Notes on the roots of epistemology in recursion

threefold recursive spiral of knowing

Unity in distinction, distinction in unity.

There is a necessary recursion at the very heart of epistemology. Epistemology can never be founded upon a principle of linearity, where thinking traces its origin to something that lies before thinking, and somehow emerges or grows out of it, because the very existence of this “before”, whatever its nature, must always be assumed BY THINKING itself, as a distinction within thinking.

Therefore, the only proper starting point for an epistemology is the fundamental distinction OF distinction itself, by thinking FOR thinking, which constitutes the basis of all further distinction, and is implicit in it. The fundament of epistemology must be the recursive distinction of distinction. The nature of this self-distinction (distinction of distinction by distiction) is implicitly infinitely recursive, and identifies the very nature of thinking to be at its root one of distinction. Its implicit infinitude is a key aspect of thinking’s foundation, with definite consequences. It means that thinking is fundamentally (not secondarily) FREE: its potential to distinguish is unlimited. There is nothing that lies outside of thinking’s potential.

The consequences of this are more than epistemological, they are ontological. Thinking, infinite in its potential, is the power of distiction, which is always also the power of self-distinction. It is a power because it has effects: it creates WORLDS. There is no world that is not there for thinking’s power to distinguish, and by distinguishing, create. This power of thinking, not human thinking only but thinking in the widest sense, is not only epistemological, but ontological in its nature. Every ontological world is accompanied by its inherent distinguishability in thinking, for thinking, by thinking, not as an emergent ougrowth of such a world, or as any type of secondary addition or overlay, let alone as an epiphenomenal, unnecessary mist, but as an intrinsic, necessary, simultaneous aspect. Thus when thinking finds its own foundations not outside itself in some pre-thinking ontology (an impossibility) but within itself as a recursion of itself, it meets and joins with ontology. Indeed, it is just here, in the primordial power of thinking, that ontology and epistemology find themselves to be a unity; the ontology of epistemology is the epistemology of ontology. The unity of thinking and being is at the very root of the cosmos. Any ontology must recognize its own impossibility without the power of thinking to distinguish; likewise any epistemology must recognize the BEING of thinking in its very first activity.

It is impossible to conceive of an epistemology (regardless of the knowing content of this epistemology) without ontology implicit in it AS thinking: thinking is being. Likewise it is impossible for an ontology (regardless of the particular nature of its existents) to exist without thinking implicit within it AS being: being is thinking.

Thus the epistemological power of distinction is also simultaneously an ontological power. All epistemological distinctions and ontological beings are derivative of this fundamental unity. This unity means that the ontological nature of the universe is not simply knowable in potential, but KNOWING as a fundamental activity implicit in its very existents (beings). The universe is a knowing-being, a being-knowing.

As there is ultimately only one universe (a universe of multiverses), there is likewise only one knowing. Rudolf Steiner indicates this by saying “there is only ONE thought-content of the world” (The Science of Knowing, p.68). This is why the fundamental activity of the spirit, WHAT THE SPIRIT IS, for Steiner, is the activity of knowing itself (knowing qua knowing and knowing as fundamentally the knowing of knowing, knowing knowing itself as the foundation of epistemology, its first distinction as a self-recursion). Steiner recognizes the unity of thinking and being when he mentions that “we actively bring the ideal world into manifestation” (ibid, p.43).

There is no distinction given by the senses alone; senses themseleves do not distiguish. Only thinking can distinguish, and where distinctions are made, thinking is already active. As we have already seen, the active power of thinking to distinguish is already present as being in the very foundation of the cosmos.

Escher's Implosion of spiral toroid

Recursive spiral of knowing/becoming

That the heart of epistemology must lie in a recursion can also be seen from another angle. Take any epistemology, with all its assumptions, principles, and logic. It can always be asked, “On what basis can I judge that these assumptions, principles, and logic are true? How can I know that they are valid starting points for epistemology?” This question reveals the very key to the beginning of any epistemology that wishes to be fundamental. An epistemology that does not answer this question from within itself must therefore find its own ground within principles, assumptions, and logic that lie outside itself. But any larger system that provided the basis for the judgment of the first is likewise subject to the same question. The resulting infinite regression can only be avoided by finding that place within epistemology which needs not, in any way, look beyond itself to see its source and ground. This ground must have the nature of being self-revealing to the activity of thinking. The first truth of epistemology must both reveal its nature and disclose its validity. It must be a place where thinking’s activity and its content coincide in a unity. This unity has the nature of a recursion, a looping back on itself, and it is just this recursive quality that is central to its function as the basis for all further epistemology. Recursion is, in a very definite sense, the primal core of epistemology, the basis for all knowing, its very seed principle, the heart of its logic.

The starting place of epistemology, its center, has to be an epistemology of epistemology. It is, we cannot deny, only the activity of thinking itself that seeks its foundations in this way.

That thinking and being are fundamentally a unity is not meant to stand as an abstract principle but is meant as a sort of ongoing realization, a potential thread running throughout the actual activity of thinking that turns on itself to find its foundations. In the discipline of epistemology it is often mentioned that there is a very important distinction between “knowing THAT” and “knowing HOW”; the former is called declarative knowing and the latter performative knowing. But the distinction between these two types of knowing only arises when thinking turns upon itself in the fundamental epistemological act, and it is this very act that reveals its nature as such: to be both a knowing and a doing, to be simultaneously declarative and performative. The epistemology of epistemology is not simply to think ABOUT epistemology, but to PERFORM KNOWING. This performative knowing is the most important key we can discover, because it is the key that unlocks all the other keys. It is the archetypal key, made in the shape of the lock into which it fits.

There is more to the activity of thinking than making distinctions. Thinking is also a joining, a unifying. And the very act of unification is not separate from the act of distinguishing – they themselves form a unity. Of course this sounds like complete gibberish when taken at face value, or only as a declarative statement. The only way for such a sentence to make sense is if one doesn’t think ABOUT the thought, but rather thinks the very thought itself. Of course that sentence will sound like gibberish as well unless its advice is heeded and thinking begins to reflect on the unfolding of its own activity as it is occuring. Let me explain.

That the power of distinction arises at the very heart of thinking is seen when thinking turns on itself and discovers that its foundations lie necessarily in the recursion inherent in the epistemology of epistemology. But this is not all that it discovers. If thinking revealed itself (to itself) only inasmuch as it carries the capacity to make distinctions, both this realization and thinking itself would never actually come about. Every distinction made by thinking is simultaneously a unification, in thinking, of the very thoughts distinguished. Their unity is comprised of, and revealed in, the very fact of the SINGLE activity ocurring in thinking itself. When thinking makes a distinction thinking itself does not divide, but holds itself in a unity by the very act of distinguishing. Thinking’s unity rests directly upon its distinction. Indeed, it is possible to say that the very BEING of thinking is comprised by the unity revealed in its self-distinction. Thus thinking discovers itself to be a two-fold activity at its most fundamental level: it IS what unifies the distinctions it MAKES. The making of distinctions is the very source of its unity. This unity is not ‘merely’ epistemological, i.e. a unity of knowing, but is explicitly ontological, i.e. a unity of being. The activity whereby thinking discovers its ground leads knowing to being, and this is just what we would hope for a fundamental epistemology, that in seeking its roots thinking finds not merely an epistemological basis for itself, but actually unveils its very BEING in the strongest ontological sense. The roots of epistemology must simultaneously be the roots of ontology, otherwise being can never know itself and knowing can never be itself. The discovery of one entails the discovery of the other, because being and thinking are unified: in thinking AS being and in being AS thinking.

In the realm of cybernetic epistemology we can see that the distinction between a process and its content mirrors the discussion above. The fundamental cybernetic epistemological realization that every distinction is made by an observer (Heinz von Foerster) was not initially meant to carry some sort of universal claim about the nature of reality. It was, rather, a very practical insight about knowing systems: that any knowing is always a knowing FOR. A knowing system knows by making distinctions that matter to it, by perpetuating these distinctions in the context of its unfolding activity as the very basis for that activity. This is what Maturana and Varela call autopoiesis. The distinctions made by a knowing system create the context for the unfolding of its knowing. Yes, recursion is at the heart of cybernetic epistemology as well. The above discussion linking epistemology to ontology is essentially a way of getting at the same thing that von Foerster indicates, but in a stronger, more philosophically fundamental way. The discussion bears out his conclusions in a way he likely did not anticipate, but which leads to a conception of the nature of the spirit as performative knowing.

With all of the above in mind, we can begin to see that there is something a little funny about trying to know our knowing. Everything gets looped back on itself, and we never discover a ground outside of the activity itself that could support that very activity. It might be noticed that pains were taken to avoid any reference to the sense of “me-ness” or “I-ness” in discussing the foundations of epistemology. This lends a certain air of universal implication to the ideas, which is precisely what was intended, but is also (in addition to being highly distasteful in style for most contemporary philosophy, which has lost almost all its courage) slightly misleading. Hopefully in a future post I will have time to remedy this by considering this strange “I-ness” and “me-ness”.


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