Fabio Paolo Barbieri (fpb) wrote,
Fabio Paolo Barbieri

Knowledge, an essay - part one

The worst and most damaging heresy - still largely unconscious and unchallenged - in modern thought, may be expressed as follows: that all knowledge aspires to the status of science, and is only perfect in so far as it is scientific.

I think that is nonsense. There is nothing strange about not being clear about what we do and how we do it: people always find out first the path to do things, and only then stop to reflect and properly account for what they have been doing. And human knowledge is only beginning to come to terms with the cumulative series of shocks that the sudden series of explosions in various fields of knowledge in the last four hundred years amounts to.

The human race as we understand it has been around for tens upon tens of thousands of years. In spite of the moronic habit of chronological snobbery, the mental and moral capacity of a Cro-Magnon was exactly the same as ours. (A Neanderthal was a different kind of animal.) A Cro-Magnon would be just as apt to have a Beethoven or a saint among their ranks; the only difference would be that we would not have heard of them. A man who invented a time machine and went back in time forty thousand years would find that one of the tribesmen living in Cro-Magnon in France would have no more difficulty in living in and dealing with the modern world than a modern "primitive" tribal person.

That is the important matter: for the vast majority of the history of the human race, human beings no different in mental capacity from ourselves have lived without any means of recording knowledge except for their own memory. The immense majority of human history is prehistory. Indeed, the history of considerable areas of the most ancient civilized cultures is prehistory until recent centuries; try, for instance, to reconstruct the history of the Pennines and Cumbria in Britain before 1300, and you will see what I mean. These lands of ancient culture, part of great European kingdoms, have left behind no written history at all, and it is literally impossible to work out the early history of anywhere north of Chester, south of Glasgow and west of Ripon. Other European areas may be compared.

That we have no knowledge of the majority of human history does not mean that the men who lived in that time did not have their own form of knowledge. Everything we know of our human race tells us that knowledge and wisdom would have been accumulated, praised, and as far as possible passed on. There is plenty of evidence of cultural continuity: the famous Lascaux cave paintings are a part of a visual culture that lasted, according to archaeologists, several thousand years at a conservative estimate. Even writing was probably invented several times over: many prehistoric artifacts bear signs or rows of signs that are clearly conventional.

What happened in Sumer six thousand years ago was that one of these sets of conventional signs became standard across several towns, so that it could not be lost or forgotten as previous ones may have been. This was, in turn, no chance: it depended on the long-term results of the invention of agriculture, which, over the previous centuries, had increasingly allowed much larger numbers of people to live on the produce of much smaller areas, leading to the growth of stable towns. In a tribal society, the loss of a small number of lore-masters could mean the complete loss of a whole traditional culture; in the urban culture of Sumer, the number of educated persons must have been, at any time, in the hundreds, if not in the thousands, spread over several cities. No catastrophe could wipe them all out at once. It may have helped that the way they devised to preserve writing - on baked clay tablets - was fussy, limiting, and demanding, but practically indestructible.

Another important matter is that writing in Sumer seems to have started as a commercial and administrative convenience, rather than as a priestly piece of learning. The earliest pieces of recognizable Sumerian writing recovered are lists of goods. In other words, it was in the interest of the cities and of the rich within them to preserve and develop this skill. They needed it to keep track of and record their properties, and to record agreements and exchanges. In market cities, this represented the business of every day, and specialists in writing and its preservation would always be busy.

This is the first important change in the process of accumulation of knowledge. Be clear on it: it is nothing like its start. We know nothing of how much theoretical knowledge - language, philosophy, religion, superstition - may have accumulated by the time that people began to write in a standardized and widespread script; but it was in the nature of an accumulation of fortunate chance survivals from an infinite ocean of loss. The slow build-up of procedures, notions, and habits, tested and proved valid over forty thousand years, kept and slowly grown in spite of an infinite amount of successive collapses, moved at least some parts of mankind to domesticating animals, to ploughing and sowing, to building houses of stone and defended villages, and, on the dark side, to war fought in order with tactics and weapons prepared in advance. But the limit of oral memory, without the aid of written records, is about a century (this was demonstrated long ago by the great French anthropologist Van Gennep, and over and over again since), and that places a huge limit on what can be accumulated. Although men memorized lore and handed it down through the complex mnemonic technicques known to illiterate societies, survival was slow and random.

The rise of writing in Sumer (and separately, one thinks, in China and a few other places) changed all that. The seat of lore moved from the memory of chosen masters to the records piled up in designated buildings, archives and libraries. The thread that was established in Sumer six thousand years ago has never been broken. Even in the depths of social and cultural regression in ninth- and tenth-century Europe, where writing barely survived the barbarization of society and clung on in the hands of a few monks patiently working on scarce and expensive sheepskin, and every book was a treasure whose loss could start a war, people still knew that their history went back to Mesopotamia and to persons named Belus, Ninus, Sardanapalus and Semiramis - legendary figures indeed, but from legends founded in Mesopotamian reality. As long as a written tradition survived, a memory of sorts would accumulate.

Five thousand years of this kind of knowledge certainly built up its own approach to knowledge; one that we have forgotten, and that we would do well to remember, just to realize where we are now and how we got there. It was an approach of absolute dependency on the written text coupled with radical doubt about its origin. The only history that could be properly known was what eyewitnesses wrote within their own lifetimes; otherwise, what was called history was not a field of research, but - as Cicero called it - "a mighty work for an orator", that is, a major literary genre. Writers of historical summaries such as Livy were not, and did not intend to be, researchers; they were writers, often with artistic pretensions - Livy himself was highly praised for his fluid and absorbing style - whose work was to homogenize the records of previous centuries. They often copied out previous sources almost word by word, or at best only so as to make awkward styles and odd expressions fit their notion of style. It is often easy to tell where a particular writer has abandoned one document and is writing from another.

The very ambition of the modern historian, stated by the Prussian von Ranke in the 1840s - to reconstruct the past "as it actually was" - would have been inconceivable to an educated person before 1580. Old literature is full of amazing admissions: "Who asks a historian for a guarantor?" asked Seneca, referring to Roman assay officers; and one of the oldest Indian texts says something like: "This is what is told. Is it true? Did it happen? Who knows?" It is a measure of the difference made in our whole culture by the new discipline of history that such remarks seem anything other than natural and obvious to us. To our ancestors, the sum of what was written down amounted to learning and contributed to wisdom, but no part of it could be guaranteed to be factually true, and indeed that was not what interested them. Hence the popularity of allegorical biblical readings, which often reached points that would seem impious to most modern Christians. It was more important to draw what wisdom one could from the written text, than to test its authenticity.

(This is important to understand why such a movement as Fundamentalism is not only nothing to do with "old-time religion", but, to the contrary, could not possibly have existed except in the modern world. The collection known only as "the sacred books" - Latin Biblia Sacra, the Holy Bible - is in some ways typical of the learning of a pre-modern age. Of its two sections, the New Testament is clearly intended as a collection of historical testimony and documentation by protagonists and eyewitnesses - the only form of writing which pre-modern societies regarded as historically reliable; the Old Testament represents the learning of ages past. Linguistic usage reflects the two different roles: we speak of "Gospel truth", not of "Bible truth", let alone of "Genesis truth" or of "Book of Kings truth". St.Paul describes the role of this collection of old books with remarkable exactitude: "...from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works." The purpose of studying the Old Testament is nothing to do with the study of history, or for that matter of science: it helps faith by understanding "doctrine" (theology, philosophy), by rousing a sense of one's inferiority or downright guilt as compared with heroes of old ("for reproof, for correction") and to learn from them and from their collected wisdom ("for instruction in righteousness"). It is for this reason, and for no other, that Paul teaches that "all scripture is inspired by God". Indeed, one has the sense that if he - or the other teachers who, in every tradition and culture, repeat the same concept from Europe to the Far East - were to become aware of the obsession of some moderns with factual authenticity, they would would be shocked. They certainly would regard it as a base and mean ambition: who is interested in squeezing some dumb fact that had ceased to matter four thousand years ago from books whose source of wisdom and inspiration lives for ever?)

Though the earthquake change in the nature and practice of knowledge has deep roots in Western culture, it is possible to date it almost to the year. (The fact that this change is culture-specific is one of the reasons why I will leave its roots alone; we are talking about knowledge in general, and while the modern revolution in knowledge starts in a specific and definite place, it affects the whole of mankind. The modern conception of science and learning is no less significant in Lusaka or Taipei than in Florence or Rotterdam.) But to just say why these places and people are significant would come across as arbitrary, unless I first explain how I consider the current state of knowledge to differ from the ancient.

Tags: art, essay, history, humanities, knowledge, philosophy, science, thoughts
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