More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

The Three Foundational Questions

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant outlined the foundational pillars of philosophy in the form of three questions:

(1) What can I know?

(2) What should I do?

(3) What may I hope?

Now, Kant has his fair share of critics, but I think those 3 questions do a great job encapsulating the entirety of contemplative thought. So in today’s reflection, we’re going to spend some time delving into these questions and understanding why they’re important.

Let’s start with the first one: “What can I know?”

The technical term for this question is epistemology, or the inquiry into how we obtain knowledge. What can we know, given the tools we have? How much of the knowledge landscape is accessible in the first place? Is knowledge a finite realm that we slowly uncover more of, or is it a limitless universe that we will never fully explore?

The Western canon of thought emphasizes the usage of reason and rationality to answer these questions. Logic, math, and science are the foundational tools we use to determine what’s real, and any exploration of reality allows us to uncover more of what we didn’t know in the past. What we’ve seen with this approach is that knowledge compounds at an astronomical rate, with technology being the godlike force that shapes this power law.

The Eastern traditions, however, have historically focused on a more contemplative approach to the question of knowledge. Rather than using knowledge to harness the power of the external environment, it was used to understand the inner domain of the self. The Buddha embodied the paradox of acquiring knowledge of self to eventually lose the sense of self entirely. Confucius emphasized that knowledge was best actualized by understanding who you are in relation to others (i.e. family bonds, political roles, etc.), and that this understanding of self-identity is what allowed society to flourish.

Of course, this clear distinction between Eastern and Western thought is now outdated, but it goes to show you that the question of “What can I know?” is internalized in different ways. Despite the different approaches to this question, one thing is clear: Knowledge is the fuel that powers our actions. What we know will determine how we spend our time in the world, and this is where the second question comes in:

“What should I do?”

The technical term for this question is ethics, which is the inquiry into one’s character. How do you make use of the knowledge you’ve obtained to live a good life? How do you best orient yourself in the world so you create a better existence for others? What are the duties you have to other sentient beings you co-exist with?

Of the three questions, this is the one that I resonate with most. While the first one about knowledge is important, the reality is that knowledge is value-neutral. Knowledge on its own does nothing; it’s the values you have that shapes the trajectory of where that knowledge ultimately goes.

The question of ethics is fundamentally about questioning your conditioning. For the most part, figuring out what to do is about getting to the core of who you really are. Growing up, we learn by imitation, and this behavior is largely rewarded. We’re praised when we copy the person in first place to eventually obtain that position ourselves. We’re judged according to a bell curve, deriving our sense of worth based on labels that contain some variation of the word “average.” We’re incentivized by money and status to choose the careers we spend 1/3 of our lives in.

On this setting, we perpetually act before thinking, which means that our actions are always governed by an external force. So the key with this second question is to break this default loop by first examining who you are without this conditioning. In essence, this entire pursuit is condensed into Socrates’ imperative to “know yourself,” which is the only way to build a better life not just for yourself, but for future generations to come.

This leads nicely to the final question: “What may I hope?”

I want to start by saying that I have reservations about the word “hope.” In one sense, it’s empowering because you’re thinking about how something could be better than it currently is. That there’s something to look forward to, and that you’re placing your faith in progress as opposed to reversion.

But this is one of those instances where a feature also doubles as a bug.

In many ways, hope is a variant of fear. If you’re scared of what things look like now, then there can be a natural inclination to hope for something better. Hope is contingent upon a dissatisfaction with what is, which means that it stems from an inability to be anchored in the present moment.

With that said, I do agree with Kant about the importance of this question. Without hope, there can be no ambition, and I believe that ambition is critical to the development of a healthy mind. The only reason you work on something is because there’s something you’re working toward, and it’s this ability to envision a future state that makes challenge possible in the first place.

This question allows you to take inventory of what a better world looks like, and how you’ll use your limited time to actualize that vision in whatever corner of the world you occupy. To borrow a phrase from Jack Kornfield, you’re tending to the part of the garden you can touch. You don’t need to hope for a world where global poverty is eliminated; you can just hope for a little garden where the people you love are taken care of.

Essentially, the way you answer the first two questions will derive your answer to the third. By being aware of how you uncover more of the mystery of existence, you can better understand what it means to occupy more of this mystery together. And by communicating how you think we should occupy it, you’re broadcasting your hope that a world like that is attainable in the future.


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For more stories and reflections of this nature:

Fear Is a Framing Problem

Happiness Is a Serious Matter

Knowledge Is Not Understanding

"How do you find your ideas?"

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