Van Til, Reformed Epistemology-Chapter 2

Source of Van Til’s Work

History of Epistemology in General

Now that he has shown that establishing an adequate epistemological model is of paramount importance, Van Til now wants to take a look at how humans throughout history have attempted to find certainty.

He begins by viewing pre-Socratic thought, which simply assumed the validity of their knowledge. In this period there were views of philosophers such as Heraclitus who assumed that all was in flux as opposed to Parmenides who said that nature was unchangeable. The great number of contradicting views of reality during this time period led to doubt, causing the Sophists to call attention to the theory of knowledge.

Afterward came Plato whose metaphysics revolved around his theory of forms which were perfect, eternal, and unchanging. He said that the only certainty we can have is of these forms, but not any material object. Any intellectual relationship we have of the material world is simply a belief or opinion. Unlike Plato, Aristotle held that we need to look for the universal in specific things or, in other words, their essence. While Plato held that the forms exist outside of objects, Aristotle’s epistemology focused on particular objects and worked its way to a knowledge of essence. The way in which he does this is through his theory of four causes which allows us to come to an object’s telos. However, Aristotle held to a God who was the prime mover, but besides that, had no relation to the world. This led the Neo-Platonists to create “mediators” which would allow us to approach an unapproachable God.

The Middle Academy held the view that nature is simply unknowable. Augustine wrote against these thinkers, not only claiming that we can have probably knowledge, but certain knowledge.

The early modern period is where serious epistemology began. Here we see Locke create a system where our knowledge is based off of our immediate impressions. Hume took this idea and showed that this empiricism inevitably leads to skepticism, because the ideas we form from the impressions are imperfect copies, making our analytic judgments of those ideas also imperfect. Rationalism made the opposite mistake by stating knowledge is based upon universal a priori principles, neglecting our perceptions entirely.

Kant, in an attempt to unify these two sides, states, “Thoughts without perceptions are empty, while perceptions without thoughts are blind.” Here we see a critique of both rationalist and empiricists. To overcome this dualism he proposed that real knowledge must depend on a priori principles of the mind. But how do we not get stuck in our minds like the rationalists? Kant claims that space and time has no existence apart from mind, subjecting all experiences to the laws of our thinking. All knowledge is synthetic a priori knowledge. However, Kant has to concede that all we can know is the phenomena that appear to us. This means we cannot know things in themselves (in the noumenal realm we do not have access to), so we get locked up into the subjectivity of our experiences. Van Til claims that this is the fundamental error of all non-revelational idealistic epistemology. He states that Kant was correct in thinking that the starting point must be the human subject, but mistaken in thinking that the human subject must be creative and productive in a sense. Kant went too far in thinking that the subject plays such an active role, when all idealism needs is the fact that experience is necessary for something to be real for us. Also, we can know a higher reality through the initiative, not of the subject, but of this higher form itself. Van Til sums it up by saying, “Idealism has willfully shut itself up…It has closed its windows that looked up to the sky.”

Van Til thinks that a correct epistemology is one where experience comes into our consciousness but we do not produce it. He notes that while Hegel and Kant have several stark differences, we must note the unity they shared, which was the emphasis on the creativity of the mind. The rational then is the real and the real rational.  An epistemology that leads to identity is one which necessarily denies error, which we know to exist. It seems that any non-revelational epistemology fails.


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