Previous Fora / 2003

The specificity of european knowledge

The specificity of european knowledge

I would like to show how the idea of the dignity of the man, rooted in european civilisation, is linked with the spreading of knowledge.

Max Weber wondered (in Protestant ethic and the mind of capitalism), why european people invented most sciences. A person who looks for knowledge, has a good opinion of himself, he believes he has the power to know. Knowledge is consciousness of his own greatness.

In the Bible, creating the world is a task, even task of art, an organized structur, organized by God's intelligence. It is a huge task of reasonning. Man is left by God as a master of knowing and achieving the world. So, for us, to know is to make an inventory of a rational creation. For a long time (remember Descartes), scientific knowledge is linked to religion. European man feels himself alienated from the world, in front of it, he does not feel part of the world. So, he is exposed, in danger, if he does not know. Ignorance is danger. Man could only admire the world. But he searches to understand. The disenchantment of the world begins with the separation.

European man searches to un-veil the mysteries : what means exactly the greek word Aletheia, truth. Truth is the fruit of work and patience. Man ventures into the land of mysteries, and pushes back the shadows. This adventure of the truth was made possible by judeo-christianism. But it also developped in antic Grece, with the story of Thucydide, the logic of Socrate, the mathematics of Euclides. And yet in the VI°century before Chist, when Xenophane of Colophon criticized the traditionnal gods and asked this question : is the knowledge of tradition true, or only useful ? European people live, as other people, in a traditional world. But the intuition of Xenophane appeared from time to time, and questionned and assessed tradition.

As it is known, it is during the Revival that a wish for knowledge developped to its present scale. Man becomes the center of the world. He wants to make out all mysteries. Pascal describes the will of knowledge as an illness : anguished curiosity. Man knows his own limits. But he is always unsatisfied. He is afraid of being mistaken, since he is proud. He invents doubt : if not sure, he waits. He would rather know a few things, than be mistaken. Great ambition, great pride. This is european. Chestov has written (On the balance of Job), that all unhappiness of man comes from the will of knowledge. Which he calls "the theoretical will of Adam", which is proud, too big a consciousness of one's own greatness.

Science grew out of a succession of refusals. It accepts to leave behind ancient certainties. In that sense, it is constant suffering. Knowledge doesnt correspond to happyness. It doesnt make one happy. It makes one free. Man's greatness is built on risk and danger. Rousseau meant the same thing when he described savage man, happy because of ignorance. Ignorant because he is unaware. Our unhappyness is : known ignorance.

In the original story - or the original myth- man's unhappyness comes from the fact he has touched the tree of knowledge. The first couple knew they would be punished. But put their happyness at risk in order to know.

The un-veilers of knowledge for a long time were revolutionnaries, but without partisans. Discovery is a fight : against traditions, against institutions, against common opinion. Scientists suffered, at times victims of comtempt or persecution (Galilée was ostracized), at others indifference (Mendel was not listened to). Knowledge separates us from society. Truth is dangerous and brings unhappiness. But ignorance is unbearable domination. Man doesnt want to remain submitted to unknown laws.

Knowledge helps man to grow. That is to say : knowledge realized in existenz a greatness that exists by nature. And so, a great effort was made to provide more and more people, and idealy everyone, with knowledge. European culture is caracterized by separation between knowledge and secrets.

Pythagore had discovered irrational numbers. And he kept the discovery secret. But his disciples were not brave enough to keep the secret for themselves. So, tradition tells us that they were punished by sinking in a shipwreck. Because - so tradition tells us : "the unfathomable and the shapeless have to remain absolutely hidden". But Pythagore's story is, here, an exception. In Europe, knowledge spreads. Forbidden writting travel more quikly than other ones (Umberto Eco : The name of the rose).

Knowledge is synonymus to power. It also brings social revolutions. So, many civilisations keep knowledge hidden. The Incas gave knowledge only to the elite. The chinese, who invented printing in eight hundred and sixty eight, didnot use it to diffuse mass-teaching. In african societies, knowledge is given to the more virtuous, and to them alone. We know that totalitarian powers hide knowledge, in order to weaken people.

The retention of knowledge makes easier the retention of power. But also, the fear to divulge comes from the explosive ability of knowledge, able to destroy all tradition. The one who knows, will certainly look for more and more knowledge. He could introduce the seed of destruction in the society.

As we distinguish opened societies and close societies, there is also a deep distinction between societies of initiative and societies of initiation.

Initiation means at the same time restriction and continuity.

Restriction : knowledge is a precious gift, so it must not be exhibited, it is not public. One can give knowledge only to one who is able to take advantage of it. Some people could use knowledge in a bad way. In this perspective, goodness is more worthy than truth : so could we sum up the society of initiation.

Continuity : knowledge is given to the most dignified. This chosen man is going to entirely integrate this knowledge, with his intelligence, his heart, his body. He will be full of knowledge. So he cant get rid of it : no criticism is possible.

In the societies of initiative, the knowledge is given to many people, but from outside, and stays outside the person, in face of criticism. On the contrary, in the societies of initiation, the number of learned people is small, reduced, but those who know are entirely posessed by knowledge : here the knowledge, when it is divulged, is never a real liberation. It possesses those it liberates, but they dont possesse it. Societies of initiation only maintain ignorant men and zealous men, and for the former and for the later, for different reasons, criticism is impossible.

Initiation means continuity : this education makes people identical. Here, the society is looking for stability, in order to maintain values and traditions. Ancient societies are weak : threatened in their very existenz by epidemics, invasions, famine. For them, knowledge has to be useful for survival. Free curiosity is a luxury. May be that's why society of initiation is an eternal model, in Europe as elsewhere.

European societies have known also initiation. But little by little they have invented an education of initiative. Which means : giving more value to the individual than to tradition ; giving value to knowledge to come, knowledge of the future.

European education really began with Komensky the tcheque (seventeen century). Before him, Juan-Luis Vives the spanied had written in the same mind. Komensky belonged to the hussite church. He had often been exiled and he had a courageous existence. He always achieved what he wrote. He said that God looks for man's friendship : that means, a sort of equality. So God gives to man all intellectual means to know the world. Man is linked to God : so he must know as much as possible. A humanist society must improve teaching for all people. Otherwise, men will remain small and limited. Everyone has a right to learn and to know : women, young children, old people, handicapped. One only has to adapt teaching to different groups - teaching for children, for handicapped, and so on... Schools must open everywhere, even in the smaller villages. Schools must be free of charge. Komensky invented nursery school, with teaching through games, and school for handicapped. He made teaching popular.

The most important point here, is not the content of teaching, but the greatness of the individual, and his development. Pupils learnt to become critical. They possess knowledge, they are not possessed by it. Humanism began with this manner of teaching.

The endless development of knowledge means that existence is both experience and adventure. Knowledge meets the unknown : and accepts risk. The european man goes out to meet the unknown, which is : the sea, space, the human body, matter, and even God : christian theology is an "intelligence of God". He dares to risk because he is confident. He thinks he will become greater by meeting danger and worry. Moving forward to the unknown, he measures himself. He bets he will survive in face of fear and danger. Which means that the risk of knowledge, is madness.

Madness as risk of extreme knowledge : the story of Faust. Promethe has already been punished for bringing knowledge to men. Doctor Faust really existed : he was a magician of the sixteenth century, claiming that he was the gardian of total knowledge. Litterature has seized this character : Marlowe, Müller, Goeuthe. Faust shows the will to gain knowledge, extended to madness. He is ready to go down to hell, in order to learn more. And he always says he is ignorant : in him, the will of the absolute expresses itself in a will of absolute knowledge. This is very european. The character of Faust is continued by the character of Frankenstein (by Mary Shelley, 1818) : knowing everything, he creates a man with the body of dead men. But this creature lacks the most important thing : ability to love. This is a way of saying that man cant become God, but that he is only able to ape God.

Promethe was moving. Faust was pleasant, and nearly friendly. Frankenstein is scaring. Why ? Science is now able to carry out the feats of Frankenstein. The man who developpes knowledge, also developpes his own dignity. But if he overtakes certain limits, he becomes mad, and loses. But where are the limits ?