How to Succeed in Knowing without Really Seeing

by Mordecai Plaut

The central pillar of Judaism is its Mesorah (tradition), which is a transmission-of-knowledge from generation to generation. This tradition, it is often emphasized, has two distinct parts: a written part and an oral part. Even in modern times, when much of what was once oral has been committed to writing, there remains a part which is transmitted directly from teacher to student without textual mediation. It is pointed out that even a text, strictly speaking, pragmatically presupposes an oral tradition. (1) One could not begin even to read a text, much less interpret difficult passages, without oral instruction in reading.

The Mesorah is an encyclopedic collection. It includes material for the social, moral, and intellectual development of a person, as well as a vast amount of information on diverse subjects ranging from commerce to agriculture. It is undoubtedly sufficient unto itself to produce people who are fully educated in the sense that they are socially aware, morally sensitive, and intellectually capable.

In its 3,500 year history, the Mesorah has proven itself a capable veteran of virtually every imaginable kind of attack. It has suffered deliberate, direct questioning and vehement, violent polemics. Its people have been tempted by solid gold carrots as well as threatened by the sticks of torture--at times even in combination--to leave it. Sometimes the people have been burned; sometimes the books.

Against all this the people have stood fast with the Mesorah. The conviction and commitment of all its people--the masses as well as the elite--to the Mesorah has withstood every conceivable adversity, including the passage of time.

The explanation is simple. Those who carry on the tradition know that they have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, with, as we will see, the help of G-d. They are secure in the vast body of knowledge they receive which allows them to comprehend the world and to guide their actions. We can think of knowledge and belief as relationships of people to propositions (facts). If we order them and call knowledge a "closer" relationship between a person and facts than is belief, then we could confidently say that the relationship of the people to their Mesorah is demonstrably as close as it could be.

If confronted with the claim that the participants in the Mesorah know their stuff, a modern philosopher would probably say, with aggressive pride, that he could make no sense of this claim. It is a point of honor with modern philosophers that, as Professor Chisolm writes, they "say that an ostensible item of knowledge is genuine if, and only if, it is the product of a properly accredited source. Thus, it is traditional in Western philosophy to say that there are four such sources: 1. "external perception" 2. memory 3. "self-awareness" ("reflection" or "inner consciousness") 4. "reason." (2) The Mesorah is not obviously a product of any of these sources.

Also, matters like the theory of kedushah (sacredness) and taharah (purity) are clearly questions of fact and thus the last three sources are not available. The modern view is that, as Russell wrote unequivocally, "questions of fact cannot be decided without appeal to observation." (3) No one asserts that phenomena like kedushah are observable in an empirically satisfactory way. Furthermore, many of the matters of which the Mesorah treats lie in areas which our philosopher would proudly say are "beyond him." Such subjects as the theory of kedushah and taharah have no relation to the sensible world, yet they are not issues which can be decided by reason. Of such metaphysical subjects, he would argue, no one could advance a meaningful claim to real knowledge. It might seem that the people of the Mesorah, for all their fervor, cannot even make a claim of knowledge that is intelligible to modern philosophy, let alone defend it.

Our aim here is not to defend the Mesorah or to discuss its defense but merely to explicate its claim to knowledge and to interpret it in modern terms. We hope to show that, while the knowledge itself may be "metaphysical," the claim is emphatically not. The epistemological foundations are such as can be understood even by one who rejects traditional metaphysics. Perhaps after understanding them he may even find that they command at least a respect which is due not solely to their age.

Although the problem of making sense in modern terms of the epistemological claims of the Mesorah is most acutely felt in reference to nonphysical topics, what we have to say really applies to all the material. There are many who attempt to show how parts or the whole of the Mesorah meet some of the conventional criteria used in Western epistemology. We will show an entirely different basis for the knowledge claims of the recipients of the Mesorah that is quite strong, even according to the criteria of modern philosophy.

Nowadays, logic is broadly conceived of as the formal study of the transferral of various properties of statements or sentences, from one to the other. Thus the classical logic dealing with syllogisms is thought of as a part of truth functional logic, the logic which deals with how the property of truth can "pass" from some sentences (the premises) to others (the conclusions). The relationships described are all formal, that is, they depend only on the formal relationship between the sentences or on the form of the sentences, but not on the particular subject matter. Thus symbols are often used to represent sentences or parts of sentences.

In addition to truth, there are other attributes of sentences (or statements) which have been described in this way. There is modal logic, which treats of necessity and possibility, and the logic of propositional attitudes, such as obligation and knowledge and belief. The description of the way knowledge and belief can be transmitted on the basis of formal properties alone is called epistemic logic.

In epistemic logic, the following is a theorem:

(I) Ka[Kb(p)] -> Ka(p),

where "Kx(p)" means that x knows that p.

In words, the theorem says that if a knows that another (b) knows something, then the former (a) also knows that thing. It does not mean that a understands it as thoroughly as b or that a knows all the details. All it says is that in a very basic way, a knows p to be true. It also ignores completely the question of how a and b came to know what they originally knew. It says only that if b knows something p, and a knows that b knows p, then a must also know p. Let us also just note that this theorem does not say that the way to become a virtuoso pianist is to befriend a pianist.

In his book Knowledge and Belief, Hintikka gives a proof of this theorem. (4) His argument is somewhat technical. However, we will first summarize his proof and then attempt to give a more informal, intuitive presentation.

Hintikka's argument uses the reductio ad absurdum type of proof that he relies on so heavily. If we were to assume that a knows that b knows that p but that a does not know p, then it must be possible, for all a knows, for p to be false and for b still to know p. But if b knows p then p must be true (because this is included in the definition of knowledge), so p cannot be false. Thus our original assumption is wrong, and it is not possible for a to know that b knows p and also for a not to know p.

Continues . . .

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