Fabio Paolo Barbieri (fpb) wrote,
Fabio Paolo Barbieri

Knowledge, an essay - continued

First, it is immensely vaster, not just in the number of concepts embraced - any middle-sized modern library would probably surpass the Library of Alexandria - but in subjects. Although different civilizations varied, pre-modern knowldege could typically be described as the sum of a small number of well-defined subjects. The seven scholastic subjects of medieval Europe, the Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic) and Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy) are fairly typical. To the modern mind, they leave some fantastic gaps: whatever happened to poetry, to history, to the visual arts, to physics, to philosophy? The fact that some of these disciplines were subsumed into others - history and poetry into rhetorics, physics into mathematics, philosophy into logic) does not make the division and the limitation any less arbitrary; indeed, we are surprised by the complete absence of some of the fields of greatest medieval achievement - architecture, government and geography, languages. We can tell, without any actual need to make a study of its historical origins, that it is artificial, formalized, and historically determined. Modern knowledge, by contrast, is limitless. Someone may from time to time be heard grumbling that to study Women's Studies or the history of rock music isn't proper scholarship, but in general the range of disciplines and field of knowledge is neither limited nor fixed. Anyone can create a new one if they can make a good enough case for it.

Modern knowledge is also dynamic. Both pre-modern and pre-literate knowledge assume that there is a totality of knowledge which can be known by a human being; indeed, in pre-literate knowledge, there is often an assumption that the professional Wise Man - like the Druids of Celtic society, for instance - will always know the answer to any question, so that if he does not answer, or answers wrong, the question is not with the limits of his knowledge but with his will: he is trying to deceive you. This makes knowledge undistinguishable from magic, and learning undistinguishable from magical inspiration; indeed, the druid or brahmin questioned will often go through what seems to us some rather ridiculous rituals to summon magical inspiration - a favourite druidic one, apparently, was sucking his own thumb. It also leads, inevitably, to charlatanism: to keep his rank, the sage must answer even if he does not know, and to avoid the danger of answering wrong, and being thought to have given the wrong answer out of ill-will, he will constantly wreathe his answer in deliberately mysterious language and phrase it so that it can mean any possible outcome. "If the king goes to war he will destroy a great army" - sure, but whose, his or the enemy's? "Put your trust in wooden walls" - does this mean that our city walls are as wood, to be burned by the enemy, or that the real defence of our city is the wood of our ships?

The modern mentality, on the other hand, assumes that knowledge will grow over time, and that even if it were possible to bring together the totality of knowledge currently in existence, it would soon become obsolete. There is a striking and perfect example of this concept in the very last episode (series 7, episode 26) of Star Trek Voyager. To achieve their desperate goal to go home to Earth, the starship Voyager must face the most fearsome of its many enemies, the Borg, whose strength is the sum of knowledge accumulated by assimilating countless numbers of intelligent races. A time traveller from the future comes to help them deal with this hopeless predicament, and makes the remarkable statement: "The Borg may be formidable, yes, but from my point of view, they are forty years out of date." And the rest of the story proves her point: the Borg, with all their measureless power and knowledge, are suckered into a catastrophic defeat, thanks to viral technology they have never seen and cannot recognize when it infects them. Popular culture, a product meant not for intellectual elites but for the millions, shows that this is not only a widespread but a common and accepted idea of knowledge.

Now the ancient limited and formalized descriptions of knowledge have been abandoned for good reason, and - in spite of the occasional reactionary outburst on newspaper columns or blogs - could never be resurrected. But they had a great advantage that our culture has not yet recovered: they allowed people to think and talk about knowledge, to have useable guidelines to define and discuss this thing. Now, just when knowledge has moved to the absolute centre of our collective life, when public and private powers foster and pursue it, when it is universally accepted that "knowledge is power", we have no such instruments. The old imperialism of science among the forms of knowledge may have been discredited to some extent, but it is not dead yet; you still meet historians and sociologists who take it for granted that it would be both possible and desirable to put their disciplines on a scientific footing, and indeed, that the future belongs to such a footing. And the reaction against this pan-scientism has been even more disastrous: it has amounted to a witches's sabbath of irrationalism, because, while it has a perception of the real limitations of science, it takes for granted its claim to be the sole rational form of knowledge, and therefore identifies all the forms of knowledge that cannot possibly be regarded as scientific - beginning with the arts - as irrational. This is not only wrong, it is villainous: there is so much harm and evil involved in revolting against reason, I lack the space to deal with it. Let me just say that I never contemplate any revolt against reason, be it ever so apparently insignificant, except with absolute horror.

How, then, shall we describe a field that is always expanding and whose future growth we cannot predict? Fundamentally, I would propose, by referring to the relationship of its various areas - even those not yet invented - to the subject that knows, to the human being. Think, then, of all the things you know. There are things you know that are about every aspect of human life, individual and collective - that is, ultimately, about you, because everything that is human refers to every human, for good and for evil. The interest of history, of sociology, of psychology, is in the way humanity and human beings can be seen through them. Then there is science: the knowledge of things that are other than human. This can relate even to the human body, so long as it is considered as an entity and not as a part, manifestation or subject of the human spirit. This is science, and that is why medicine is a science. Its fascination and interest lies in the question, how is the world made, and how does it work? And then there is what human beings themselves add to the world - buildings, writings, works of craft and skill of every kind. This I would call art. These are in my view, the three fields of knowledge: humanities, science, and arts. Any new field of knowledge that arises can be seen - indeed, it is instinctively seen - as part of one of these areas. Quantum physics and biological chemistry may be comparatively recent disciplines, but nobody doubts that they are sciences. Sociology and comparative mythology were unknown to the eighteenth century, but they go naturally to complement and integrate human history. Computer graphics and comic books are indubitably arts, whether high or low art it is left for critics to debate.

The confines betweem these areas may be delicate, but I doubt they could be seen as contentious. Neurology, dealing with the human brain and nervous system as a system, is a science; psychology is a humanity. Computer animation is based on mathematics, but it unarguably belongs to the field of the arts. What is more, one piece of work may belong to more than one field. Some scientists, such as Galileo and Fabre, were great literary artists. So were probably the majority of great historians, and even a sociologist or two (Marcel Mauss is a heart-stopping example). A piece of computer animation may contain superlative mathematics and be quoted in textbooks, and a work of art may have precious historical insights.

I would add this: that at the centre of this ever-expanding circle, where the three fields of knowledge meet, is where we find philosophy and theology. In fact, I would forbid any distinction between the two and simply call theology "Christian philosophy"; if, after all, it was good enough for Thomas Aquinas to be philosopher and theologian both, it is good enough for me. The distinction between the two disciplines is artificial and ideological, and we would be well rid of it. Philosophy, then, is where all the disciplines meet, to seek for a synthesis and for insights into existence as a whole. It is both the noblest of all the disciplines, and, alas, the easiest to reduce to charlatanism.

In the first part of this essay I drew a historical - almost, but not quite, meta-historical - account of how mankind has treated knowledge in the past. It seems only right to close with a sketch of how, and why, they arose.

The independence of the humanities began with the independence of history; with the appearance of a properly historical method of investigation that made history into a research pursuit rather than a branch of literature. And although that has a prehistory stretching back to the age of Petrarch, it has one definite father, a great man whose name ought to be known to every child: Cesare Baronio, a friar in St.Philip Neri's order (the same that later welcomed another great historian, John Henry Newman). Under orders from St.Philip, Baronio took up the polemical struggle against Protestant writers on history such as Flaccus Hilliricus, who claimed to prove that the early Church looked exactly like their own "reformed" one, and spent the rest of his life delivering a devastating response. His tool was the publication of dateable documents and the analysis of the evolution of texts and ideas from document to document.

At the centre of it is the diplomatic edition: a textually exact (or as exact as possible) printing, not just of a text as such, but of the specific text preserved on manuscript X, written in the year YYYY at place Z by scribe A. This became the first tool of modern history, and, while others (archaeology, statistics, etc.) have since been taken up, I am here to tell you that it remains the absolute backbone of historical investigation. To know the content and condition of texts at any given time is to have the beginnings of history. The publication of hitherto unpublished texts is the beginning of research. It will be seen that it was no chance that history arose when it did: without the ability to produce large numbers of exact copies - that is, to print them - the very idea of the diplomatic edition would not be conceivable. Printing, not Herodotus, is the father of history.

It is a piece of divine irony that the Roman printers on whom Baronio had to rely for the publication of his epoch-making collections of documents were among the worst in Europe. Nonetheless, it was immediately clear to everyone that an enormous step forward had been taken: Baronio's History of the Church had not only crushed the Protestants, it had taken the whole discussion to a wholly new level of scholarship and professional integrity. Not that the Protestants felt crushed, of course. They soon found that they had a thing or two to say, and so the debate went on, from university to university and from printing press to printing press - while, as a by-product, chairs and faculties of history became established across Europe. And the race of historians has never stopped quarrelling since, and does not seem likely to.

If Cesare Baronio is the founder of modern history, Galileo Galilei, barely a generation younger, is the founder of science. His contribution went well beyond the heliocentric theory (which had been around since Hellenistic times) and even the discovery of Jupiter's satellites and of the rings of Saturn: it amounted to a wholly novel claim as to the manner of scientific knowledge, and as to its value. Just as until Cesare Baronio writers on history had limited themselves to reproducing texts and discussing them, without a way to establishing their value and priority, so until Galileo the discussion about nature had been carried out largely in the old Greek way of discussion and deduction, trying to create a picture of the universe that looked right to a rational person. Consequently, nobody took it for certain. The Church had accepted different non-Christian accounts of astronomy and physics because it did not feel that anything profound rested on the difference between, say, Aristotle and the Stoics, and because no decisive and final argument could be brought against either. What enraged the authorities was Galileo's claim to deliver unanswerable arguments. His unanswerable arguments rested on two pillars: one was the reduction of physics to mathematics - the demonstration that physical science can be described in mathematical terms - and the other was the principle of the reproductible experiment. The evidence for a theory could be proved because an experiment, set out in rigorous terms, always will produce the same results. (Conversely, of course, if the results cannot be replicated, the theory is disproved.) The two pillars also support each other: in order to achieve a fully comparable and carefully designed experiment, some knowledge of mathematics is required, and in order to understand its significance, a good deal.

Never was a Church decision worse advised than the condemnation of Galileo, and never did one have less effect. The Church itself was the largest single employer of scientists in Galileo's time, and before he was dead they were already using his methods and accepting his conclusions. The title of his greatest successor's text is almost a battle call: Philoophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, "The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy" - that is, the principles of "natural philosophy", of the study of nature, are mathematical. And that is what Galileo had asserted. But if there ever was a battle, by the time Newton spoke it was most definitely over, and Galileo had won. But the Church's reaction, though disastrous, is understandable, and to some extent even necessary. Galileo's publications represented the rise of a wholly new form of knowledge. The Church, though deeply involved in the study of nature, had no more idea that something new was happening, than anyone else; and it was necessary - metaphorically speaking - that some blood should be shed, to establish the existence of a boundary and of a new entity. Since then, some sciences have arisen - biology and metereology in particular - which cannot be subjected to controlled experiments, and which rely on statistics rather than Galileo's idea of mathematics for their results. They are nevertheless, to my mind, sciences and not humanities, although their methods may sometimes come close, and although - alas - frequent events prove them subject to the same kinds of dishonesty.

Finally, the arts. The arts as a field of knowledge took a much longer time to develop, and cannot look back to as monumental a founder as Baronio or Galileo. It was only in the nineteenth century that people fully accepted that such a field as the arts existed. In the past, some arts and some fields of endeavour - in particular poetry - had been placed among the fields of "liberal" learning, while others - such as architecture - were treated as professional skills, and yet others - such as acting - as downright base and unsuited to gentlemen. It was with the rise of romanticism that artists began to be regarded as part of a whole field of endeavours defined as simply "the arts", a word which originally meant any field of professional skill. In spite of its recent origin, I for once have no doubt whatever that this category is a vital and useful one. It shows a characteristic of most important discoveries: that, once realized, it was quickly overvalued to an idolatrous extent. There has come to be a frankly ludicrous overvaluation of artists in various fields. One wonders how long it will take before the public at large wakes up to the fact that there is no reason why an artist should be of interest beyond his or her work; that they can, outside of their own field, be very silly and just as boring and commonplace as any other layman; that they are in no sense - as a spectacularly foolish commonplace has it - "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." On the other hand, philistinism is, if possible, worse. The arts to have a very high order of value and do deserve respect. Woe to those who use the occasional folly of their practitioners to downgrade art itself; they are almost literally cutting off their own noses to spite their faces.

Knowledge is the most precious thing in the world; now more than ever. It is therefore important for us to have a good understanding of what kind of thing it is and how it works, and I hope this little essay can help to do so.
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