Wednesday, October 8, 2008


What do they tell us in educational institutions? That knowledge is just there for the taking (as long as you follow the approved procedures!); truth is just there like some sort of grandiose monument to be approached after the performance of the right rituals. Knowledge of the truth is something you obtain, something you get and keep. But what do they mean by this? Do you get knowledge like you get a new pair of shoes or a new house, or any other item which becomes one’s personal possession? Or do you get knowledge like a contagious disease, do you pick it us like an infection? I really don’t know what they mean when they talk about ‘acquiring knowledge’. Presumably at its simplest, the acquisition of knowledge is something which the mind obtains and the world provides. The mind ‘gets’ knowledge of the world. The world just sits out there, outside of me and my mind, all monolithic, immutable and indisputably objective. My mind is just in here, all private and insubstantial and subjective. Then, by some sort of commerce between the two (involving the senses and the intellect in some sort of poorly understood process of mediation), the world puts its imprint on my mind. This imprint is in some way a faithful likeness of the world. More, it IS the world. Then when the imprint has been stamped on my mind, I can be said to have knowledge of the world. I possess it for all time and eternity and it’s as unchangeable and solid as the world itself. It all sounds very simple when put like that, but for me, that simple picture just doesn’t add up to anything sensible at all. I cannot find any sense in it at all. For me, knowledge is more like a kind of possession in the old occult sense: I do not posses it; it possesses me and transforms me into the bargain.
For a start, it doesn’t seem to me to be very sensible to talk of ‘world out there’ and ‘self in here’. That sort of spatial language doesn’t get us anywhere. There is clearly a more complex relationship between what I call ‘the world’ and what I call ‘my self’ than that naive picture of inside and out - as though my self was a kind of room into which all sorts of lumber from outside is brought in through the doors or windows to clutter it up.
It seems to me intuitively true to say that without self, there is no world and without world, there is no self. And no amount of insisting that ‘the world was always there before me and always will be there after me’ will convince me of anything different. There therefore must be a close interdependence between the two of them. I know that we’re told that the world just is there like some great block, some great pile of objects and that at one point in its history, we emerge into it as one of those objects - as bodies - and then emerge as selves within those bodies. We’re then told that since this is so, the world will still be there when we vanish as selves at death, because it was just there before we arrived. The world, we’re told, is simply there, in the most obvious way we think it’s there - i.e., as a bunch of three-dimensional objects; it was there in that way before we came and it will be there in that way when we leave. The world, we’re told, is primary; and our self is secondary. The world is what really exists (in precisely the way our everyday common sense tells us it exists) and we are the transient observers who just come and go and are temporarily imprinted with the picture of that world which persists independently of any of us. The self, we’re told, is of no importance, really. The self is just a sort of empty bag into which images of the outside world are put - our ‘knowledge’ of the world - and empty bag which will end up falling to bits, like one of those plastic jobs from the supermarket. The self is in no way primary, it is a secondary phenomenon. The world is primary.
But all this strikes me as totally unconvincing given the simple, obvious fact that without self, there is no world. If you tell me that the world is simply there when I am not, or when anyone is not, I must ask ‘from what point of view?’ because you tell me it is just there because you can imagine it. But you always imagine it from some particular point of view; and the fact is that from no point of view at all, the world is strictly unimaginable. We can have no conception of it at all; and it is senseless to talk of it. I don’t see how you can say that something unimaginable is ‘just there’. The point of view is the self of the observing subject; and without that point of view, that observing self, there is simply no imaginable world. The consensus of a whole bunch of observing selves who happen to agree upon what it is they are observing and have a language to communicate that agreement does not constitute a world that is ‘just there’. I don’t know what people mean by the two words ‘self’ and ‘world’, anyway. I have a sneaking feeling that they don’t know either. The fact that we have two words does not mean that there are indeed two distinct things. There is a consensus about the use of the words, but I think the consensus is wrong. I cannot see my knowledge as no more than a kind of collection of photos of a thing, stuck in a box and kept for a while until the box falls to bits and the photos crumble with it. The whole business seems to me to both more mysterious and more exciting than that. Knowledge, my knowledge is no less part of the world than the galaxies above my head. I don’t see why it should behave any differently from they in gradually transforming into something related but different – for ever.

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