Cognition in the Context of Culture

Vladislav Lektorsky, D.Sc. (Philos.)

In literature on the theory of culture, knowledge and culture are sometimes opposed to each other. The reasons given being roughly an follows: knowledge is an object existing outside consciousness. The objective truth, the acquisition of which is the goal of cognitive activity, represents a situation which exists regardless of man. Culture, however, expresses, according to the adherents of this view, a system of values orientating man within the world and characterises human possibilities and attainments, so that man is not only the subject of culture but also a direct object of the culture‑creating activity.

Although this course of reasoning may appear convincing, it in actually based on a false premise: the opposition of cognitive reflection of objective reality and human creative activity oriented towards certain value systems. In fact, cognition as the highest form of the reflection of reality is mediated by historically evolving socio‑cultural activity, underlying which is objective practice. This proposition, which is fundamental to the Marxist analysis of cognition, entails the need to study the cognitive role of man‑made material objectifications of culture, beginning with labour implements and the methods and techniques of activity embodied in them, and ending with systems of everyday and specialised languages, scientific apparatus, etc. Cognition in general, and scientific cognition in particular, must be regarded as a culture‑forming and culture‑creating activity, while "orientation towards truth", as impossible and inconceivable outside culture (this orientation does not exist where reflection of external reality is pre‑human, that is, pre‑cognitive).

Therefore, the development of scientific knowledge, for instance, not only characterises the level at which the human mind in grasping the external world and mastering it, but also, and to no lesser degree, the level of the development of culture. The physical conceptions of Aristotle, Newton and Einstein are not just differing conceptions of the structure of nature. Each of them assumes varying cultural contexts necessarily including not only the image of nature but also the image of man.

A modern philosophical analysis of cognitive activity claiming to be an allround interpretation of the results of the specialised sciences concerned with knowledge is impossible without a study of culture‑imposed and historically variable ideals and norms of cognition, without a study of a wide range of problems related to the socio‑cultural determination of scientific knowledge. Such specific procedures in the assimilation of cultural objects as ‘conception' and 'interpretation', which at one time appeared to have no direct relation to the analysis of the mechanisms of the development of science, have now proved to be of significance for the study of the interrelations between "scientific pictures of the world", global theories, styles of thinking, etc., succeeding each other in the development of science.

Epistemology, which endeavours to present knowledge as an integral phenomenon in all the diversity of its types and kinds, and at the same time to present it in its unity, historical development and continuity, must inevitably study it in a broad cultural context.

The above does not, however, exhaust the links between epistemology and the problems of culture. The point is that epistemology itself, the formulation of its problems and the methods of their solution, is included in a definite cultural context. Let us consider this in greater detail.

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The historical development of epistemology has been accompanied by an increase in the complexity and concreteness of its problems and by the identification of its links not only with everyday knowledge but also with systems of specialised knowledge as represented by science. Questions directly concerned with an analysis of the logical structure of scientific theories and with working out a methodology of scientific research figure prominently in modern studies in epistemology.

The specialisation and differentiation of studies in epistemology may hinder the realisation of the following extremely important circumstance. Epistemology, as long as it remains philosophical research (rather than a "technical" study of the logical structures of everyday language or the language of science), is necessarily included in the integral system of philosophical knowledge and thus exists and develops in a definite cultural context. It is precisely in this context that the profound worldview significance of studies in this area can be appreciated.

The fact that epistemology is part of the cultural context is manifested in two ways. First, however invariant the basic problems of epistemology may be (the problem of truth and error, reliable and probabilistic knowledge, possibilities of cognition, etc.), the modes of formulating and ways of analysing it have a concrete historical character, bearing the imprint of a definite socio‑cultural system. Second, epistemology itself, as an inalienable part of philosophy, performs a definite culture‑creating function. Let us illustrate these two aspects.

Ancient philosophy shows clearly the links between epistemological constructions and general cultural attitudes.

In the ancient theory of knowledge, problems of distinguishing between truth and opinion was directly connected with the relation between being and non‑being. This was an expression of the specifically "ontological" and cosmological orientation of ancient culture as a whole. In their discourse on knowledge, all thinkers of the ancient world assumed that knowledge cannot be other than of a piece with that of which it is knowledge. This assumption was accepted as something quite natural and was even left undiscussed, for the main interest of the discussion lay in elucidating the process by which the object is transposed into the state of being knowledge. Specifically, the assertion of the unity of knowledge and its object was combined in ancient philosophy with a lack of understanding of the subject's activity in obtaining knowledge and an inability to see the need for the subject's creative activity as a means of a genuine reconstruction of the object. From the standpoint of ancient philosophy, the genuine object can only be "given" to the knowing person; anything that is a product of his creativity, of his subjective cognitive activity, is merely opinion that is not true and does not accord with reality. This epistemological thesis expresses the specific orientation of ancient culture at "incorporating" man in cosmic order.

In post‑mediaeval European philosophy, developing within the framework of a different type of culture and at the same time connected with the emergent natural science which also largely determined the specificity of a new cultural system, problems of epistemology occupied a focal position, being the basis for constructing philosophical systems (and at times coinciding with a  system). Special importance was attached to establishing that absolutely reliable knowledge which could serve as the starting point and at the same time as the ultimate foundation for the rest of the body of knowledge, permitting an evaluation of this knowledge in terms of the degree of truth contained in it. A character­istic feature of epistemology at that time was the discussion of the problem of the connection between the subject and the material substance, between "I" and the external world, which followed from the sharp opposition of the subjective and the objective world. This opposition itself, most distinctly formulated precisely in epistemology, had at the same time deep roots in the specificity of the emergent bourgeois culture, in particular in the characteristic opposition of man and nature: the latter was viewed as an object of technical transformation and utilisation.

Attempts were made to sublate the confrontation of subject and object in classical German philosophy, which expressed a new cultural orientation. In developing Kant's idea of the subject as self‑activity, Hegel interpreted the latter as the subject's self‑development. Hence the Hegelian thesis of the unity of subject and object, of the coincidence of epistemology and ontology. It is important to note that Hegel clearly understood the determining role of socially‑created culture for the formation of individual consciousness, and the fact that the individual implementing an act of cognition derives from the social subject. The social spirit, Hegel believed, was the individual's substance, his "inorganic nature", which each individual faced as the externally given forms of culture.

Marxist‑Leninist epistemology, which emerged within the framework of a philosophy expressing the worldview of a new social revolutionary force, the working class, and provided with an adequate socio‑cultural basis under socialism, proceeds from the view of knowledge as that included in the historical development of socio‑practical activity and formulates all other epistemological problems in the light of this fundamental concept. The dialectico‑materialist conception of the cognitive relationship does more than provide answers to the questions, in which non‑Marxist epistemology has become entangled, does more than offer a scientific explanation for the real facts of cognition which bourgeois philosophers have come across but which they find it impossible to explain. The Marxist‑Leninist conception of knowledge opens up fundamentally new horizons in epistemological studies, setting before epistemology tasks and problems which are impossible in the theory of knowledge traditionally accepted by non‑Marxist philosophy (e.g., the problem of the unity of reflective, objective‑practical, and communicative activity, connections between various types of objective‑practical and cognitive activity, the socio‑cultural conditioning of cognition, the dialectico‑materialist conception of truth as a process, etc.).

The incorporation of epistemological problems into a cultural context, and changes in the modes of formulation and methods of study of epistemological problems in connection with historical changes in the cultural field, do not mean that these problems are thereby relativised. "Orientation towards truth" remains invariant for philosophy and culture an a whole. The cultural‑historical conditionality of epistemological problems does not exclude a genuine development of the latter, the accumulation of certain facts and solutions, the extension of the range of these problems and, finally, the possibility of the emergence of a theory of knowledge which can be justifiably viewed as scientific.

*  *  *

The formulation of epistemological problems expresses not only the specificity of a definite historical system of culture. Epistemology itself is also a most important mode of cultural creativity, and in this capacity it is determined by the specificity of a given stage in the development of culture and also expresses the historical continuity of development as a whole.

It is by epistemological means that one or other piece of knowledge is substantiated as genuine and, consequently, a certain type of reality corresponding to that knowledge is singled out as true. This function of epistemology has a reverse side as well: it overthrows that which does not accord with true knowledge, presenting it as an illusion, an appearance, a delusive form, etc. All of this obviously has great world‑view significance and, moreover, leads to important practical consequences. Inasmuch as true and untrue knowledge, genuine and illusory reality are differently evaluated, practical behaviour will also be guided, in one way or another, by the first part of the oppositions, while that which is interpreted as illusory, will be disregarded or evaluated negatively.

When science emerges as an independent subsystem of culture, the epistemological substantiation of knowledge becomes much more complicated. It is now a question not only of substantiating a more or less unified system of knowledge, but also of bringing into agreement two such different (and with time, increasingly divergent) systems as everyday and scientific knowledge. Inasmuch an science continually changes and develops, philosophy must undertake, first the epistemological analysis of science. and second, the tank of bringing science within the system of culture as a whole, including such components as non‑specialised pre‑scientific knowledge, art, morality, etc.

Substantiation of knowledge in general and of scientific knowledge in particular, thus plays an important culture‑creating role. And this reveals a number of important features of epistemology. In epistemology, the attempt to describe that which is genuine, true knowledge, is inseparably connected with the implicit or explicit prescription of a certain ideal of cognitive activity.

The formulation of an epistemological conception is always an attempt to change rather than simply describe the existing practice of cognition, an attempt to reject certain accepted canons of cognitive activity as leading cognition away from the attainment of its goals and at the same time an attempt to net up new standards for this activity. The overall image of cognition and science created by epistemology is itself included in the actual course of cognition and in some respects restructures it. Therefore, any influential epistemological conceptions are not only re‑interpretations of the existing cognitive practice but also a critique of some aspects of this practice in the light of some ideal of knowledge and science.

The above does not mean that all epistemological systems (and there have been a great many of them in the history of philosophy) could affect the actual process of cognition. Nor should it be thought, that in all cases where such an impact did occur it wan beneficial. The history of philosophical and scientific  thought has known instances when an epistemological conception set the reference points for the production of special scientific theories of a certain type and at the name time formulated an entirely erroneous conception of the nature of cognition, knowledge, and science as a whole, which resulted in insoluble conflicts in constructing a general epistemological conception, and at the same time essentially limited the possibilities of science itself. Not every image of science as specified by epistemology is acceptable to science itself.

Epistemological reflection can restructure its object, the system of scientific knowledge, only to the extent to which this restructuring serves to reveal conceptual structures which express more precisely the real objective processes reproduced in scientific theory and at the same time correspond to the objective norms of the development of knowledge itself. Where this condition is not satisfied, the reflection proves to be false. In this case, the image of knowledge reconstructed in epistemology by reflection and the real knowledge itself may to some extent or other disagree. History provides numerous examples of this sort.

For instance, Francis Bacon's epistemological empiricism played a very progressive role at the time of the emergence of experimental science. However, even then it did not accord with the actual practice of natural science, and later it became a manifest obstacle in the way of its development. There are also well‑known fundamental defects in Descartes' epistemological conception. However, one cannot ignore the fact that the Cartesian theory of knowledge underpinned his metaphysics, and the latter was the nucleus of a research programme in physics and psychology. Cartesian physics obtained certain historically important results. Considerable factual materials were accumulated in the framework of empirical psychology that proceeded from the Cartesian conception of consciousness. At the same time that psychology had outlived its usefulness by the beginning of the 20th century.

The epistemology of Immanuel Kant did not merely formulate the general strategy for the research in a number of theoretical disciplines (e.g., Kantian epistemology entails the impossibility of rationalist ontology, the special status of psychology as a science that cannot be mathematised, the need in biology to complement causal explanations with teleological ones, etc.).

The Kantian conception (along with Edmund Husserl's phenomenology) was used by L. Brauer and L. Heyting in constructing an intuitionist programme for the substantiation of mathematics. A number of important results were obtained within the framework of mathematical intuitionism, although on the whole this trend failed to solve the task it set for itself. It is well known, however, that Kant's apriorist interpretation of the main principles of classical science came into sharp conflict with the development of knowledge.

Epistemological conceptions can also affect the development of science in other ways. An epistemological system may be completely inadequate as a reflection of scientific knowledge, presenting science as a whole in a false light and being patently untenable on the general philosophical plane. Yet at the same time such a system may be used for the production of certain local concrete scientific theories which retain certain value even after their philosophical interpretation has been rejected. This is possible because some aspects of the cognitive process are usually grasped even in false epistemological structures. However, the special scientific theories produced in such cases have, as a rule, only very narrow significance. At the same time the main paths of development of scientific knowledge are obstructed by false epistemological conceptions, so that the development of theoretical thought in the given area of knowledge follows the wrong direction. Such was the case of the epistemology of operationalism and the physical theories formulated on the basis of operationalist conceptions.

A fruitful epistemology, on the other hand, can have a crucial impact on the development of science. This idea is borne out by the history of Marxist epistemology and its relations with the natural and social sciences. Marx's Capital, which contains a scientific theory of political economy, was written an the basis of the conscious application of dialectico‑materialist epistemology and methodology of science.

Proceeding from a scientific conception of the nature of theoretical thought and Consciously employing the philosophically substantiated method of ascending from the abstract to the concrete, Marx constructed a scientific economic theory. He gave a detailed formulation of the methodological problems arising in the course of theoretical research, providing consistent solutions for them on the basis of general epistemological principles. Mar did not criticise bourgeois political economy by merely juxtaposing the content of his scientific theory with erroneous interpretations of the same subject‑matter:  he also always criticised fundamentally erroneous methodological approaches. As Marx showed, the main defect of bourgeois political economy, which predetermined its fundamentally unscientific character, and which is directly linked with its social function, is the false conception its representatives had of the nature of the object cognised and of the methods of scientific knowledge. Therefore a change in methodological, epistemological orientation is a necessary condition of creating a scientific political economy.

Epistemology thus functions as a powerful culture‑creating factor, being included in the formation and development of scientific theories, directly affecting the construction of a scientific picture of the world and style of thinking, and offering a philosophical interpretation of scientific results.


SOURCE: Lektorsky, Vladislav.  “Cognition in the Context of Culture,” in: Civilisation, Science, Philosophy: Theme of the 17th World Congress of Philosophy (Montreal, August 1983) (Moscow: "Social Sciences Today" Editorial Board, USSR Academy of Sciences, 1983), pp. 117-126. (Problems of the Contemporary World; no. 111)


Subject, Object, Cognition by V. A. Lektorsky

"Man as the Object of Cognition in Arts Subjects" by L. I. Novikova

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

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"The Dialectic of Subject and Object and some Problems of the Methodology of Science" by V. A. Lektorsky
at Marxists Internet Archive & leninist.biz

Subject, Object, Cognition by V. A. Lektorsky
at Marxists Internet Archive & leninist.biz


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