Fichte on Cognition, Knowledge, and Epistemic Value

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Faculty of Philosophy


AHRC : Alexander Hutterer : AH/R012709/1

Society and technology today face several information processing challenges. Human lives and digital technology become ever closer intertwined. Hence, we need to become better at understanding our own information processing practices. And we need to become more effective at using technology to aid and supplement our information processing activities. Philosophy plays a key role in explicating the meaning of the most fundamental concepts. Specifically, the sub-discipline of epistemology aims to help us understand what we mean when we say that we "believe," "know," or "understand" something. This can help us both with better understanding our contemporary socio-technological challenges and with finding solutions for them. For instance, one major challenge in the development of artificial intelligence is making it "understandable" to humans. This requires a clear picture of what it means for humans to understand something in the first place. Another example is the spreading of "fake news" via social media. Current solutions for this problem, like fact-checking, are insufficient. Part of the problem with this particular solution is that the implied aim is too ambitious, namely to "prove facts," a goal that even science does not necessarily reach. By better understanding these epistemic aims and practices, philosophy can help with the development of new, more effective solutions to challenges like the "post-truth" problem or AI development.

The values and practices of today's science-powered society are frequently thought to stem from the enlightenment period. The enlightenment took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and coincided with significant improvements of human life, including the ascent of science and the beginnings of the industrial revolution. It was in the later stages of this period that Immanuel Kant wrote his ground-breaking "Critique of Pure Reason." In anglophone secondary literature on this book, Kant is usually understood as providing a new theory of how and what sort of "a priori knowledge," i.e., knowledge before experience, is attainable for humans. However, several recent papers in Kant scholarship cast doubt on this dominant interpretation. Instead, it is argued, Kant was not talking about knowledge at all. Specifically, he was talking about the German term "Erkenntnis" rather than knowledge. There is no clear translation for the term "Erkenntnis." The goal of my PhD is partly to figure out what precisely Kant meant by "Erkenntnis." If "Erkenntnis" really differs radically from "knowledge," this would radically affect Kant scholarship. Moreover, the implications go beyond the narrow confines of Kant exegesis. To be precise, Kant and his contemporaries seem to have used an entirely different epistemic category, namely "Erkenntnis," in addition to the categories used in philosophy today. Moreover, since Kant deemed "Erkenntnis" to be philosophically more significant than "knowledge," which is at the centre of contemporary epistemology, he quite probably also had different conceptions of the aims of our epistemic practices.

During the proposed placement, I aim to find out whether Kant's immediate intellectual successor - the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte - distinguished "Erkenntnis" from knowledge in an analogous way to Kant. Moreover, I intend to find out how Fichte's thoughts about the aims of epistemology differ from Kant's. Finally, I want to explore how Fichte's thoughts on this topic could be applied to both contemporary philosophy and some of society's current information processing challenges. The project will thereby contribute to a better understanding of why knowledge, truth and other epistemic practices are valuable and how we can promote these values. Moreover, it will contribute to filling a crucial gap in research on German Idealism.


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