In the “Critique of Pure Reason,” Immanuel Kant writes that “all the interests of my reason,” theoretical as well as practical, boil down to just three questions: “What can I know?” “What ought I do?” and “What can I hope for?” In these three questions, Kant delineated the whole scope of philosophical thought. (h/t to Tom Whyman for reminding me of this)
I don’t fancy myself a Kant, and in fact, I never warmed up to that particular philosopher, as brilliant and influential as he undoubtedly was. But when I encounter something like the above I can’t help but looking at it as a challenge to clarify and sharpen my own thoughts. So here we go.
I. What can I know?
These days, a lot. Being lucky enough to be alive during the first part of the 21st century, I have access to technology that rapidly puts at my fingertips a vast reservoir of knowledge and insights accumulated across human cultures of the past several millennia.
My primary sources are science and philosophy. Science provides me with the best factual understanding of the world that is available to humankind, and philosophy gives me the thinking tools I need to make sense of what science puts at my disposal, both in terms of fitting scientific knowledge into the fabric of human life and in terms of applying such knowledge to my own personal experience and problems.
For instance, I am writing in the middle of the covid pandemic. Science tells me the basics of what I need to know about the nature of pandemics, of viral infections, of immune responses, and so forth. Philosophy helps me put the very notion of a pandemic in context, as plenty of other human beings have gone through plagues before, and plenty more will in the future. Philosophy also reminds me that I have inner resources that allow me to deal with the global setback, and that I should appreciate the fact that I’m amongst the lucky (so far).
The range of things I can know, of course, is not limited to science and philosophy. I have access to huge libraries of works of literature, for instance, as well as of history. I can go — virtually or in person — to countless museums of art around the planet. And I can listen to the best music humanity has produced, sometimes by attending…