theories, since Plato spins out his own doctrines, and encounters troubles, only in answering Socratic ignorance with a positive theory of knowledge. Yet in Socratic ignorance itself we already have the rationale for Platonic epistemology. Socrates, unlike the Sophists, and, we might think, unlike the relativists for whom intersubjective agreement of paradigms is sufficiently solid and substantial, did not dignify his own beliefs as being knowledge, or as being anything like knowledge -- with the exception that this was itself something he knew. His task, in testing the paradoxical Delphic pronouncement that he was wise (as Plato relates in the Apology), was to discover by examination whether the claims of knowledge made by others were valid or merely the pretense of unreflective opinion. It turned out, to the vindication of Delphi, that the beliefs of everyone he examined, at least in matters beyond their particular speciality of craft, were actually incoherent: incoherent in the very areas -- goodness, justice, beauty, etc. -- where all were usually the most self-assured. In our day, when much theory of knowledge is consumed with scientific method as the paradigm of all knowledge, this same self-assurance, and undoubtedly same incoherence, about matters of value may be taken to have continued virtually unaltered.

From Socratic ignorance alone, it is possible to elaborate a minimal Socratic ethic. It is hard to tell what Socrates himself came to conclude. If only the gods are wise, and if human wisdom consists merely in the self-discovery of ignorance (as implied by Delphi), then the only possible human ethic is to act in a way consistent with this ignorance. The only problem with that is that action of any sort becomes impossible, for we can never know what constitutes right conduct or a good end for our purposes. The minimal Socratic ethic, then would be to do nothing. That does not make for a very edifying or practical program for philosophy. Rorty, who has a certain esteem for "Socratic virtues," cannot offer us much of a purpose either in continuing Socratic conversations: "We do not even known what 'success' would mean except simply 'continuance'."[6] Desiring to continue these conversations is "merely our project, the European intellectual's form of life."[7] This is not the sort of picture to recommend "conversations" to the non-European or non-intellectual, and in its purposelessness it lacks even the pious object of Socratic discourse. The destructive object of Socratic inquiry, however, in creating a self-awareness of ignorance, would seem to engender a stupefaction no more useful or attractive than Rorty's Sisyphean "continuance." The difference lies in the radical implications of the Socratic thesis that, indeed, knowledge is something other than the beliefs and opinions of Socrates and his interlocutors, or of Rorty and his intellectuals. How can Socrates know enough about knowledge to be sure that what he has isn't it?

To Socratic ignorance and the minimal Socratic ethic, Plato adds an insight that may or may not have originated in Socrates himself: that everyone has a misplaced self-assurance in their opinions, not out of some monumental and universal self-deception, but because, somehow beneath the chaff of opinion, we all are in touch with objective and absolute knowledge. With this the paradoxical inconsistency of Socratic ignorance can be resolved; for knowledge of ignorance thus becomes, like the Cartesian cogito, the certain foundation upon which further knowledge can be built. We may attribute this insight to Socrates himself on the hypothesis that in the course of his conversations he noticed something very peculiar: that in the midst of the incoherent web of ordinary opinions, everyone occasionally had recourse to the same principles, principles which, strangely enough, these very same people would often deny once they and their implications were made explicit by Socrates. If Socrates did become aware of something of the sort, he certainly did nothing more with it. That was left to Plato, whose whole substantive philosophy addresses the issue.

With Protagorean relativism itself, there is no answer for its inconsistency: Plato "turns the tables"[8] on relativism by maintaining that, if the way things appear to me, in that way do they exist for me, then the relativist can hardly say that non-relativism is universally wrong when there certainly appear to be absolutes to many, perhaps most, people. Relativism cannot reserve for itself a universal, absolute, and objective truth when by the very same token it denies that there can be such things. Modern thinkers can hardly avoid recognizing this self-contradiction. Bernstein says:

Because philosophers like Rorty and the edifying thinkers that he admires see the trap of trying to prove that the objectivist is fundamentally mistaken, they employ a form of indirect communication and philosophic therapy that is intended to loosen the grip that objectivism has upon us -- a therapy that seeks to liberate us from the obsession with objectivism and foundationalism.[9]

All that Rorty can do is adopt a sort of Zen-like program, holding that contradictions don't mean anything, that we can't disprove objectivism or prove relativism, but that nevertheless we should deliver ourselves over to the "therapy" of his theories, whose practical effects will, on a pragmatic criterion of truth, justify our unquestioning (because nothing can be proven in answer to our questions) trust. But we have every right to ask by what right Rorty has been granted this therapeutic authority and how we will know that the practical effects of all this are such as to justify a trust in his technique. It is not unfair to ask Rorty what he thinks he is looking for from this therapy and what it is we should be looking for in the issue of his edifying philosophic program. These are Socratic questions, indeed: if Protagoras or Rorty can assure us that some opinions are "better" than others, and that we ought to set aside our disbelief in their self-contradictory assertions, we would like to know how they know and by what criteria of knowledge or value they make their decisions. The paradox and indirection of Zen are no escape for Rorty if he really is pursuing the form of life of the European intellectual: in Zen the conversation does not continue, and "success" would consist in our realization that the conversation can stop. The "obsession," indeed, of Socratic philosophy is not with cooking up some "foundation" to justify existing beliefs and values. The sort of incoherence evident at the foundations of relativism is just the sort of issue upon which Socrates, with all his pristine Socratic virtues, would have subjected Rorty to merciless and devastating cross-examination; and this very process is what motivates the genuine Socratic obsession to brush away opinion and somehow find true knowledge.

The great moral failure of relativism is that it trivializes human life. This should be evident enough in Wittgenstein's notion that languages are in fact "games" just because they are "played."[10] On the other hand, we are not allowed, by events, the luxury of Socratic ignorance. Life calls for many decisions that cannot simply be put off by confessions of cognitive incapacity. Events force decisions upon us, and in such cases an awareness of our Socratic ignorance can only lead to a despair about the evils that we have certainly caused by our blundering. Events force us to rely on our opinions, and we therefore conceive of a desperate desire to know what the right is. Relativism denies that we can know, that we can have any real answer to our uncertainties and ignorance. With this denial relativism misses the moral urgency of Socratic philosophy and fails to notice the profound and visceral depths of the human need for moral certainty -- a need in the face of which mere "continuance" is pathetically inadequate. Why else would it be the nearly universal human penchant to not even consider the troubling questions of Socratic ignorance but to go out daily, perhaps even prepared to kill or be killed, secure in the knowledge of the goodness and justice of our own principles? This is not an accident but, as Plato might say, an image of the certainty that knowledge would allow us to have. Some people gain, at great effort, and great cost, an ability to live with the uncertainty of Socratic ignorance. These are the ones we might call philosophers, whatever their external occupations; but even for them, if they have not become dead to the world, the urgency and the motivation remain to obtain the knowledge and wisdom that they have realized they lack. Relativism cannot offer the hope that this wisdom exists. Instead it offers perpetual ignorance and a Sisyphean chasing of a reality that is not, in the final analysis, there. This, I say, trivializes human life because it implies a perpetual aesthetic luxury, the luxury of the continuing intellectual conversation, as though Socratic dialogue were an end in itself, that the conditions and events of ordinary life do not allow us. In the face of disease, old age, and death -- all the Buddhist truths of suffering -- what the Socratic philosopher really wants is something more than conversation and aesthetically self-sufficient "forms of life."

The paradoxical heart of Platonic philosophy, then, is the thesis that knowledge of being and value is somehow obscurely present to everyone, even when explicitly held beliefs may contradict it. This is a doctrine as fresh and challenging now as it was two thousand years ago, with implications of a nature that even Plato, to our great misfortune, did not always grasp, or honor. The chief of such implications may now be called, following Kant, the distinction between autonomy and heteronomy. The knowledge of being and value obscurely present to everyone is an internal source of certainty that cannot be replaced or contravened by any external source. Autonomy means "self-law" in the fullest sense, as the authority of goodness and justice resides in the cognitive ground within and not in any external institution or source of instruction. Heteronomy, in turn, implies that knowledge and goodness are not native to the self but must be brought from the outside and placed or inculcated into the individual. The individual, naturally, may not be too pleased to have an external authority imposed upon him, but his willingness must simply be broken by force, according to heteronomy, if any good is to come of anything. On the Platonic conception, education cannot be an imposition by force of something alien but can only be effective if it is a strategy of drawing out the obscure and latent knowledge whereby the individual can be self-governed in effective goodness and justice. Without such education, the individual is either an automaton with a murdered spirit or a wild animal that, out of contact with being and value, is a stranger both to himself and to others.

The import of all this, more evident to Kant, was unfortunately, less evident to Plato, leading him into a political authoritarianism that was very unnecessary to his philosophy and that has tarred him ever since in the eyes of many who are otherwise very willing to express great admiration for Socrates (about whom, of course, we know very little apart from what Plato tells us). Plato obviously did not expect that the masses would ever be very successful at recovering their obscure knowledge of being and value and thus would never be in a position to properly govern themselves or others. Be that as it may, the more disastrous hypothesis for Plato is that his philosophers would attain to true knowledge and so could be entrusted with power over the state. This, paradoxically, takes people who have been defined by Socratic ignorance and attributes to them qualities that contradict his definition -- a supposition neither merited by the facts nor by the subsequent history of philosophy. The authoritarian aspect of Platonic political theory thus should be said to rest on a colossal misconception, or at least on a prediction for philosophic success that failed catastrophically. Furthermore, we might note from the original conception of autonomy, that an awareness in the individual of autonomy is certain to translate into a demand for political autonomy: and Plato's rulers could only combat this by deliberately imposing their authority by force and breaking the spirit of those making the demand. This seems a sad necessity for any state, but especially for one supposedly based on a principle of cognitive and moral autonomy. The fallacy we may see in this, indeed, is a certain mistaken kind of absolutism: an absolutism not with respect to the obscure latent knowledge of the individual but with respect to the actual (supposed) knowledge of those in external authority -- an absolutism of hypothesized "absolute knowledge," or perhaps absolute understanding, where the obscure latent knowledge of being and value is taken to have been completely and finally translated into a conscious and explicit form. The Platonic thesis is that, indeed, everyone has, in a sense, absolute knowledge; but the Discovery of Socratic ignorance is just that nobody has an absolute understanding, a conscious awareness, of this obscure knowledge.

It is with respect to the question of autonomy and heteronomy that the moral weakness of relativism becomes even more apparent. If the only kind of effective "knowledge" that counts is an intersubjective form of life, dignified by consensus, this puts the individual as much at the mercy of a heteronomous authority as does the worst nightmare of Plato's Laws. If we take the moral appeal of relativism to people in general to be the notion that conflicting beliefs ought to be accorded some tolerance, dignity, and respect when they are sincerely held by well-meaning people, or that the traditional values perpetuated by historic human cultures are all somehow to equal worth in their own integrity and wholeness, we should be able to see in this a certain confusion. This is indeed a moral appeal in a universal, objective, and meta-cultural way that provides for relativism a privileged position that it denies to other viewpoints. It is therefore, in its strongest form, morally incoherent.[11] In a weaker form, there is no reason, as Joel Kupperman says in his Ethical Knowledge[12], why relativism should be tolerant at all. And if tolerant at all, it can just as easily be tolerant to a fault, i.e. if all belief systems are sufficient onto themselves, relativism cannot really criticize an intolerant belief system and cannot defend itself against such a system. Rorty is not included to be tolerant to a fault: "'Relativism' is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view."[13] Rorty even concedes that "the Socratic virtues cannot, as a practical matter, be defended save by Platonic means..."[14] But do "Platonic means" necessarily mean "absolute knowledge" and authoritarianism? Far from it. Socratic virtues simply must be defended by a conviction that knowledge is possible and that in real life a point is occasionally reached where the tolerance born of the awareness of our Socratic ignorance must give way to an intolerance of evil and injustice as we are given to understand them -- an intolerance against which no belief system, culture, or form of life has privileged immunity. The moral realities of life do not allow us to be undone by our doubts or to partake of the luxury of an endless inquiry in overcoming those doubts. The project of Platonic philosophy has perhaps to date been such an endless inquiry, but we may also take it as a description and justification of the moral certainty that every person does have and must have -- in the face of the terrors of the world -- when events crowd choices upon us. Once such choices are past, then we may recognize an error, or we may recognize that our doubts and hesitations were unjustified. It is easily possible, indeed, to respect the culture of India without entertaining doubts that it was a worthy end for the British to suppress suttee and the Thugs.

In addressing the challenge of Socratic ignorance and of Platonic autonomy, while avoiding the destructive heteronomous misconception of absolute understanding, we are faced with formidable epistemological and ontological problems to explain. Despite Plato's political authoritarianism, the theory of Forms does the job that we would require of it in a precise, sufficient, and unique way that has never really been equaled in fashionable philosophy, despite its obvious defects. Plato's greatest achievement in this theory was to avoid what we now may call intuitionism: the notion that the truths of being and value are somehow obvious, evident, or self-evident and that all we need do to recognize them is attend in thought to our spontaneous beliefs (our "intuitions") with sufficient seriousness. All the strangeness of Platonic metaphysics and epistemology is at the service of this one pivotal point. The key is Plato's notion that our knowledge is obscure and latent because it is only remembered. Thus, while Plato believed that the Forms were present to us at one time through perception or intuition, they are present to us now only through memory. It is this epistemological point, not the ontological postulation of transcendent Forms, that really sets Plato apart from Aristotle and the Neo-Platonists, who required a faculty of noûs ("mind") for the apprehension of their immanent Forms and who inevitably slipped into ethical heteronomy out of a concomitant conviction that the real is external. In a sense Plato by no means disagreed on this, but he saved himself by the shocking device of simply denying that the particular external reality we perceived, immanent reality, is real. Whether we want to agree with this or not, we can see that Plato is well and correctly motivated in his move in terms of his own epistemological requirements.

What Plato's theory gets us is perplexing enough: knowledge that we don't know that we have that, when discovered, we don't have any special way to verify. Many things can come out of memory, or fantasy, and they do not bear with them certificates of authenticity. But the Socratic sense of the matter is that we will know the truths of being and value because they are unavoidable: we are always using them, whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, and even if we think that we explicitly disagree with such truths. The relativists defeat themselves with their own words because they cannot avoid speaking in the language of objectivity and even in the language of moral absolutes; and they can remain relativists only by an irrational rejection of the implications of their own beliefs. We thus do not need to be aware of our knowledge of the Forms, and it does not need to intuitively verify itself to us. The knowledge is simply there anyway, and by Socratic cross-examination, or by a reflective inquiry into the implications of our own beliefs and acts, we can develop an awareness and an understanding of these truths.

Plato attempted to formalize the method of Socratic inquiry in his "later dialectic" of the Sophist and Statesmen; but this method was not very much to the point, and its successor, Aristotelian logic, was very much beside the point. Socratic inquiry is not induction or deduction: not the latter because it is a search for premises -- first principles of demonstration -- not a development of them, not the former because of the Problem of Induction which even led Aristotle to recognize that intuition or noûs needed to be added to induction itself. The import of these issues was not recognized, indeed, until Fries and Nelson [15] -- which now brings us from the timelessness of Plato to the present state of philosophy. The Platonic interest in modern thought is presumably vested in the schools of Rationalism, which champion the cause of innate knowledge; but Rationalism, from Descartes onward, is a poor advocate of the Platonic case when the ultimate appeal is only to "clear and distinct ideas" or, as D.M. Armstrong puts it, to "non-inferential beliefs which are self-evident, indubitable or incorrigible."[16] This sort of thing is unhelpful and even deceptive when the thing that really must be explained is a kind of knowledge that does not involve beliefs at all -- and not just because "belief" can imply "opinion" and so something less than knowledge but because we are speaking of knowledge that we are not even aware of, initially, while a belief is something we are more inclined to think the believer needs to be aware of. This requires a theory that will go wholly against the tide of the "standard analysis" of knowledge as "justified true belief" -- an analysis ironically to be traced to Plato's own preliminary examinations of knowledge in the Theaetetus. Fries and Nelson, after two millennia of Aristotelian misunderstanding of Plato, at long last provide a category for the Platonic knowledge of being and value: non-intuitive immediate knowledge. They also antedate the tide of the "standard analysis," which means that they were free from its preconceptions but also unable to reply to arguments that now may have come to seem almost self-evident. The theory of non-intuitive immediate knowledge, which enables us, with Plato, to avoid the pitfalls of intuitionism, thus requires first of all a theory of immediate knowledge in general. That is an issue that calls for treatment in its own right, but for our purposes here some indication of its form must be given.

Immediate knowledge, in the first place, does not consist of or involve beliefs of any sort. Immediate knowledge is that which is cognitively present to our minds such as to enable us to verify non-inferential beliefs. Immediate knowledge does not involve thought of any sort, any function of understanding, or any attribution of meaning. It is in an entirely different category, as, indeed, Kant thought that perception was different from thought. Kant called perception intuition (Anschauung). Yet Kant himself (and Schopenhauer following him) came to believe that perception was a construct of the mental activity of synthesis, employing categories of the understanding -- hedging his bets, however, with the qualification that synthesis was carried out by the imagination. We should not let this confuse us. We are bound to think that perception is a construct of the activities of the brain, even though it is not given to us to be able to examine these processes introspectively -- they are the object of special scientific inquiries -- but even so it remains true that by a perceptual image nothing is necessarily understood. Thought adds something to perception, and what it adds is the abstract description or interpretative articulation of what is perceptually present. Immediate knowledge does not interpret itself, and it is a central principle to bear in mind that the meanings we attribute to immediate knowledge exist in mediate, or conceptual, understanding. The standard analysis of knowledge, indeed, is a correct and suitable theory of mediate knowledge, which is a function of concepts and beliefs.

In these terms immediate knowledge may thus seem sadly lacking in cognitive content. We cannot say we have immediate knowledge "that P," for the "P," the propositional form, is the mediate content whereby we understand our immediate knowledge. If we were to know immediately "that P," we might call this sort of thing "immediate understanding" or "intuitive understanding." The cognitive role and content of immediate knowledge, instead, is very different from what, as logicians, we are able to examine written on a blackboard. Immediate knowledge is the ground of justification of non-inferential beliefs and propositions that constitute the abstract representation of thought. For recent foundationalist epistemologists, who find the arguments for the existence of non-inferential beliefs compelling [17], the problem is always what enables those beliefs to stand on their own, what justifies their propositional claims. The cognitive force of perception is still usually not taken very seriously (1) because perception is taken to be a private and subjective experience with more an emotional than epistemic force [18], or (2) because perception raises all the difficult Cartesian problems of how representation is related to the external objects and states of affairs that it is presumed to represent.[19] I cannot in this essay consider these issues on their own merits. Suffice it to say here that I believe such problems can be resolved and that we must take seriously the unique cognitive role of perception and dignify it as constituting one form of immediate knowledge.[20]

What in particular makes immediate knowledge into intuitive immediate knowledge is its immediate presence to consciousness as an evidential ground of knowledge. This is what perception is. By citing our perception as the ground of non-inferential beliefs, we are in effect offering to others the intersubjective availability of the objects and states of affairs described by the belief. We have discharged our cognitive responsibility for the justification of a belief by doing this. This does not make the belief self-evident, indubitable, or incorrigible. It may, at it happens, be mistaken; and other persons, in examining the perceptual objects I have cited as justification, may draw the mistake to my attention. The significance of this procedure for cognition is twofold: first that through perception we commonly suppose that external objects, which determine the truth or falsity of our perceptual beliefs, are in fact available for our inspection; and second that the very same means which provide the ground and justification of our beliefs is also that which provides, if we attend to it carefully, for the correction and refinement of our beliefs. Propositions as such, the contents of mediate representation, are no more than the arbitrary juxtaposition of conventional concepts, which, except for tautologies and contradictions, cannot be determined as true or false in themselves. The fact that we do possess a cognitively functional form of intuition -- sensory perception -- obscures for us the arbitrary and conventional character of abstract knowledge. It is possible for us to discover that our very concepts are inappropriate for the case at hand, in which case we may say or believe things that, properly speaking, are neither true nor false.

For Fries and Nelson there are just three ways to verify a proposition with maximal certainty: (1) proof, or inferential justification, in which the proposition is logically derived from other propositions; (2) demonstration, in which an intuitive ground of evidence is indicated as a non-inferential justification; and (3) deduction, as this term was adopted by Kant for his purposes in the "Transcendental Deduction" of the Critique of Pure Reason.[21] "Demonstration" in this sense places the burden of truth on the evidence of the indicated intuition and its perceptual objects. In ordinary circumstances, if people fail to credit their perception of the objects to which we appeal, there is in a sense nothing else we can do about it -- we can only urge them to attend to their perceptions more carefully. If the ground of truth, however, is not intuitive -- if it is the obscure and latent Platonic knowledge of being and value -- then a mere demonstration, a simple showing or indicating, will not complete the task of justification; for there are no objects present to consciousness as are perceptual objects to make a demonstration possible. This is where in Friesian theory we find a decisive difference, as in Plato, with intuitionism. Instructing someone to attend seriously to their intuitions of goodness or justice will result in nothing but diverse and contradictory opinions.

The question of non-intuitive immediate knowledge breaks down, as in Kant, into two parts: the inquiry into the quid facti, which discovers what the truths of being and value are; and the inquiry into the quid juris, which accounts for the justification of those truths. This division is based on a distinction which, in Fries, is precocious by a good century: the quid facti truths of being and value are the object language to which the justification, the Kantian deduction, is a metalanguage. Where the truths of being and value are prescriptive, a priori, and synthetic, the deduction thus need only be descriptive and empirical -- contingent on the existing object language. This convoluted approach is necessary precisely because a non-intuitive ground is not evident and is not manifest to consciousness by casual inspection; and the mediate knowledge that we come to possess that reflects the content of such a ground is not the same as the knowledge we come to possess about the cognitive relation of justification between such mediate understanding and its source.

For Nelson, as for Plato, Socratic Method was the supreme instrument of inquiry into the quid facti of non-intuitive immediate knowledge.[22] This is the case, but Nelson was too confident in the completeness and finality of any particular Socratic inquiry: a confidence verging on dogmatism that is evident in his understanding of the logic of such inquiries. If Socratic logic was not inductive, then, Nelson contends, it employs a special technique he calls "abstraction."[23] This, if anything, begins to sound like intuitionism, or at least a Phenomenological intuition of essences, a form of the simple apprehension or recognition of an abstract substantial form -- a mental act called "abstraction" in traditional logic. Any cognitive theory, indeed, requires of us some capacity to recognize abstract qualities in concrete objects, but the task of and the obstacles to Socratic inquiry are very different from this.

The modern analogue to Socratic inquiry, as its object is a striking analogue to non-intuitive knowledge, is the theory of generative grammar in linguistics. The fairly recent contempt of many philosophers for natural languages as imprecise, ambiguous, and confused has now given way to a general understanding that natural languages are immensely powerful, efficient, and elegant systems of communication; and this has brought to everyone's notice the strange circumstance that users of natural languages, however competent, are usually unable to state the rules they actually employ in creating unique but meaningful and grammatical sentences. Furthermore, these speakers have learned these rules, in all their complex sophistication, at an age when they are generally incapable of learning anything else nearly so complex. This throws a new and stark light on all of Platonic philosophy, for we now realize that obscure and unconscious knowledge can, nevertheless, be learned and that this has undoubtedly occurred with respect to the customary mores and special belief systems of every culture. If this is bad news for Plato, however, it is at the same time vitiated by the attendant understanding that in learning languages or anything else the brain cannot simply function as a tabula rasa any more than a bathtub can function as a digital computer: there must be a hard-wired system for the recognition of significant inputs. Chomsky has called this system a "universal grammar,"[24] and some linguists believe there is evidence that, in special circumstances, the universal and second-order rules of this grammar can provide an actual default grammar for a language that is learned without the example of ordinary structured communication.[25] The Platonic thesis must also provide, of course, for a "default grammar" of ethics.

What Socratic Method must mean to us now is something very much like the linguistic inquiry into generative grammar -- neither a matter of induction nor "abstraction" but of the imaginative and logical construction of the rules that are deductively sufficient to our data -- with the data being our spontaneous, or traditional, claims about being and value. This is a hypothetical inquiry with a hermeneutic dimension, a dimension, that is, in which no interpretation of the data is final but must, as understanding improves, be succeeded by better interpretations. On this level a certain form of relativism is reintroduced, as it exists in Bernstein's hermeneutic theory; for Bernstein, indeed, has properly understood the nature of mediate knowledge: the hermeneutic cycle of interpretation, while consisting of actual and so superficially relative truths, approaches objectivity or absolute truths as a limit. Nelson did not appreciate the hermeneutic dimension either of mediate knowledge or of Socratic inquiry. Immediate knowledge is not so easily understood -- which is to say transformed into mediate representation. However confident we become, we must always look to improve our understanding.

Where we part company with hermeneutics and have only Fries and Nelson to guide us is in the matter of the quid juris. The inquiry into the quid juris, the Kantian deduction, is the purely philosophic theory wherein the description of non-intuitive immediacy occurs and the cognitive foundations of Socratic inquiry itself are discussed. In the debate over all these issues, that is what it all comes down to. Unfortunately, the Platonic cause, while vindicated by Friesian discoveries, is no more well served by them in the details than it was by Nelson in his overconfidence for the finality of Socratic Method. Fries realized that philosophic inquiry at this level must be a posteriori and empirical and could not share in the a priori and synthetic character of its ontological or ethical object languages. This abolished the deceptive category of "transcendental knowledge" in Kant and so avoided the catastrophic conclusion of Hegel that such knowledge was already part of metaphysics and so possessed no special priority or privilege in comparison to uncritical speculation. Fries then concluded that the empirical inquiry into the quid juris was a matter, not just of introspective psychological inquiry, but of the science of psychology -- which in his day, and still in Nelson's, was hardly distinct from philosophy. As a content of scientific psychology, consequently, Fries and Nelson produced a Kantian theory of the faculty of reason as the source of non-intuitive immediate knowledge.[26] Such a theory might now be taken to effectively discredit the whole Friesian program; for few in experimental psychology or in philosophical psychology are likely to take it seriously in its own anachronistic terms.

To the sympathetic reader of Platonic and Friesian philosophy, on the other hand, the distressing misdirection of Friesian theory is entirely unnecessary. The Kantian notion of "reason" like the Platonic notion of the prenatal intuition of the Forms -- or, I might note, like the quasi-Kantian theory of Ideas in Schopenhauer, who was critically dealing with the same Kantian dilemmas as Fries -- is only, we might like to think, the functional equivalent of what, in the end, will turn out to be the correct account. The concept of non-intuitive immediate knowledge itself does not need such a correct account in all its glory merely to be understood, and I will therefore conclude this essay without entering into so serious an inquiry. The enduring contributions of Fries and Nelson that I have discussed here are not embarrassed by their lack of finality and completeness. Indeed, Fries and Nelson should be credited with having described and rediscovered, after two thousand years, one of the essential roots, not just of Platonism, but of all Socratic philosophy and so, justly, of all philosophy.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 1

Historical and biographical details about Nelson and, to a lesser extent, Fries, may be found in Julius Kraft's introduction to Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy, Selected Essays by Leonard Nelson, Yale University Press, 1949, and Dover Publications, 1965.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 2

Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Free Press, 1969, p. 53.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 3

Theaetetus, 152 A, author's paraphrase; Loeb Classical Library, Theaetetus, Sophist, Harvard, 1961, p.40.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 4

Richard J. Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis, University of Pennsylvania, 1983, p. 197.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 5

Timaeus, 51D; cf. Francis M. Cornford, Plato's Cosmology, Library of Liberal Arts, p. 189.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 6

Bernstein, op. cit., p. 198.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 7

Ibid., p. 198.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 8

cf. Cornford, Plato's Theory of Knowledge, Library of Liberal Arts, 1957, p. 77-79.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 9

Bernstein, op. cit., p. 9.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 10

cf. C.W.K. Mundle, A Critique of Linguistic Philosophy, Glover & Blair, 1979, p. 190.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 11

cf. Hadley Arkes, First Things, an Inquiry into the First Principles of Morals and Justice, Princeton, 1986, p. 141.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 12

Joel Kupperman, Ethical Knowledge, Allen & Unwin, 1970, p. 75.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 13

Bernstein, op. cit., p. 201.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 14

Ibid., p. 199.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 15

cf. Nelson, "The Socratic Method," op. cit., and also Leonard Nelson, Progress and Regress in Philosophy, vol. II, Basil Blackwell, 1971, "Jakob Friedrich Fries, The Doctrine of Method," pp. 164-196.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 16

D.M. Armstrong, Belief, Truth and Knowledge, Cambridge University, 1973, p. 156.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 17

e.g. Armstrong, also cf. Richard Fumerton, Metaphysical and Epistemological Problems of Perception, University of Nebraska, 1985.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 18

cf. Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Hutchinson, 1977, "The Problem of the Empirical Basis," pp. 93-95.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 19

cf. Fumerton, op. cit., "Naive Realism," pp. 73-77.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 20

These are the subject of my unpublished essay, "Ontological Undecidability."

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 21

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, St. Martin's, 1965, p. 120 -- A 84-85.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 22

Nelson, Socratic Method etc., "The Critical Method and the Relation of Philosophy to Psychology."

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 23

Ibid., pp. 105-110.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 24

cf. C.L. Baker, Introduction to Generative-Transformational Syntax, Prentice-Hall, 1978, p. 14.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 25

Derek Bickerton, "Creole Languages," Scientific American, July 1983.

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Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Note 26

cf. Nelson, Progress and Regress II, "The Doctrine of Reason," pp. 197-246.

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