In philosophy, the subject of knowledge is both extensive in scope and technical in nature. This specific philosophical endeavor is more aptly called epistemology, and it is solely concerned with demystifying the phenomenon of knowledge, most especially from a backdrop of physical existence and objective reality. Several notable philosophers have written extensively on this subject, including Bertrand Russell and Immanuel Kant. In essence, epistemology is quite broad but it is basically concerned with understanding knowledge from three key standpoints: knowing how to, knowing that, and knowing through acquaintance (Nola and Irzik 55). It essentially aims at developing a core theory of knowledge that fully explains this phenomenon.
Understanding the progress made in the field of epistemology requires a keen examination of the proposed theories of knowledge with regard to their core concepts and fundamental propositions. For instance, Immanuel Kant espoused a largely transcendental form of idealism which in turn shaped his understanding of knowledge. According to Prichard (142), Kant understood the pursuit of knowledge as encompassing the extent and certainty of human understanding. In essence, his focus was on propositional knowledge from the perspectives of internal pursuit and consequent revelation. His approach to this was, as such, largely transcendental and metaphysical as noted above.
Another equally distinguished philosopher, Bertrand Russell, had a slightly different approach to the phenomenon of knowledge and the entire field of epistemology by extension. Concisely, Russell’s approach was more objective than idealistic as compared to that of Kant. For instance, Russell believed that knowledge must restricted within the realm of objective reality where a person can start by asking questions based on doubt and skepticism, finally culminating in firm understanding of the specific object of doubt (Russell 31). For purposes of this paper, both of these philosophies as espoused by Kant and Russell shall be referenced. Similarly, this paper shall examine the relationship between the theory of knowledge, as it currently stands, and the oriental philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism
Taoism and Confucianism
In basic terms, Taoism refers to the philosophical school of thought and set of traditional beliefs espoused by Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu with regard to human existence and interaction with nature. In essence, Taoism is a philosophical belief system that sanctifies the autonomy of nature in its operations, with which humanity is admonished to refrain from interfering (Kirkland 22). This tradition proposes the preeminence of a natural life force called the Tao, which is termed as the ultimate principle in existence. In this regard, therefore, it is clear that Taoism falls squarely within the transcendentalist and idealist realm of knowledge as explained earlier.
Confucianism, on the other hand, refers to a set of philosophical teachings conceptualized and spread by Confucius within ancient China primarily advocating for love as the main agenda among human beings. According to Xinzhong (21), Confucius held largely humanistic and rational ideals which essentially guided the development of his eponymous tradition. In light of this fact, Confucianism falls more into the realm of objectivity as opposed to idealism or transcendentalism. Confucius did not propose the creation of a new religion with different sets of doctrines than his native traditions at the time; instead, he developed what he saw as a necessary improvement to human understanding and subsequent ways of life.
Based on the foregoing statements, Confucianism saliently lacks the attribute of a divine principle as far as the nature of existence is concerned. This is in grave contrast to Taoism which basically proposes the presence of an intangible supreme principle as the basis of all things present. As guided by the concept of knowledge, developed greatly by both Kant and Russell, it is clear that these two traditions of Taoism and Confucianism attempt to expand people’s understanding of their universe and the nature of reality.
Analysis and Critique
It is easy to assign the two different schools of thought discussed above appropriate labels taken from their classification as either objective or subjective. Similarly, it is easy to understand just which approach to the concept of knowledge they both take. Learning, as the process through which knowledge is acquired, involves a mastery of the key concepts that constitute the subject being learnt. Since the various approaches to the topic of knowledge (Prichard 122; Russell 33) seem to coalesce at the idea of understanding a topic with certainty, then Taoism seems to fall slightly by the wayside.
At the core of Taoism is the supreme principle known as Tao, or “The Way,” which is assigned the primary attribute of preeminence even though it is not clearly perceivable or verifiable. This seems to veer off the confines within which an epistemology philosopher such as Russell binds the theory of knowledge. Kirkland (22) clearly explains that the basic teaching in Taoism is harmony with the Tao and desistance from negative interference with the natural order and processes. According to this tradition, going against the Tao is the fundamental reason for the disharmony witnessed in people’s lives. This is not expressly called evil but they are greatly analogous in their nature and definition.
Some questions might emerge while considering the knowledge contained with Taoist doctrines based on the implicit philosophical ground rules discussed earlier. Kirkland (210) posits that Taoism does not require the presence of particular sets of skill or talents for one to follow its teachings, which is essentially evident in the number of western scholars associated with the spread of the tradition. Problems arise, though, when one considers the fact that Taoism requires a certain level of familiarity with nature before one can claim to be its ardent follower. This statement is pegged on Kirkland’s observation that not everyone understands how the Tao relates with his or her life.
Confucianism, on the other hand, seems to follow the established objective philosophical definition of knowledge in that it involves concepts that can be understood rationally by engaging one’s intellectual faculties. According to Xinzhong (30), Confucianism is largely accepted as an ethos and cultural orthodoxy passed down generations with the aim of harmonizing human relations. Unlike the traditions of Taoism, Confucianism does not admonish a person to speculate upon metaphysical dimensions to receive proper guidance; one is only required to follow as key set of teachings to espouse the philosophy.
Perhaps the humble beginnings of the young Confucius, and the closeness he felt and enjoyed with his own mother (Xinzhong 27) played a major role in fashioning a philosophical ideal that could appeal to a larger majority of the population, as opposed to only focusing on an elite segment of society or an aristocracy. This means that he identified himself as an ordinary person without any special privileges that might have made him tend towards esotericism as some of his contemporaries did at the time.
Confucius advocated for the personal tenets that exalt good morals such as respect for authority and love for one another. In this regard, respect for authority can be translated to mean respect for one’s parents in the form of obedience, which is one of Confucius’ main examples in his teachings. Such harmony through self-discipline and love are seen by Confucius as being central to peaceful co-existence among people. With respect to the Russell’s theory of knowledge, Confucius employed the concept of knowing through observation and perception.
As a rational approach to understanding the phenomenon of knowledge, Russell’s theory of knowledge by observation employs the element of rationalism that quite markedly characterizes Confucian ideals. In contrast, Taoism gets its entire purchase from an appeal to an intangible, transcendental and supreme metaphysical reality. Both of these traditions espouse several facets of ethics and moral teachings, but only Confucianism maintains its dogmatic dimensions to the practicable and easily comprehensible.
Taoism combines ethos and morality with concepts outside observable and objective realms of reality, which then falls outside the bounds of Russell’s theory of knowledge. Both Confucianism and Taoism, however, embrace learning as the method of imparting their core doctrines to the general population. As noted earlier, epistemology concerns itself with the questions of what is known, the extent to which it is known and the means with which the knowledge is acquired. For the latter, both traditions employed the methods of teaching and guidance as the supreme means of propagation. This is essentially contrasted with the alternative method of inner revelation and inspiration.
Kirkland, Russell. Taoism: The enduring tradition. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Nola, Robert and Irzik, Gürol. Philosophy, Science, Education and Culture. New York, NY: Springer, 2006. Print.
Prichard, Harold Arthur. Kant's Theory of Knowledge. Spokane, WA: Garland Pub., 1976. Print.
Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy. London, UK: Indo-European Publishing, 2010. Print
Xinzhong, Yao. An introduction to Confucianism. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.