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A Short Rumination on Knowledge

When we talk about knowledge, we mostly think about the accumulation of facts and figures. For the modern man, "to know something" means having the experience to perform an action, and having the information that can be put to use. But it wasn't always like that. Up to the 17th century, knowledge signified the notion we assume by the word "wisdom" today. The change of the meaning of this word and the importance it carries has changed the way we think and perceive ourselves and the world around us. This transformation has lead to the loss of accessibility to truth and the irreparable depletion of spirituality. How did it occur?

Famous 20th-century French post-structuralist Michel Foucault spent his intellectual career exposing the mechanisms of authority, but at least in one of his works he explicitly deals with the loss of spirituality in the modern world, and it is related to the perception of knowledge. The modern age of the history of truth, Foucault asserts in The Hermeneutics of the Subject, begins with the idea that one can have access to truth solely through the activity of knowing, without having to change or alter his/her being as subject. Throughout Antiquity, the philosophical question of “comment avoir accès à la vérité” (“how to have access to the truth”) and the practice of spirituality, which Foucault defines as a fundamental conversion of the knowing subject by eros or askêsis, were never separate.1

Through the long period of Hellenistic and Roman thought, the insistence on epimeleia heautou (“care for oneself”)—as Socrates, Epicureans and Stoics label the process—became so widespread that it became a general cultural phenomenon. The notion is present in the first centuries of Christianity as well, especially in the writing of the St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa. “La vérité, c’est ce qui illumine le sujet; la vérité, c’est ce qui lui donne la béatitude; la vérité c’est ce qui lui donne la tranquillité d l’âme” (The truth is what enlightens the subject; the truth is what gives beatitude to the subject; the truth is what gives the subject tranquility of the soul), Foucault writes (18).

In the modern age, by contrast, it is assumed that only knowledge gives access to truth. The seed of this conviction, however, is also found in the antiquity. The only famous classical philosopher who did not believe that truth can be grasped through a process of self-transformation, but by intellectual means, was Aristotle. “Il a sans doute été, dans l’Antiquité, le seul philosophe; celui des philosophes pour lequel la question de la spiritualité a été la moins importante” (He was no doubt the only philosopher in Antiquity for whom the question of spirituality was least important), Foucault argues (18-19). With the rise of rationalism in the late middle ages, Aristotle became interesting again. The dissociation between the principle of an access to truth accomplished in terms of the knowing subject alone and the necessity of self-transformation began with Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics basing theology on the works of Aristotle, he writes (19, 28). Intellectuals soon found out that rational judgment and faith based on revelation were incompatible. The consequence had to be a permanent separation of theology and philosophy in Western thought. Nowadays, even the understanding of revelation is accessed only through a study of the Bible in Protestantism and the authority of the Church in Roman Catholicism, not the direct intuition of the Divine. 

The process initiated by the scholastic's adoption of Aristotle's empirical approach to epistemology was given its final shape in the 17th century. French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes attributed the knowledge of the spiritual intellect to human reason itself, and man’s rational faculty became, for the first time since Antiquity, the chief organ of knowledge. In his Meditations, he puts the self-evidence of the subject’s own existence at the very source of access of being, and makes the motto, “know yourself,” into a fundamental means of access to truth (Foucault 16). Cogito ergo sum. As Phillip Sherrard puts it, “thought breaks with everything but itself, and forms as it were a closed world no longer in contact with anything but itself” (160). The rupture Foucault talks about was finally completed when Immanuel Kant said: if knowledge has limits, these limits exist entirely within the structure of the knowing subject, that is to say in precisely what makes knowledge possible (31).

The exhortation “know thyself” has thus been philosophically re-qualified, and the “care of the self” has been discarded when self-evidence was placed as the point of departure of the philosophic approach, Foucault asserts (10-18). Due to Descartes' crucial role in this process, he calls this shift “le moment cartésien” (the Cartesian moment).

So, after a long, evolutionary process, knowledge did not mean the same thing as it did in Ancient Greece and in early Byzantine Christianity anymore. Whereas before knowledge involved a spiritual transformation that takes place during an arduous practice of asceticism and self-cognition, now it consists solely of the accumulation of information.

Not only have we lost the ability to reach wisdom, but we don't even know that much in the modern sense of the word. We know a little about many things, but nothing in depth, as our learned predecessors did. We are daily fed by tons of miscellaneous data, but we don't possess the means to synthesise and interpret them. In schools, we are only taught to memorise facts, not to lead wholesome lives based on the harmony between body and soul.

Knowledge is power, Bacon declared, but by knowledge he meant only sheer data, dry facts. This is the motto modern education and professional ambitions are based on. Askesis as a means to wisdom has all but disappeared. Sadly, we live in the world of bits and bytes, figures and facts, and very little meaning.

1. Foucault defines “spirituality” as search, practice and experience through which the subject carries out the transformation in order to have access to truth, and the set of researches, practices and experiences (purification, ascetic exercises) not for knowledge but for the subject to pay the price for access to truth (17).

Foucault, Michel.  L’Hérmeneutique du sujet: Cours au Collège de France, 1981-1982. Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2001

Sherrard, Philip. The Greek East and the Latin West.  Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 1959.

Svetozar Postic


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