Questions of Epistemology

This post is a reference point for future discussions.

I keep running into the issue of those unspoke assumptions which show up in debates. It’s bad enough when propagandists are trying to avoid stating rather obvious assumptions, but when no one is willing to discuss more fundamental presuppositions about reality itself, we simply cannot proceed until that’s out in the open. All the more so when the whole point is the very difference in presuppositions.

epistemology: the philosophical discussion of what is and isn’t real, of what we can claim to know

More to the point, epistemology is the study of things we can claim to know as true such that we can act on that knowledge. Naturally, Aristotle dealt with this question openly. That’s because he was proposing an epistemology which was novel, different from what the rest of the whole human race held at that time.

The whole world believed there were things you could not sense. Aristotle acknowledged as much, but insisted it at least had to be something man could wrestle with in terms of logic. The rest of the world presumed there was a spirit realm utterly separate from this realm of existence, but Aristotle insisted it was all one thing. In case you didn’t notice, the whole of Greek culture at that time was man-centered. Thus, for Aristotle intellectually, man was the measure of all things. If man could not figure it out, it could not be “true” in the sense we could act on it.

The whole realm of phenomena which simply was not fully understood was either explained (mostly explained away) or dismissed as superstition. There was room for further inquiry, but dismissal was the default. In Aristotle’s mind, there could well be powers above human, but they were of the same type. Remember how the Greek gods were little more than extra-powerful people? It was a continuum and nothing was actually outside the universe, it was simply not entirely perceptible to our senses. Still, it fit logically, so we could “know” it, even if there was little we could do about it. It was the birth of conscious agnosticism. I note here yet again, Aristotle was fully aware of how novel this was in his time, and fully aware of how it was different from the rest of the world. For example, he was personally acquainted with Jewish scholars who held an entirely different viewpoint, and discussed it with them.

For Christians, I’ll restate that more bluntly: The entire Bible was written from the Hebrew epistemology, not from Aristotle’s. If you stick with Aristotle, you cannot understand the Bible properly.

For Westerners, Aristotle is the presupposition to everything you think. So tightly wound is the entire Western Civilization in Aristotle, most of you can’t imagine a different approach. Without a decent education which addresses thinking itself, this whole thing simply passes right over your head.

I realize I’m trying to summarize whole books and courses in philosophy here, but I keep running into people with apparently decent educations, but seeming to have utterly forgotten this part, if they ever got it. But it seems necessary to point out to people Aristotle and his epistemology is not the original, nor the only game in town. I adhere to that much older version which was pretty much universal before Aristotle was born, and remains numerically dominant despite how much of the world seems to embrace him. Most of the world is aware of Aristotle’s version, and accept it for certain things, but remain convinced his approach cannot account for everything. This is how I do things, myself.

I know where Westerners are coming from; I’m painfully conscious of it. I am aware my approach is different, and how it leads to different answers. I fully understand the logical consequences of choosing one or the other, but here’s what most people don’t realize: If you embrace Aristotle’s approach to what we can know and act on, you cannot possibly accept any part of God’s revelation. Aristotle’s epistemology pointedly rejects revelation before the discussion starts. If you want to discuss revelation and the resulting religious ideas, you’ll have to discard — or at least recognize the limits of — Aristotle.

The primary definition of mysticism is simply holding a non-Aristotelian epistemology. What I write here on this blog presupposes mysticism as valid. To argue specific points without referencing that difference in presuppositions might still get you some few answers from me if I can find them in your probable frame of reference, but if you press the case, you’ll be directed here.

About Ed Hurst

Avid cyclist, Disabled Veteran, Bible History teacher, and wannabe writer; retired.
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17 Responses to Questions of Epistemology

  1. Mike Mahoney says:

    Mr. Hurst, how far apart are mysticism and faith? Until I get a better grip on the differences I am stuck equating the terms and confused that you would use the one and not the other. I have the wikipedia article on mysticism before me and at this point I can only conclude the two terms are synonymous.


  2. Ed Hurst says:

    Mysticism is a method, an epistemology of itself. Faith is the commitment we make based what we learn from that approach. However, many sources — such as Wikipedia — will tend to confuse things because of what is typically associated with mysticism in terms of academic baggage. Faith and commitment are synonymous, but I dare say genuine faith in God does depend on mysticism.


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  11. Guymax says:

    I’m a little uncomfortable with this explanation of mysticism and its relation to faith. After all, it is debatable whether mysticism endorses theism. I also feel that Aristotle seems to get a raw deal. He concluded ‘True knowledge is identical with its object’. This is a logical deduction but it is also the epistemological basis of mysticism. It is the recognition that true knowledge is not to be acquired through the physical senses but (if it possible at all) by ‘being’, by an identity of knower and known. Not being pedantic Ed – just suggesting that there may be other ways of looking at these things.


  12. Ed Hurst says:

    First of all, as I had more room in my book to explain, this is all more about the effects of Aristotle on human consiciousness than so much what he actually had to say. However, given he openly rejected revelation, I am forced to reject his broader message. I will agree that I define mysticism differently than some, placing an emphasis on a portion of the pool of meaning often ignored by others. So I disagree that his quote is the basis for mysticism; it is the basis for Western mysticism, not that of the Ancient Near East.

    In my devotion to the revelation in Scripture, I cannot but emphasize the much older approach of the ANE. True knoweldge is revelation; objects are mere context.


  13. guymax says:

    Yes, it seems true that Aristotle has been much misinterpreted, even widely ignored. I’m with you there.

    It’s your view of mysticism that I find unusual. Is it not inevitable that all mysticism is the claim that true knowledge is acquired by identity? (Or, if you like, by a revelation of identity). Otherwise its knowledge claims would have to be fraudulent.

    This is because where knowledge is not knowledge by identity then it is doubtful – solipsism, evil demons, miscalculations and all that – and doubtful knowledge is not what mysticism means by true knowledge. Thus its method is inevitably to ‘know thyself’. In this I respect I find no need to talk about ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ mysticism.

    Sill, it would remain the case that true knowledge is revelation if we define ‘revelation’ in a certain way, and that all objects (and subjects) would be window-dressing. So we end up in a similar place.


  14. Ed Hurst says:

    I didn’t just come up with that view of mysticism by myself. I learned it from studying cultural antiquities and such; it’s part of biblical research that isn’t very popular with most Christians, but is there in obscure corners if you look for it. Mysticism is a very broad label academically, and I emphasize the approach as explained by far better educated men who themselves didn’t actually agree with it. Mysticism is not content, but method. Aristotle himself defined knowledge as something actionable. His epistemology excludes actionable knowledge (“truth”) from revelation because he insisted all reality was a continuity, that there is no such thing as a Spirit Realm. In his mind, if there were higher creatures, they were a part of this realm of existence, whether visible or not. Divine revelation claims to come from outside this universe.

    The Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) approach assumes without question a higher realm, and the Bible specifically asserts it is the Realm of the Spirit. Revelation is the ineffable truth from the Spirit Realm; it must of necessity be communicated in parabolic or symbolic language because the human intellect is fallen and incapable of handling ultimate truth. It requires God to awaken the human spirit by merging it with His own Spirit; then there is a faculty by which ultimate truth is known. The difficulty remains getting the intellect to serve instead of rule. The intellect is given by God to organize and implement His divine truth in that one life.

    I’m not sure how I would work in the concept of identity, because the ANE concept is that identity is somewhat fungible for anyone who isn’t God. There isn’t much place for the self in ANE mysticism, not as most Westerners think of it. This universe is just a bubble within reality, and our bubble contains an awful lot of deception and “un-reality” compared to God’s truth. The Fall rules within our space, and we can scarcely understand that a higher truth is possible unless God reveals Himself along with that higher reality. I suppose if we regard the birth of a spirit as gaining identity, that might work for how we use the words. Still, I find the concept of identity bears too much baggage I don’t want included in the picture.

    I don’t mind rehashing it just a little bit. I can’t pretend you would go back and read all the posts I’ve made on this topic over the years. However, I do hope you consider reading the free ebook I published and linked on the right side of my blog page.


  15. Guymax says:

    I think we have rather different views and I expect we both think we’ve got more or less the right one. Perhaps neither of us have. We’re into some subtle details here.

    I’m afraid that I feel Aristotle is correct when he says reality is a continuum. So I prefer a one world doctrine, but split into the mundane and supramundane worlds until we see that they are one, (or have that revelation). It would be the nature of any intellect that it cannot perceive this ultimate truth rather than a particular failing of the human intellect. I also feel that there is only one mysticism.

    But that’s people, we never all agree. I’ve said my piece, so thanks for the chat and good luck on the journey.


  16. Ed Hurst says:

    Glad you were here. We learn best when we bounce our ideas off those who think differently.


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