Thinking and the unthinkable – The edges of reality

A friend and I are currently working on writing a philosophy paper on epistemology together. Both of us are dissatisfied with epistemology’s current obsession with Gettier problems*. Both of us more or less agree that Gettier problems get something wrong about the nature of knowledge, or that the knowledge that Gettier problem’s interfere with was already unobtainable anyway. To paraphrase my friend, we always only believe the truth by chance.

Having reached this consensus, however, our positions immediately diverged as to the nature of the human condition in relation to truth. For, she maintained, the problem facing human knowers is that we can never eliminate the possibility of unknowable truth, and so we should consider ourselves to be dealing merely with appearances**. I, in contrast, maintained that what she was trying to say was impossible to think or mean. To phrase the issue in a way that favors my side of the argument, our debate is on the thought that we should give to the unthinkable: Emily’s position is that we should leave space for its possibility, and mine is that such space cannot be left because whatever we think of, by definition, cannot actually lie beyond the scope of thought.

Since our conversation I’ve been doing some research, and, unsurprisingly, this debate is not a new one. Indeed, we each seem to have settled into the role of our respective favorite philosophers. Emily, speaking as Kant, argues that all we know is the apparent world, and that we cannot get at the reality underneath. I, echoing Hegel’s famous response, argue that we can do away with the idea of the real and the apparent: there is simply the indivisible world, for we can never encounter the beyond.

I was greatly aided in my interpretation of our conversation by Lee Braver’s article ‘Thoughts on the Unthinkable‘. For the first half of the article he follows the historical conversation on the unthinkable, starting with Parmenides forbidding us from thinking about the unthinkable to the Hegelian position I have already described. If that were the end of the story then I would feel well vindicated in my position. However, Braver continues on to argue that what is absent in the Hegelian story is humility: for by Hegel’s philosophical system our rationality is rendered into the entirety of existence, and all of our investigations become only investigation of ourselves.

When put in terms of humility, I become somewhat uncomfortable with my own position previously described. I did write my undergraduate thesis arguing the ultimate path to knowledge was through humility, and it is certainly an arrogant kind of claim to say that all that exists is that which is within the realm of mind. However, Braver acknowledges that it is difficult to make room for this other in any sensible way. His proposal is essentially this: the other, the unthinkable, can only be encountered in that which we do not understand. We encounter the unthinkable when our expectations are violated and we are thrown into confusion and fear. He here draws a distinction between relative unthinkables and absolute unthinkables. Relative unthinkables are those things which are initially incomprehensible, but which, upon reflection, can be drawn into the fold of human understanding. Absolute unthinkables, however, are those things that defy all attempts at understanding or comprehension.

I find this account both appealing and confusing. It is unclear to me whether or not this is just a re-description of Hegel, or whether it is a significant departure. More problematically, for me, is that Braver does not seem to provide an example of absolute unthinkability.

Let me know what you think,


*A Gettier problem is basically a situation where someone has justified
true belief but is still right only by chance: for the uninitiated, read
some of these.
** Apologies, Emily, for any disservices I do to your position.

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