A Brief Thought on Knowing and Doing

Since Descartes we might well say that we’ve been stuck in something of a dualistic morass – there is mind on the one side and body on the other. No, arguably we might say we’ve thought as such since Plato, who proposed a Noumenal realm of Formulable Being, Intelligibles and Intellects, as opposed to our Phenomenal, corruptible, material world of Becoming. Perhaps there is something of a folk-psychological comfort in this division – on one hand we have out thoughts, on the other we have acts; in one sphere is our private internality, on another is our public externality.

Whatever the case, if I claim to know and not to do, or to do and not to know, I partake of this division of necessity. For to know is to be aware of, to claim to mentally grasp or interdict as patient by the agent intellect where, as the obverse of a playing card, to do is to physically grasp, both literally in all cases in which we must use some tool with our hands and analogically whenever we engage our physical body with the world before us. Here, we have two different kinds of being — one private, internal, and intellective, and another which is public, external, and physical. Who could deny such a division, at least insofar as it is evident in our common speech? If you do so, you might well deny English diction!

That this division is justified is thus understandable. But what of it? Why does it matter? Well, it seems that no one can do without knowing, and no one can know without doing. This much, then, is a paradox – if one does not know, he cannot do but, if he does not do, he cannot know. Clearly doing and knowing are a process, then. A man begins knowing or doing something, which leads him to something else which he then does or knows. If he knows that he is good, he can proceed to do something good and know its consequences. If he does something good without knowing what is good, he now knows as a consequence of his having seen what he did. Here the consequences, either in action or in thought, follow from some category, again, in knowing or in thought. In this way, the paradox is resolved – of course, logically speaking, it isn’t, the circularity is still at hand. But, for all practicable purposes, we can assume that all people at any time know something and that, consequently, they can do something in a manner which will add to that something known.

So much for the paradoxicality of the thing! But what of it then? If the paradox of knowing and doing collapses given the facts of life, why say anything about it? Well, what happens if anyone wants to do something for some purpose? Clearly, the person must know what it is he wants to do, or perhaps he must know what he wants to result. But, if the latter, then the man must know the means to the result he desires – that is, he must know what to do to get what he wants. Thus, it seems that a man must plan before doing – that is, he must take stock, perhaps in a list, an agenda, or a calendar, of all that he knows before he can hope to do anything. But isn’t this something that he must do? Thus, to ensure that he knows enough to do, a man must do something! Here a more substantive paradox arises – if we must do to know what to do, what happens if we discover in doing that we know not what we are doing? Clearly, there must be some stop-gap which says of such a question, “Knavish mind! Stop this sham! You know enough to be alive! Let this much guide you in all your actions!” Or, in the words of Hume, “let all men never stop philosophizing about anything whatever but, above all, let them never stop being men” (Enquiry Into Human Understanding).

So it is – if we want to do, we must know and, if we want to know, we must do. But if we want to do to know, we must at some point say that enough is known and that it is time enough to pursue that which it is we want. To make an agenda, then, is never to plan out all things that will happen. No, it is to give the central beats, the life-blood of the thing, without recomposing from mind and on paper what will inevitably be composed from act and in fact. Let no one, then, hope to enumerate the world. Let not yourself say or anyone to you, “You must know this before doing that!” or, “You must read read such and such before reading such and such!” These are but preposterous mistakes, ones whose intent is good, but which hails from a categorical mistake to know Life itself.

To this I say – do what you will; only knowledge is known. Life is not to be known, but lived.

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