Monday, June 3, 2013

2) Classical Philosophical Foundations of Patristic Epistemology

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The opening of Theaetetus
1578 Stephanus edition
Volume 1, Page 142
Before we can delve into the patristic understanding of the knowledge of God, it is first necessary to examine the nature of knowledge itself. The influence of classical philosophy on the thinking of the fathers of the Church can scarcely be overstated and the classical understanding of knowledge is discernable in their writings. According to the most prominent classical definition, foundationally explored by Plato in his dialogue Theaetetus, knowledge is justified true belief.

To know something or someone, it is first necessary to believe in it, or him or her. If a man does not believe something, it is nonsense to say that he knows it. It is always possible to disbelieve any truth, thus disabling knowledge of that truth. Belief is an act of the will. Perceiving it to be true, one can believe or disbelieve any true or false proposition. However, just believing something certainly does not mean knowing it.

If a proposition is false, it is not possible to know it. It is not possible to know something unless it is not only a belief but also a truth. For example, if a light is shining in a cave, it is possible to know that there is light in the cave but it is not possible to know that there is not light in the cave. All this is so even if the light is indemonstrable to those outside the cave. Those outside the cave can know of the light only by faith in the true witness of others who have been in the cave. However, they cannot “know” that there is no light in the cave, even if they honestly believe there is no light on the account of false witnesses.

Yet even a true belief may not be knowledge, if it is not also justified and accounted for. It is possible to believe a truth and still not know it. I suspect most beliefs are like this, in fact. In Theaetetus, after first rejecting the notion of knowledge as perception and then the notion of knowledge as true belief alone, Theaetetus says to Socrates, “Someone… said that true belief with the addition of an account (λόγος) was knowledge” (Theaet. 201d). One cannot know a thing without knowing that one knows it. True belief must also be justified for it to be knowledge. Socrates at first agrees with this suggestion, but later criticizes its weaknesses. Nonetheless, this understanding of knowledge as justified true belief became the most important epistemology for more than a thousand years.

At any rate, the divinely personal meaning of λόγος for Christians could give this understanding of knowledge an entirely new dimension. Not only is it possible for true belief to be justified, it can only be ultimately justified by the λόγος who is God (John 1:1), especially when it comes to knowledge of God. Only the λόγος makes the Father known.
And the λόγος became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father…. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. (John 1:14, 18). 
St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain
The only possible absolute guarantor of any true belief is God. True knowledge of God is only accessible by faith in him who is word (λόγος) and truth. God alone inspires true spiritual knowledge.

Such was certainly the understanding of many of the hesychastic fathers between the fourth and the fifteenth centuries, whose writings were compiled in the eighteenth-century into The Philokalia by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth.[3] These fathers distinguish between two kinds of knowing. “According to patristic tradition, there is a rational or cataphatic knowledge of God, and an apophatic or ineffable knowledge.”[4]

[3] The editors (G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware) of the English language Faber and Faber edition of The Philokalia ably synthesized the hesychastic understanding of knowledge in their Glossary, drawing from the writings of many fathers including St. Maximus the Confessor (in volume two) and St. Gregory Palamas (in volume four). The fourth post in this series will consider Maximus and the fifth post will consider Palamas. 

[4] Dumitru Staniloae. The Experience of God. Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994. 95.

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