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We ended the last Unit of the last section with the note that human reason is a faculty of truth and that it was made to know truth. In this Unit, we shall first of all, try to establish the fact of knowledge and go on to see what truth is. The whole idea of belief, skepticism and dogmatism will be briefly treated here.


The objectives of this Unit are to help you to have a general knowledge of the philosophical understanding of knowledge, truth, belief, skepticism and dogmatism.
At the end of this Unit you should be will be able to

  1.  demonstrate whether man can really have knowledge, and whether his knowledge is true 
  2.  analyse the true nature of knowledge 
  3.  explain: truth, belief, skepticism and dogmatism 


3.1 Knowledge

What is knowledge? It is often not easy to discuss knowledge because it is like a vicious circle. The object to be discussed is already in the discussion. In other words, we are using knowledge to talk about knowledge. Probably one of the best way to talk about knowledge and to know what knowledge is, is to compare knowing things – that is beings that know with beings that cannot and do not know. This is to compare knowers with non-knowers. We know that the universe as a whole is beautiful and indeed a perfection. But this beauty or perfection is distributed among the individual things of the universe. This means that as beautiful as each individual thing may be, it is still a limited beauty and thus imperfect because it is merely a part of the whole beauty. But there is a way out to remedy this limitation or imperfection. The only way out is through knowledge. In knowledge, the perfection belonging to one thing can be found in another by the reception of the form of the known thing by the knower. That means that things that are capable of knowing are different and more privileged than things that do not have that capacity.

Let us take a rock (non-knower) for example, a rock will always remain a rock, it does not have the potentiality or the capacity to receive another form. Therefore, rock is limited and cannot overcome its limitation. But man, for example, a knowing being, can overcome such limitation by his ability to receive the forms of other things or objects in knowledge, thus acquiring some immaterial or spiritual expansion. In simple terms therefore, knowledge is the reception of form without matter. This is to say that knowledge takes place when the knower immaterially receives the form of another thing into himself. Jacques Maritain puts it this way: “By an apparent scandal to the principle of identity, to know is to be, in a way, something other than what one is, it is to be or become a thing other than the self … to be or become the other as other” (Degrees of Knowledge, p. 112). Knowing takes place when the knower becomes or assimilates what it knows and makes it part of itself. Thomas Aquinas has this to say: “We cannot understand things unless they are truly united to our intellect in such a way that the knower and the known become one” (Truth, 8,9).

Knowledge is an immaterial act. Immateriality explains knowledge. It is the reason why a thing is a knowing being and the reason why being is knowable or intelligible. The implication of all this is that, when something is known, it has two modes of existence:

a. As it exists in itself outside the knowing mind; and
b. As it exists in the mind of the knower.

It exists in the knower in an immaterial form. There is sense knowledge and there is intellectual knowledge. Knowledge in animals stops only on the sense level, the form is immaterial but with the material conditions (image). If knowledge is an intellectual one, the form is completely immaterial according to the mode of existence of the intellect because the intellect is completely immaterial.

3.2 Truth

The classical or the philosophical definition of truth is: “the conformity of mind and reality or the adequacy of mind and reality.” But what does this really mean? What does it mean to say that truth is the conformity of mind and reality? In order to explain this point, we will use an example of false situation. Imagine your mother telling you when you were small not to swim in your local stream or river because there are dangerous snakes. But as you grow up you see people swimming and you yourself join in swimming in the same river without seeing a single snake. I am sure by now you have come to know the real reason why your mother gave you this instruction (your safety).

The fact is that there is no conformity between the reality in the stream and what your mother made you to understand. Or again, think of the many instances that people tell you one thing and the opposite turn out to be the case. Do you now understand what truth is? Truth exists when what you have in your mind corresponds with what is in reality. Truth is concerned with being and it is found in judgment. When you say, for example, there is a policeman at the junction. The truth of this statement is not in the concept of policeman but it is in the actual presence of the policeman at the junction. It means that what is in your mind that is the concept or idea of policeman, is in exact correspondence with the physical presence of the police at the junction.

Truth generally involves a relation between being and intellect. But this means that this relationship is a-two way traffic. Firstly, being can conform itself to the intellect. This is called metaphysical or ontological truth; but the human intellect can also conform itself to real being so that reality may cause mental representation of itself in the intellect. This is called logical truth or truth of judgment. What this means, in effect, is that being is capable of manifesting itself or making itself known to the
intellect. On the other hand, the intellect is capable of grasping being and making it mentally present in the intellect.


  1.  Knowledge is an act, what kind of act? 
  2. Truth is a relation between what and what? 

3.3 Belief

Belief is different from knowledge even though knowledge and belief can have the same object. Belief is a kind of conviction, conviction that something is or something is true even when I do not know it or cannot justify it by any empirical evidence. Belief and faith are closely connected. It is an intellectual accent to certain conviction. In this case belief is connected in some way with thinking because it would be impossible for one to belief something that one has never heard or could never think. The object of belief is more often than not, a non-verifiable object and so it is possible that one may not have the knowledge of what one believes in. But again, not having the knowledge of the object of one’s belief is not the same thing as not experiencing it. Belief can arise from a compelling testimony or based on the authority of one who testifies. Or again, a belief can come by way of personal encounter with reality that cannot be cognitively conceptualized. Belief therefore is more personal or individualistic than knowledge. People believe in different things that may conflict with other people’s belief. Belief, as such, may not always serve as the basis of knowledge. But on the other hand, belief expresses confidence, reliability and trustworthiness. Such may be justified on the basis of experience based on past behaviour or record. This means that even though belief is an intellectual accent to something for which there is no evidence, yet belief cannot be completely devoid of experience.

3.4 Skepticism

Generally speaking, skepticism is a refusal to accept that there is any knowledge or justification to knowledge. Skepticism can be either total or partial it can be theoretical or practical. Total skepticism occurs when it is open to all fields of knowledge or belief. But it is partial when it is restricted to particular fields of belief, for example the skepticism in religion as the opium of the people. Skepticism is theoretical if it holds that there is no knowledge of a certain kind or of certain kinds. Theoretical skepticism is radical and total if it denies knowledge of all kinds. On the other hand, practical skepticism has to do with a deliberate withholding both of belief and disbelief accompanied by some commitment to encourage others to do likewise.

In simple terms, skepticism is an attitude of the mind in which it places a doubt on all or certain belief or knowledge of a certain kind.

Historically skepticism dates back to the time of Socrates in his attitude of epistemic modesty. All I know is that I know nothing. But philosophically, skepticism has surfaced in different traditions of philosophizing and in various ways. Skepticism is instrumental in the birth of modern epistemology and modern philosophy at the hands of Descartes, whose skepticism is methodological but sophisticated and well informed by that of the ancients. Skepticism has played important role in Western Philosophy from Descartes to Hegel. Academic skepticism is a position either that no knowledge is possible or that there is no sufficient or adequate evidence to tell if knowledge is possible. In either case, the result is to suspend judgment on all questions concerning knowledge. In other words, what we think we know by our senses may be unreliable, and we cannot be sure about the reliability of our reasoning. Skepticism is a position that nothing is certain. The best we
can attain is probable information.

3.5 Agnosticism

This is derived from a combination of two Greek words: a meaning not and gnastos which means known. Literally translated, agnosticism means not known. This term was invented in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley to denote the philosophical and religious attitude of those who claim that metaphysical ideas can be neither proved nor disproved. Agnosticism is a form of skepticism but applied to metaphysics, especially theism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant is sometimes identified with this position because he holds that we cannot have knowledge of God or immortality but must be content with faith. However, agnosticism should not be confused with atheism. Atheism is the belief that God does not exist, it is different from the belief that we cannot know God.


  1.  According to the skeptic, what kind of knowledge can man attain? 
  2. Agnosticism literally means what? 


I am sure that by now you are begining to appreciate philosophy. Philosophy has a lot to contend with. These problems are not mathematical hence their solutions are not clear-cut. But the human mind should not be deterred by them rather man should continue to seek clarifications on issues that baffle the mind.


In this unit we have attempted to throw some light on the questions of knowledge, truth, belief, skepticism, and agnosticism. I am sure you have a better understanding of these terms and can explain them to your friends. We described knowledge as a reception of form without matter and truth as the correspondent of mind and reality. Belief on the other hand is an intellectual accent to things that we do not properly know. Skepticism was seen as placing a doubt on some of our claims whereas agnosticism is a denial of our claims.


  1.  Compare and contrast skepticism and agnosticism; 
  2.  Explain what you understand by the term truth. 


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