On a Circularity in Our Knowledge of the Physically Real

  • Peter Caws


In this essay I wish to raise a comparatively innocent-looking problem and explore the consequences of taking it seriously. The problem, briefly stated, is this: is there an essential circularity in our knowledge of the physical world? If so, does it matter? That is, does it have a systematically self-defeating effect on our attempts to understand that world? It will be seen as we proceed that a similar question can be raised for all claims to knowledge, but for the time being I restrict my attention to the episte-mology of science. By way of an approach to the problem, consider an example that embodies it. Suppose we take some book about the physical world, for example, Henry Margenau’s The Nature of Physical Reality.(1) It is an object in the physical world and has all the properties of such an object—location, cohesion, relative impenetrability, mass, motion, and the rest. Also, it consists of an ingenious and compact ordering of plane surfaces, about 1.7× 105 cm2 of them, that allows the display of an arrangement of some 9.5 × 105 marks, of roughly 75 basic types, by means of a technique of impregnating the surface at the appropriate points with a preparation that changes its reflective power. These marks constitute a code that can be decoded by certain other physical objects, namely human beings, which share the same basic properties—location, cohesion, and the rest—but have in addition special facilities for receiving and analyzing visual signals and processing and storing information.


Physical Object Physical World Physical Reality Conceptual Scheme Reflective Power 
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Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1976

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter Caws
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Hunter College of the CityUniversity of New YorkUSA

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