In 1985, Australian philosopher David Stove held a competition to find “the Worst Argument in the World.” He split the points between how bad the argument itself was, on its own merits, and how influential it has been in the history of thought. In the end, he awarded the prize to himself, for the following argument (or rather, argument schema), which he christened “The Gem”:
We can know things only if condition C, which is necessary for knowledge, is satisfied,
We cannot know things as they are in themselves.
Condition C can be any number of things:
- as they are related to us
- under the forms of our perception and understanding
- insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes
- insofar as they enter our minds
- insofar as they are conceptualized by means of concepts
- insofar as they are formulated in language
- insofar as they are mediated by society or culture
As Stove points out, this argument is as good as the following argument:
We can eat oysters only insofar as they are brought under the physiological and chemical conditions which are the presuppositions of oysters being eaten by us,
We cannot eat oysters as they are in themselves.
Which is to say, we cannot eat oysters, or anything, without eating them. And we cannot know anything without knowing it. “The Gem” poses one of those questions that at first looks profound, but upon closer inspection turns out to be nonsensical, namely, “What would it be like to know something without knowing it?”
Ever since Descartes, philosophy has fallen prey to a series of “Gems.” Descartes posed the question of how one could ever get “outside” one’s mind, the “sphere of subjectivity” and make contact with the “outside, objective world.” Descartes himself attempted to solve his own problem by means an appeal to a combination of divine intervention and the pineal gland. Needless to say, his solution was not considered a success.
After David Hume effectively BURNT DOWN the Enlightenment with his skepticism, Immanuel Kant failed to have the good sense to let it die off and return to Aristotle, which is what a sane man would have done. Instead, Kant doubled down on modernity and produced the most influential Gem of all time: that we cannot escape our own sphere of mental experience, but our minds actually CREATE the world (as we experience it), which means we can know NOTHING about the world as it is in itself. In other words, Kant replaced knowledge with “knowledge,” and never managed to explain how he knew we could only have “knowledge” rather than knowledge … except for his Gem:
Our knowledge of the world is our knowledge;
Therefore, it isn’t really knowledge of the world, but only “knowledge” of the “world.”
Nietzsche, unsurprisingly, and with malicious glee, completely ignored Kant’s arbitrary pleas to stop thinking at the point Kant wanted (Kant suspected that his critical project, if pushed too far, would end up self-destructing; his “solution” to this potential problem was simply to not push it that far, and tell everyone else not to, either; he was, of course, immediately ignored by everyone, including Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel).
Nietzsche took Kant and drew out the logical and radical consequences of “we create the world”. It entails that philosophy—contra Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—is poetry, rhetoric, sophistry; philosophy is making rather than taking; creation rather than discovery; ποιητική rather than κτητική.
And the 20th century saw the playing out of the same drama in the sphere of language, with postmodernists such as Foucault and Derrida, and in a different way, the late Wittgenstein, telling us:
We can only talk about things by means of language;
Therefore, we cannot talk about things.
As my old teacher Stanley Rosen used to say, “Platonism, that is, realism, entails the thesis that we have the power or capacity to ‘somehow’ (πώς , Aristotle’s one-word epistemology) become in intellect the form of what we know. Intelligible form and intellectual grasp of form actualize together.”
More briefly: Platonism is the view that we can know things. (Aristotle is a rogue Platonist, but still a Platonist, broadly speaking). If you deny the core of Platonism, you can’t know anything, including whether you should have denied Platonism. Kant has to know that we can only “know” and not know, but he can’t know this because by his own theory he can only “know” it; Derrida says that everything is just the interpretation of text, but of course, this is not true, but merely Derrida’s interpretation of text; Foucault says that all theories are mere constructions of power, but of course that means Foucault’s theory is a mere construction of power, not the truth of things. And so on. We could go on (indefinitely), but we need not. If anyone claims to know (or to “know”) that we cannot know things, look for a Gem argument. There will be one lurking nearby.