September 23, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
As recently discussed on this blog, I have begun a journey through the great idea of Knowledge. I want to better understand our sources of knowledge, how we think we know what we think we know. Really, I am trying to assess at what point a thought, idea or belief becomes something akin to knowledge. So much of my studies stem from what we now term the “Western world.” In How the World Thinks, Julian Baggini explores connections between a number of diverse cultures, making a more comprehensive exploration of knowledge. This comparative approach broadens our understanding of knowledge in interesting and enlightening ways.
In the Prologue to How the World Thinks, Baggini writes:
“These three philosophical traditions – Indian, Chinese and Greek – relied on different sources of knowledge. Only in Greece, with the creation of logic, was systematic reason developed to any great degree. In India, emphasis was placed on knowledge attained by seers in states of heightened awareness and on revelations in the sacred texts, the Vedas. In China, history and everyday experience provided the benchmarks for truth. The Buddha walked a middle path, arguing that the only evidence available to us is that of experience, which makes speculation as to the nature of ‘ultimate’ reality fruitless. Nonetheless, he shared the orthodox Indian assumption that ordinary experience was illusory and effort is required to see beyond it. In Greece, the power of reason took centre stage, with Socrates’s maxim that we should follow the argument where it leads, letting ‘our destination be decided by the winds of the discussion’. Each classical tradition that emerged had its own ideas about the right methods for philosophising.”
Baggini writes about other cultures which use mysticism and insight as sources of knowledge. While I have focused on reason and logic, typical of the Western approach, others have focused on belief. Reading his book reminds me that often, reason is based upon belief: a belief which is strong enough to forgo further questioning. He explains that while no culture is universal in their reasoning or their beliefs, most (including mine) use belief as a mechanism to inform reason.
Baggini dedicates the first section of his book to “How We Know.” This section identifies a wide variety of types of knowledge which include: Insight, The ineffable, Theology or philosophy?, Logic, Secular reason, Pragmatism, and Tradition. He explains that various societies use these paths for knowledge. Furthermore, everyone incorporates some element of each of them. For example, seeing is at the root of Indian philosophy, but also incorporated in other cultures to some extent. In the Upanisads, sight refers to an internal vision, not anything related to actual vision. Baggini quotes: “He [the great/universal self, or Atman] is seen by subtle seers with superior subtle intellect.” He continues to explain that intuition is not above other sources of knowledge in India, but as “S. K. Saksena put it, the source of knowledge is ‘neither sense, nor reason, but the whole of man.’” Therefore, insight into oneself is a source of knowledge. Western philosophers have struggled with this notion because it is difficult to understand or study personal insight.
Next, Baggini writes about the Japanese practice of kenshō, or seeing into nature. He quotes Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro who says, “To experience means to know facts just as they are, to know in accordance with facts by completely relinquishing one’s own fabrications” which grants an experience unadulterated with thought. He gives a nod to number 71 of Laozi’s teachings from the Tao te Ching which reads, “Not-knowing is true knowledge./ Presuming to know is a disease” (translated by Stephen Mitchell). This final quote makes me think of Socrates and his refusal to write anything down himself. In today’s world, publishing indicates knowledge. However, Socrates viewed publication as a stagnation of the idea, and ideas never stagnate. Rather, they must be experienced and discussed.
A most important take-away from How the World Thinks is the notion that all of these sources of knowledge complement each other. Investigating a thing through as many paths as possible will open more paths to understanding.
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