KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTANDING
The tragedy of the human situation and the gravest danger that threatens our civilization and our very existence reside in the fact that we have too much knowledge and too little understanding. And what compounds the problem is that we labour under the false notion that the way to gain the understanding we need is to accumulate more and more knowledge, because we fail to realize that knowledge and understanding are two totally distinct things.
I do not intend to give definitions of knowledge and understanding or to advance any fixed terminology. In the central part of Plato’s Republic (Bk. V St.471 to the end of Bk. VII) the concepts of knowledge, understanding and reason are crucial. Now if we refer to a number of standard English translations (Jowett, Taylor, Lindsay, Cornford, Lee, etc.) we will not find much agreement in their use of these terms. With concepts so rich and so vital it is no wonder that there should be much overlapping and interchangeability. I mention this to preclude any unnecessary wrangling over words. My purpose is to draw a clear distinction between two concepts; for the rest I will say with Shakespeare,
What's in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would small as sweet.
Historically, by experience, observation, trial and error, we acquired the knowledge that enabled us to survive. All of our present-day science and technology is nothing but a refinement of that primitive proceeding that has amply proved its survival value. But it was in mythology and religion, at first, that humankind sought understanding, and then in philosophy. And though the distinction between science and philosophy was not clearly drawn and there continued to be some confusion between the problems and methods proper to each, yet intelligent human beings continued to move along the parallel routes of acquiring knowledge and seeking understanding at the same time, until modern times.
Then, with the dizzying practical successes of science during the past four centuries, and especially during the past four or five decades, science gradually usurped the whole domain, and it became an unquestioned article of intellectual faith that all questions posed by the human mind are grist for the scientific mill, with the result that we are now glutted with knowledge and famished for understanding. The distinction between science and philosophy that was formerly obscure and that has lately been completely obliterated, has now to be reinstated and clearly marked. I contend that this is now a vital necessity.
Empiricists (of all brands) want us to be content with the objective. They tell us we have no use for the concepts of mind, spirit, feeling, etc. True, we have in the realm of the objectively given all that we need to know, all that we can know. Those same empiricists do not in practice deny the existence of the subjective life: they love and laugh and enjoy the thrill of working on their scientific puzzles. They do not consider all of this an illusion. I do not want to speak for them and say how they would characterize it, but I may say they think that that region does not merit their serious attention, the attention of their scientific minds, it has to do with their quotidian awareness.
I have no desire to change their minds, but I have a mind of my own, and to my mind, it is this realm that is the realm of reality and it is the realm that philosophers of the old regime thought most deserving of attention. Unfortunately, those philosophers also thought that from that realm they could derive objective knowledge. That was an error, an error which the empiricists were right in decrying. But when the empiricists went on to conclude that those philosophers were utter fools and all their speculations sheer nonsense, they were closing to humankind the portals of wisdom and understanding.
If philosophy is to perform its proper role of giving us undestanding, it must relinquish any claim to provide us with knowledge of the objective world. It is not for no reason that religion is everywhere being advanced as the alternative to science. It is because science cannot satisfy the spiritual needs of humankind — this very phrase scientists want us to ban as the worst of blasphemies. But when philosophers proudly tell us that their systems give us objective verities or any definitive truths (for I also maintain that philosophical truth is not apodeictic but mythical; but this is a position which I cannot justify within the scope of the present essay), scientists or, more often, other philosophers have no trouble at all in reducing those systems to tatters.
Shall we then hold on to religious dogmatism or shall we say that electrons and protons and market forces (whatever that might be) are the only realities? Do we really have here the two horns of an inescapable dilemma? My answer is: No, for we can have a philosophy that indeed does not give us facts but does give us whole worlds of meanings and spiritual realities to live in — and, what is more, meanings and spiritual realities the generation of which is the very life of reason: The life of reason is the exercise of creative intelligence.
I have to emphasize that my advocation of a clear separation of science and philosophy and my insistence on the mythical nature of philosophical thinking should not be construed as anti-scientism or irrationalism. I emphatically maintain that reason is the sole ground of the dignity of humankind. When I say that science cannot give us understanding I mean that the scientific approach, by dint of which science is solely concerned with the objective and the given, places out of its domain the questions of why and essence and meaning. When I say that all philosophical thinking is mythical, I mean that philosophical thinking, dealing as it does with meanings and ideal realities, cannot produce or discover actualities.
We now live under a veritable deluge of information, of facts; facts which are all surface, with nothing beneath. More than ever before, we now need to stop and think – meditate and contemplate – and put meaning into the world. Only creative philosophy can help us do that.