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 Book Review “How We Know” by Harry Binswanger

By Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.


“How We Know” by Harry Binswanger is a book on human epistemology from the perspective of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, known as Objectivism. Covering a wide scope of information on how the human mind works and how we use concepts to come to understand the world, Binswanger starts at the perceptually self evidence, through the axioms, through concept formation, through higher-level concepts, to propositions and generalizations, to logic, and to principles; including induction and deduction; with a special chapter on free will in man; and a philosophical overview of how various philosophical views regarding the human mind have effected the history of philosophical thought. One of the remarkable things about how the book is written is that it is fully objective. Objectivity consists of maintaining logic, context, and hierarchy. Logic is non-contradictory identification, context is insuring one keeps each bit of knowledge integrated with the rest of one's consciousness, and hierarchy means that some things have to be learned and understood before one can move on to issues related to but following from those previous thoughts. While the book is based on Objectivism and Ayn Rand's philosophy, one need not be familiar with Ayn Rand to be able to read it, since Binswanger gives many examples and demonstrations of the functioning of the human mind that even a beginner reader of philosophy can follow rather easily.

There is one drawback to the book, as far as I can tell; Binswanger does not discuss the role of good art in cognition. “How We Know” is a very comprehensive book on the topic, and it is very difficult to keep all of that information in mind. In the following review, I wrote a review of each chapter shortly after reading it, and I am finding it difficult to condense my review down to a page or two. So, what is needed to help keep a complicated topic in mind is a concretization of that topic, which is provided by good, objective art. One can say, in this context, that “How We Know” is like looking into the inner workings of the mind of an inductive Sherlock Holmes observing how his own mind works, and telling the rest of the world what he discovered.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to the reader who is interested in how we go about knowing the world.

I will give a brief overview of each chapter in the following review.

Chapter One; Foundations:

A discussion of how all knowledge is based upon the perceptually self-evident as given by sensory data in the form of entities, their attributes, and their actions. Awareness is awareness of existence given to us directly by our means of awareness, our senses. The three fundamental axioms – existence, identity, and consciousness – are arrived at by observing existence and conceptualizing that which we observe. Binswanger pays special attention to the nature of consciousness, identifying it as awareness of existence and having efficacy in man and being our basic tool of survival in the world.

Here's his summary paragraph regarding the nature of consciousness: "The one-sentence, highly condensed overview is: consciousness is a living organism's active process of perceiving reality to acquire the information required for its survival."

Chapter Two; Perception:

The nature of perception and its relation to conceptual knowledge, as the starting point of all knowledge. Perception as awareness of existence in a specific form dependent on our means of awareness, the type of sensory equipment we have including the nervous system and the brain. While he does indicate that he has a difference from Ayn Rand in that chapter -- a technical and scientific difference, not a philosophical one -- he does make his case clear, we are aware of existence as a unified whole not requiring us to put anything together consciously to be aware of existence. Certainly, at least on the adult level, we are not aware of having to put together or to integrate sensory inputs or sensations into a unified whole; we are simply aware of existence as a unified whole. We can then scientifically analyze how that works and realize that we get that information on the cellular level of sensations via sense receptors that respond to stimuli, and then the nervous system and the brain keep it all organized into that unified whole. As I like to put it, our means of awareness -- including all the sense receptors, nerves, and parts of the brain -- are completely transparent to us when we observe existence. So, our observations of existence are certainly experienced by us as a direct contact with existence via perception in the form of observing entities, their attributes, and their actions.

Chapter Three; Concept-Formation:

Concept formation and how it works in man, as a mental integration of the data provided by man's senses with their measurements omitted within a range of observations, and then integrated together into a concept containing that information in a special format. A lot of good examples are given as to how to form a proper concept. One thing that this chapter helped to clarify for me was the role of the Conceptual Common Denominator, the CCD. In Objectivism, in order to see two or more things as similar, one needs to differentiate them out not only from the background, but also from something that is likewise similar but not as similar to the things being mentally integrated together (they differ by a greater measurement). This can be difficult to keep in mind when one is talking about concept formation, and Harry Binswanger came up with a good graphic to illustrate the point. If we look at the letters A and B next to one another, on the perceptual level they are seen as different. They have different shapes, for example, so they are not readily seen as being similar just by themselves as that pair of items. So, the graphic that illustrated the idea of location, or closeness to one another, was the following:


By having A and B being close to one another as contrasted to C, which is much further away, the similarity of position is made readily clear. One can say, in this context, that A and B are close to one another.

He gave previous examples of asking is this city close to that city, and if you take them individually or in pairs only, you can't really say, since you need a contrast or a foil.

For example, is Dallas close to Pittsburgh? Well, it basically depends on the foil contrast. If we are comparing their proximity to, say, Moscow, then yes, Dallas is close to Pittsburgh. But if one were to compare the same two cities with, say, Fort Worth as the contrasting city, then no, Pittsburgh is not close to Dallas.

Chapter Four; Higher-Level Concepts:

This is a very rich chapter on how concept formation goes from the perceptually self-evident to higher-level abilities brought about by measurement omission being applied to concepts already formed, and keeping these new concepts from concepts in a logical and hierarchical system where each concept is contextually related to and often integrated with previously formed concepts. Far too many details to go into here, so you'll have to read the book; but he did come up with, I think, a better analogy to a conceptual hierarchy than the skyscraper that Ayn Rand and Dr. Peikoff discuss. He says the relationships between concepts and perception is best illustrated by the analogy of the suspension bridge, with all the interconnected parts making a whole, and the whole thing must be firmly attached to something solid (perception) or it all collapses.

Chapter Five; Propositions:

In this chapter, Harry presents his own theory about the nature of propositions, since, unfortunately, Ayn Rand died before having a chance of outlining her own views on the topic. I had my own views about propositions being a relational identification between that which is observed as stated by relating concepts to other concepts, the relationship between file folders as identifying various aspects of existence in explicit terms. Like "I mowed the lawn today" relates what I actually did in terms of concepts that I already had (i.e "I", "mowed", "lawn").

Harry is not in disagreement with this approach, as I understand him, but he goes further and introduces a new conceptual identification of what goes on when we form a proposition. He introduces the term "measurement-inclusion", and then explains what he means by that concept. What he means is that concepts omit measurements, but within a range. So that, following my statement above, a lawn is an "owned piece of property on which one can grow grass and bushes to one's liking." For me to decide if something is a lawn, I have to refer to that definition and it's referents in existence and identify that this observed area of the Earth fits within that range or not. So, if I say, "Sue has a lawn" I am conceptually identifying that this thing that Sue owns fits within the range of what was identified and conceptualized by the concept "lawn."

In other words, what the proposition "Sue owns a lawn" does is relates something that Sue owns to concepts already held in one's own mind -- if what she owns fits within that range of what a lawn is, then the proposition is true, and one has conceptually identified a certain fact of existence in terms of concepts and a relationship between concepts by taking the observed measurements into account and referencing those to concepts one had already formed previously.

He's not saying the measurements are added back into the concepts one already has, but rather one identifies the measurement range of that which is observed, and then searches one's mind for concepts that identify the range of measurements, and then states that relationship in the form of a proposition.

Harry covered a variety of types of propositions, so there are plenty of examples of what he means, but the chapter seemed a bit short for introducing a new theory of propositions and what the human mind is doing when it forms a proposition.

It is quite possible that when we conceptually identify something we observe or think about that we are looking at the measurements of the thing being assessed, and then comparing those ranges of measurements to the ranges of measurements omitted when we formed a concept of a similar thing a while back. He gives an example of conceptually identifying Lassie as a dog, and then has a chart showing that the measurements of Lassie fit within the range of the measurements omitted in forming the concept of "dog."

Chapter Six; Logic: Theory:

In this chapter Harry Binswanger clearly demonstrates the nature of logic and why it must be based upon the perceptually self-evident in a non-contradictory manner. While he doesn't use my compact form of stating the principle -- that "logic is non-contradictory identification of the facts of reality as given in observation" -- that is essentially what he is saying in this chapter.

He also has a discussion about the issue of validity of an aspect of knowledge, even if that knowledge has to be thrown out by later discoveries. In essence, he is saying that so long as one did take into account the facts that one did know about at the time and integrates them in a logical, contextual, and hierarchical manner; that this process is valid even if, at some later date, one discovers new facts that overthrow the previously held knowledge. Man is not omniscient and he cannot be held to the standard of being infallible.

This goes back to an earlier discussion I had about young children not being wrong or illogical if they originally categorizes both the household cat and the household dog under the concept of "doggie." In his context of knowledge based upon direct perception of seeing cats and dogs, there are enough similarities between the cat and the dog to conceptualize them together. This would not be an error but a contextual discovery about the facts of existence that he is aware of. Later, he realizes there are just too many dissimilarities between cats and dogs to conceptualize them together, so he can modify his conceptual context, but he wasn't in error, he was contextually correct within his limited knowledge at the time. And Harry tries to make the point that at those first-level concepts, the child cannot be in error because he has no explicit method of thinking at the time and it is so close to the perceptual level that he effectively cannot err.

Error comes about when one has to use an explicit methodology in order to keep one's thoughts consistent with the facts of reality -- that is when one has to use the method of logic. If one's thought process wind up contradicting the facts, then one is in error; if one's thought process are consistent with the known facts then one is making valid logical inferences and is following the correct method of mental functioning.

Chapter Seven; Logic: Practice:

This is a very richly detailed chapter on the functions of logic all the way from the formation of concepts, to propositions, and up to induction and deduction. Harry Binswanger gives a plethora of examples for each of his points about how logic ought to be used when one is forming concepts and making propositions. Far too many details to go into here, but he makes his case clear that logic is the non-contradictory identification of existence, and that to hold this principle as valid leads to all sorts of proper identifications of the role and function of logic; both in every day life and in philosophical treatises. He goes on to point out that certain self-referential propositions, like the Liar's Paradox, cannot be either true or false since it has no referent, hence it is arbitrary.

Chapter Eight; Proof and Certainty:

In this chapter, Harry Binswanger give a very thorough discussion of when and by what means one can be certain and have a proof of a statement. It basically all comes down to being rational and logical with regard to the facts that one is aware of in a non-contradictory identification and integration with the rest of one's knowledge. He points out that certainty comes about when all the evidence and the reasoning from that evidence leads to one and only one conclusion. And while it may be possible to be certain and later be shown to be wrong due to new evidence, that previous conclusion based on the evidence that one did have does not make that previous conception uncertain in retrospect. Even certainty is contextual.

Later in the chapter he goes into some detail as to what the term "proof" refers to in existence and man's mind relationship to existence. He refers to the process of reduction -- of tracing back one's conceptual steps from a higher level, through the mid and lower levels, all the way down to the perceptually self-evident in a non-contradictory manner. If one can trace back one's steps in reaching that higher-level conclusion in a non-contradictory manner taking logic, context and hierarchy into account, then one has proven one's case.

He then goes on to discuss the issue of objectivity at length and gives many insights as to how the process of being objective works. It's basically turning the thought process onto itself, introspecting on what one's own mind is doing with regard to the processing of information, and then making sure that one is following logic and context and hierarchy throughout one's own thought process -- of taking one's own thought process as the object of observation and analysis.

Chapter Nine; Principles:

A principle is a fundamental generalization; and since a generalization is a proposition stating a causative relationship, a principle is a proposition stating a causative relationship that explains a wide variety of individual events. For example, "things fall" is a generalization; but "material things attract one another" is a principle, the principle of gravity. By retaining a causative proposition as a fundamental one can explain a great many things that are not possible with a lesser generalization. The principle of gravity not only explains the fact that things fall, but also the orbits of the planets in the solar system around the sun.

As a further illustration of a principle, Harry Binswanger refers to the principle of Individual Rights, which are moral principles stating, in a causative manner, what actions are morally acceptable in a social context. While he doesn't go into a lot of details in this example (he refers to Miss Rand's essay "Man's Rights"), it is the principle of individual rights and their protection of a man being free to live his own life by his own standards that has made possible the industrial and scientific progress we have enjoyed over the past several hundred years.

He likens a principle to, say, the trunk of a tree, with the lesser generalizations being like the branches of a tree. In actuality, one forms the principle after integrating many similar generalizations, but once formed the principle accounts for all of those similarities one observed in existence regarding the workings of causation. And one can then use those principles to identify other similar particulars and what they will do given various causes acting on them.

Thinking in terms of principles to guide one in one's life on a daily basis makes it possible for a man to think and to act long-range. He can better identify either the potential causes of his success or the potential causes of his failures, before he actually acts on them, if he learns to think in terms of principles. And a violation of one's rational principles means that one is short-circuiting one's long-term prospects in one's life.

Chapter Ten; Free Will:

In this chapter, Harry Binswanger thoroughly discusses the issue of free will and what it means from the Objectivist perspective. It basically comes down to the fact that one can introspect and realize that one is in control of one's own consciousness, including the fundamental choice, to focus on the fact of reality, or to drift, or to actively avoid considering the facts of reality (evasion). While one is reading this entry, for example, one can introspect and realize that as you consider each of these points you are doing so volitionally, requiring mental effort to stay focused on the topic or not.

He also has a discussion of determinism versus free will and he identifies, like I do, that the whole issue comes down to one's conceptualization of causation. If you think that efficient cause is the only form of causation, then free will comes across as some some sort of mystical fantasy not based on the facts of reality. However, efficient causation is not the broadest concept of causation, and it actually only applies to material things in a sense. More fundamentally, an entity is something specific in existence and acts the way it does due to the fact of what it is, and not only antecedent factors. And man is built in such a way that he can direct his own consciousness. While this seems to contradict efficient causation, it does not contradict the fact that you are what you are and have certain capabilities that you, yourself, have to choose to enact or not.

The biological function of volition is to keep one's mind focused on the facts of reality and keeping your own mind free of contradictions; to consider the facts and the relationships between those facts of one's own free choice to do so. Reason does not happen automatically. Man is not a computer acting on programming and electrical circuits that just happen because of our physical make-up. Man's distinctive ability is the ability to control the functioning of his own mind individually.

Harry also discusses the nature of character, of the fact that as we grow up and either think about the world or don't think about the world we develop automatized ways of dealing with the world, that come about due to our choices in many situations as we are confronted by the facts that we either chose to focus on or not, long-range and short-range.

Chapter Eleven; Overview:

In this chapter, Harry Binswanger puts the Objectivist position on gaining knowledge conceptually within the history of thoughts about how the human mind works. Basically the perspective of Aristotle versus Plato and their followers in each camp. He shows that many mistakes and outright evasions occurred in the history of philosophy on this topic, and contrasts the Objectivist approach to that of Plato, Descartes, and Kant. He shows that Kant was a great reversal of the idea that started explicitly with Aristotle that knowledge is knowledge of the real world as given by perception. He shows that if perception is not the starting point and if that which we observe is not real existence then all is lost; and yet, thanks to Ayn Rand we have a solution to the problems and questions that have arisen in the field of philosophy when it comes to how the human mind operates to gain real knowledge of the real world.

He also names something he calls the "prose principle" in that an individual man can actually use implicit knowledge without having it fully conceptualized. He points out, for one thing, that children can learn how to conceptualize without ever having heard of any theory of concepts, and that man could be logical even before Aristotle formulated the rules of logic. But even though a man can operate from implicit knowledge, it is better to have that knowledge fully conceptualized so that he doesn't lose it with the next thought. Pre-conceptual knowledge tends to fluctuate as the mind considers other things explicitly, so it is always best to explicitly identify that which one only senses as a proper relationship that is not fully realized in the mind.

He also has a few more things to say about perception and volition in that perception is unerring (which he mentioned in previous chapters), and that even though man is capable of erring he can still be certain, if he follows the proper principles of how we know. An observationally validated means of knowledge that stems from integrating things according to observed similarities while omitting those measurements observed, and following through with higher-level knowledge and propositions that explicitly identify the facts of reality.