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The Limits of Science and the Limitations of Knowledge†

By Jürgen Mittelstrass


All of us have had the sobering experience of (really) knowing only a few things and not knowing a great many. All of us become painfully conscious of our intellectual limits both in private and professional af-fairs, that is, conscious of what we do not know and probably never will. Brains, it seems, have only a finite capacity to absorb, and life is short and for that reason alone unsuited to dreams of limitless know-ledge- even ignoring the fact that one can imagine much more pleasant activities than stuffing oneself anew everyday with knowledge. Al-though Aristotle once said that all men, by their own nature, strive for knowledge (Met. A1.980a21), he certainly did not mean the bookworm and the secluded scholar. Curiosity, which according to Aristotle is the form in which the human striving for knowledge is usually expressed, is more than scientific curiosity; it asserts itself in daily life, in travel, in experiencing the unusual and strange, in confronting closed doors and keyholes. What is this peculiar feeling of confronting limits of knowledge, which unlike political and geographic boundaries are apparently not easy to cross? Is the occasional individual displeasure at knowing too little in the end the expression of a universal human incapacity, namely the incapacity to know everything, that is, to comprehend everything that exists in scientific form or even in non-scientific form? Thinking this way already makes you half a philosopher. Indeed from the beginning it has been one of the favourite occupations of phi-losophy not only to ask about the conditions of origin of knowledge (how knowledge arises, what it presupposes) and about the essence of knowledge (what distinguishes knowledge from opinion, for instance), but also about the limits of knowledge. Normally this meant limits o

Year: 2015
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