In philosophy, questions about the nature of knowledge are some of the oldest. They have kept philosophers busy for well over 2,000 years and continue doing so today. The branch of philosophy that tries to answer questions about knowledge – epistemology – is considered one of the core building blocks of philosophical thinking. However, philosophy is part of each culture’s broader intellectual tradition. Philosophers are not isolated from the types of questions asked and methods of searching for answers characteristic of their historico-cultural environments. Therefore, it is helpful to look at how other intellectual traditions approach the same topics to explore new horizons. For example, how do the Western philosophical and Islamic kalām traditions explain the meaning of necessary knowledge?
Western philosophical tradition
Western philosophy’s intellectual roots and legacy are broadly understood to originate in Ancient Greece. Plato and his star student Aristotle are towering philosophers whose influence extends to our times. Interestingly, Aristotle’s views played a defining role not only in the Western philosophical tradition (especially in medieval Latin Europe all the way to modernity) but also in the strand of Islamic philosophy called falsafa. Falsafa evolved as a continuation of ancient Greek philosophical thought in Arabic. Al-Kindi is regarded as the first falsafa philosopher.
According to the Western philosophical tradition, necessary knowledge refers to knowing something beyond any doubt. Such necessity is guaranteed by “logical connections beyond any possibility of being overthrown” (Becker 2013).
However, logical connections are just one part of the story. They provide an argument structure that guarantees its conclusion’s validity. But you can place all kinds of nonsense within such a structure. For example, I can claim that all flying horses are unicorns; Pegasus is a flying horse; therefore, it necessarily follows that Pegasus is a unicorn. The logical structure is maintained, but we would likely not call this knowledge. Thus, in addition to logical connections that ensure the universal validity of a conclusion, another part of the story ensures its universal truth – necessary knowledge is about necessarily true facts.
The modern definition of a necessary truth offered by the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy reads:
“A necessary truth is one that could not have been otherwise. It would have been true under all circumstances. A contingent truth is one that is true, but could have been false. A necessary truth is one that must be true; a contingent truth is one that is true as it happens, or as things are, but that did not have to be true.”
What guarantees the necessity of such truth? What makes it a necessary truth as opposed to merely a contingent one? A logical demonstration or being self-evident. Logical argumentation can demonstrate a necessary truth and justify its necessary status. Alternatively, it is self-evident; its necessary truth is contained in its definition. An example of a self-evident necessary truth is a statement that all triangles have three sides and three angles. An example of a logically demonstrated necessary truth is a deductive argument (like the one with Pegasus) that contains true premises (unlike the one with Pegasus). For instance, all humans are mortal; I am human; it follows that I am mortal.
It is primarily Aristotle’s legacy in the Western philosophical tradition that developed a view of necessary knowledge being about self-evident, logical truths that are true eternally and universally. For a very long time, only such eternally and universally true knowledge was considered knowledge because it was certain. Anything related to the sensible world (empirical knowledge) is not certain; it is contingent (things can be different), therefore, not necessarily true and, consequently, not knowledge at all.
Search for certainty and indubitable foundations for all knowledge was a philosophical quest of generations of thinkers in the Western intellectual tradition. In Europe, this began to change, and empirical knowledge started to gain currency during the period of the Scientific Revolution. If you are interested in this fascinating period, I have written a 2-parts article on its complex history that you can read here (part 1) and here (part 2).
Islamic kalām tradition
Kalām is a largely independent and distinctive philosophical and theological tradition of Islam that developed and flourished parallel with falsafa. It reached its peak around the 11th century. During the 12th century, the division between falsafa and kalām came to a halt and synthesis was formed – ḥikma – which represented a more or less unified Islamic philosophy. Despite ongoing progress, there is still a lack of research on the developments of Islamic philosophy after the 13th/14th centuries.
Unlike their counterparts in the Western (or falsafa) tradition, kalām thinkers interpreted the concept of necessary knowledge in a way we would nowadays call more psychological, closer to cognitive science than to philosophy. For them, knowledge was necessary if it was an inevitable source that humans relied upon, and it served as the basis that enabled them to acquire all other knowledge. In other words, what gives such knowledge the ‘necessary’ status is that I cannot help but rely on it. In his book Al-Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology (2009, Oxford University Press), Frank Griffel explains:
If Western philosophy focused on justification or logical demonstration to distinguish between necessary and contingent knowledge, kalām focused on personal agency. In this sense, kalām had a more psychological, cognitive science-type take on knowledge. It concentrated more on how the human mind works than on the truth-justification of a statement.
Thus, some knowledge is understood as necessary because I have no agency over it; I cannot choose not to rely on it; it is given and, hence, necessary. Because of its givenness, it is the necessary basis for all other knowledge I acquire – i.e., the knowledge that depends on my agency (I can choose what I acquire, I have agency over it).
What kalām scholars defined as necessary knowledge include knowledge of oneself (self-perception & awareness), one’s emotions and sense perception, reported knowledge, and self-evident truths. These are the types of knowledge they considered beyond our control and, thus, necessary.
In the Western philosophical tradition, the concepts of necessity and necessary knowledge refer to eternal and universal truths impartial to the actual reality; in Islamic kalām, these concepts characterise inevitable features of actual human cognition. The first tradition looked outward and established our access to universal truths ’out there’; the second tradition looked inward and established the fundamental cognitive principles shaping our knowledge acquisition.
Interestingly, it would take Western philosophers several centuries to start looking in an intellectual direction similar to that of the kalām tradition. In the 18th century, German Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant argued that human reason has no access to anything beyond the world of our experiences. Since we cannot find out the ultimate nature of the world as it is, Kant proposed we should focus on achieving systematic and complete knowledge of the nature of our mind and the way it makes sense of our experiences.
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