Who Knows?

Friday February 3, 2006


Last night I was teaching a class during which we were exploring Indian philosophical approaches to the question of knowledge, and it got me thinking. Indian philosophy often seems more concerned with the question “how can I know what is true?” than with the question “what truly exists?”. Or to dress it up it in technical garb, it is more concerned with epistemology – theories of knowledge – than ontology – theories of being and existence. Of course these two things are always entangled with each other, but it seems that the balance is different from that in Western philosophy, where the focus is often more on questions of being than on questions of knowing.

Anyway, we were laying the groundwork for future sessions on Buddhism, and we were trying to do so practically rather than just theoretically. There’s a standard model of cognition in Indian philosophy which could be represented like this:

So every cognition (a thought, an idea, a perception) has three aspects: i) the one who cognizes, ii) the thing that is cognized, and iii) the process of cognition. I cannot see Bodhicattva, the thinkBuddha cat, unless there is i) I am there ii) Bodhicattva is there and iii) there is a process of seeing. In our class we started by asking about the object of cognition. We looked at something and asked ourselves: “what is it?”, “how do I know what it is?” and “are the sources of this supposed knowledge reliable?” This got us into various discussions that will be familiar to anybody who has stayed too long at a student party full of stoned philosophers and fine art students.

So far so good. But then we turned the question back upon ourselves, and looked at the question of the one who was cognizing: and at this stage things got very peculiar. We started to ask “who or what is doing the seeing?”, “where is the one who sees?” This is where things began to get strange…

In the Western tradition, Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” If he looked at the cognizer it was only with a brief nod, reassuring himself of its indubitable existence, believing that this certainty of his own existence was assured by the mere fact of his cognizing. But this is a case of not looking closely enough, of being satisfied with the briefest of glances. Last night as we asked more searchingly the question of “who?” we found that we didn’t run into the certainty about which Descartes wrote, but instead into confusion and bewilderment. I think therefore I am. Perhaps. But this doesn’t answer the question of “who?” or “what?” or “where?” this “I” might be.

When you start to look at the question of who is doing the seeing, who is typing these words, who is having these thoughts, as we were doing last night, your head begins to spin. It can be an interesting exercise. You rise up from your chair to make a cup of tea, then you ask yourself, “who decided to make a cup of tea?” You walk down the street and ask yourself, “who is walking?” You feel like a banana, and ask yourself, “who feels like a banana?” and “what exactly is this feeling?” The more you do this kind of thing, the more confusing it becomes and the more the philosophical categories that we have seem to fall apart. The fugitive self seems impossible to capture wherever you look for it. Not fretting and fluttering in the pineal gland, as Descartes thought, not lodged behind the eyes or in the heart: it can seem as if every time you think you’ve got hold of it, and you ask what it is that you’ve got hold of, then you find that your hands are empty. Yet nevertheless, it also seems that something is happening.

This is important, I think. To say that our hands are empty, that we haven’t grasped what we set out to grasp, is not to say that there is nothing going on at all: of course there is. Only that perhaps we cannot get to it through the cognitive grasping. As I walked to the bus-stop, the freezing night air on my face, in the sheer ungraspable immediacy of that experience – the cold air, the glimmer of street-lights, the smell of pollution – I was struck by the narrowness of our conceptual frameworks, however useful they may be. Actual, immediate experience is incomparably rich. Glimpsing emptiness, as many have pointed out, does not lead us to nothingness, but to a recognition of the fullness of things beyond our concepts of them. This is, it seems to me, as far from mysticism as it is possible to get. Neither the mysticism of otherworldliness, nor the mysticism of absurdly believing that everything is, in fact, nothing, nor the mysticism of assuming that our language can capture the world.

Who walks? Who eats? Who sleeps? Who writes? Who blogs? Who knows? What is this self that we seem so interested in? Nagarjuna, the great Buddhist scholar from the 2nd Century, responds to these kinds of questions in one fashion, in Stephen Batchelor’s poetic translation ( Verses from The Centre: p. 114):

Were mind and matter me,
I would come and go like them,
If I were something else,
They would say nothing about me.

What is mine
When there is no me?
Were self-centredness eased,
I would not think of me and mine-
There would be no one there
To think them.

What is inside is me,
What is outside is mine-
When these thoughts end,
Compulsion stops,
Repetition ceases,
Freedom dawns.

But you could put it by answering the question with another question, the same but different:

Q: Who knows?
A: Who knows…?

(P.S. Read this great article on Indian epistemology by Jayandra Soni.)

Image: Arturo D.

Tags: , , , , ,
#1 · Gareth

4 February 2006


Thank you.

#2 · Tom

5 February 2006

Your Descartes is not how I learned it. All Descartes asserts is that a show is going on: Prama, in your diagram. The I is only the screen, and no real revelation of it is made in his beginning statement.

Pretend that you are Descartes. You are on a thought-project. You begin with nothing. WHAT is the first thing you can assert. It is THE SHOW, not your selfhood.

What he is asserting is that there is thinking. There is not nothingness.

#3 · Will

6 February 2006

Hi, Tom, thanks for stopping by and thanks for the comment.

I’m not sure I agree on your reading of Descartes. I suspect that Descartes is saying a bit more than “there is a show going on”. It’s the ergo sum in his famous dictum that causes the problem. If he was only stating that there was a show going on, then he would be left with the proposition “I think, therefore there are thoughts” which, as Nietzsche points, ( The Will to Power 484), is mere tautology. But what Descartes is doing is moving from the fact that there is a show going on to the idea of a substance that thinks.

Both Nietzsche and also, in a different fashion, Husserl in the Cartesian Meditations object to this “smuggling in” of substance via the back door, and claim that it is unwarranted. In any case, Descartes “I” is much more than the fact of a show going on: it is an indubitable fact, a thinking substance. Compare with the Buddhist approach of searching for this seemingly indubitable “I” and finding that it dissolves under analysis…

This idea of a thinking substance causes all kinds of problems, not least the dualism of res cogitans – thinking things, minds, and res extensa, extended things, bodies, and how they can interact. Whilst my description of the Cartesian self “fretting and fluttering in the pineal gland” may be technically speaking incorrect – being unextended, the “I” does not fret and flutter anywhere and Descartes protests against the image of the self as a pilot in his ship – nevertheless the problem of how these two radically different substances might interact is not resolved, and is a problem with all varieties of dualism.

In the end, whilst the threefold model of cognition is an interesting starting point, if we look closely enough we end up not with this tidy scheme of subject-object-act, but with something a bit more perplexing and entangled, as is suggested by the Nagarjuna passage, which exhibits a level of uncertainty that Descartes would, I think, strenuously resist.

All the best,


Comments are turned off for this article.