Power Of Conceptual Knowledge
Dev Raj Dahal
Habit of modern life is associated with constant learning of knowledge to develop capacity and cultivate virtues about the good way to live. The spirit of inquiry whets the appetite of intellectuals to immerse in the life of citizens to produce appropriate knowledge, frame polices, solve problems and organise timely social changes compatible with the rhythm of good life. Gaining vidya (knowledge) enables one to know about the self, the world and set oneself free from fetters. Concept of knowledge implies an intellectual construction of reason, reflection, imagination and truth for human perfection, not rote learning and seek power only.
Power is vital to do creative things, make means proportional to abolish human suffering and misery. A strong link exists between conceptual framework of the nature of knowledge and framework condition of institutional practices where policy operates to facilitate the fulfilling human life in harmony with nature. The common sense view of knowledge denotes a scheme of thought which gets life by embedding in the context of society. To sage Astavakra, “the universe only exists until the dawning of self-knowledge” which gallops into Plato’s “know thyself.” By attaining tattogyana (true knowledge), avidya (ignorance) entrenched in tradition, text, biased perception and faulty reason that life is predetermined can be questioned and realisation of brahma gyan (knowledge tending toward ultimate reality) becomes a possibility. This lifts the self beyond routine, rational, instrumental and materialistic knowledge governed by greed, appetite and passion and orient to constructivist approach to learning and commitment to common good.
Knowledge is derived from historical insight, modified with the cultural practices, invention of new method by individual, tradition and institutions. It changes reality by higher order values of truth, justice and wisdom. Enlightenment is one form of knowledge. It seeks the liberation of humans from bondage through vigilance, courage and cognition. But its instrumental rationality devalues the sanity of tradition which only wisdom can save. Knowledge produced by the state, market, civil society and international regimes reflects their institutional biases.
The ancients invented critical discourse in the public sphere whose insights were diffused by rulers, rishis (sages), swamis (scholars), pundits, jogis (mendicant friar) and priests within their competence-- hermeneutic, inter-subjective, textual, empirical and rituals. Knowledge accompanied, not inflation of ego or alienation, but duty to serve people through right course of action. Knowledge was simplified into song, drama, poems, essays, formula, stories, etc. so that even laypersons could know, learn to question and pass judgment. It was enriched by new experience reflecting the links of science to moral and political questions. Paul Feyerabend affirms, “Knowledge is the sedimentation of tradition.” Its aim is historically and culturally constructed to set the rules of inquiry.
The perception of time as a flow of awareness and perspective of history make knowledge culturally relative. This is why in an age of knowledge-driven society and right to education many people suffer from what John Rawls calls “veils of ignorance” lacking skill to compete, connect and collaborate to overcome their dire poverty. Its rationality cannot be dressed up in the present context of good. It creates a trade-off with the future that scientific community is confronting. For example, knowledge of present economic efficiency without caring the sustainability of nature and poor feeds future peril. Michael Foucault, thus, historicises the role of reason to reconstruct the past from the present knowledge like a medical doctor who knows the causes of disease from its effects while others derive knowledge from interactions and abstraction of ideas. Concept is by no means value-neutral.
Similarly, use of theoretical knowledge fabricated in a dissimilar context and purpose can be useful if properly indigenised. De-contextualised theory blinds one to native condition in favour of status quo where its victims do not hold a stake in the system of knowledge. The explosion of social ferments now is couched in an anti-institutional course animus to disciplinary society nourished by deterministic knowledge. They seek to break the boundaries of disciplinary knowledge, constitution and practices appealing to the renewal and redesign of curricula fit for enlarged space donned by cognitive science, globalisation and human rights. Specialised knowledge, such as engineering, mathematics, law, economics, biology, etc. expressed in technical codes is hard for people to know without the help of interpreter. The pedagogy and practices make knowledge worthy for human life for freedom and its intergenerational transmission to shape civic culture.
The power of conceptual knowledge rests on its ability to solve puzzles and problems of society, cultivate moral perfectibility of humankind beyond rationalist notion of individual as inventive-driven and cost calculating of the factors of production and use them on the basis of relative merit. Pre-conceptual knowledge, like chat, symbols and myths, is not systematic. Science is highly conceptual, systematic and sparkles with clarity. Therefore, future of humankind rests on how effectively scientific progress is harnessed to address the problems, move people from belief to knowledge to define their destiny. But the selective use of science for narrow economic-corporate interests has created scarcity in society, not the equality of opportunity. The knowledge emerging from opinion, perception, belief and ideologies cannot be scientifically determined. Yet they open a window into the purpose of life better than arid rationalists who had failed to create a system of pure reason.
Social sciences wear the veneer of science by using methods, standards and concepts of science to explain ecological, social, economic and political variables. They are evaluated by the utility they serve people by sharing insights, abolishing social malaises and honing human virtues in deepening a sense of community. Conceptual framework operates with links to a set of variables and empirical facts useful for social inquiry. There are, however, limits to what one knows from sense perception and experience even in conceptualisation. The experience, as a source of knowledge, attains coherence if it is aligned with the scientific trends of knowledge production and opens to critical self-reflection, inquiry about the diversity of life and builds a frame of cooperation like the scientists in common pursuit of discovery.
Intellectuals as a universal public use their intellect to interpret the reality in an objective manner aiming to modernise society fit for the basic aspects of rewarding life. Those with moral courage live by their conscience and speak truth to power while indoctrinated ones act like a robot often in conformist and fawning style lacking guts of critical mind. But those fighting for social causes take many subjective variables, like desire, emotion, impulse, feeling and sentiments, because they too want to solve problems whose roots lie deep in human psychology.
The causal explanation of human beings’ level of cognition, living condition, purpose and interest in maintaining that condition by means of structures, system, strategies, laws and policies reflect the status and use of knowledge. Experience about this can help to critically analyse the strategies of powerful actors who create the system of knowledge to shape the behaviour of people. New values of society such as human rights, democracy, social justice, inclusion, representation, etc. are widening the frontiers of knowledge but in no way relishing the balanced means to strengthen human capital.
Now knowledge, innovation technology are disrupting the settled way of life. Knowledge of history allows one to retain diverse interpretations of present reality and reveals the overlap between the old and new so that citizens and leaders can manage change. Many thinkers have invented utopias where leaders, policy makers and people are engaged to realise their positive potentials. Humanisation of knowledge requires to making learning in terms of socialised thinking, organisation building and wise action relevant to democracy, justice and peace. Knowledge is mediated by an awareness of reality. It can neither be perfectly closed into various scientific or social scientific disciplinary departments insulated from each other nor reduced to fragments which cannot solve interconnected problems.
Teaching on specialised forms of knowledge-technical, bureaucratic, pedantic, practical, ritual and emancipatory- needs to grasp the toils of changing division of labour. Since social problems are permeating many dimensions of life, its solution transcends disciplinary boundaries. Distortion of knowledge occurs when it is seen through the narrow prism of biology, ideology and interest that considers conventional wisdom inept to the glitter of modernity which separates science from theology. Still, roots of knowledge lie in life force of social interest that drives human existence.
Institutions of learning serve human goals. They are linked to the cultural industries like the media whose primary aim is to build theoretical and practical understanding about the subject. But they cannot serve properly without being neutral across social classes. Similarly, when institutions of learning are separated into the public and the private sphere and captured by powerful interest groups entangled with politics, business, bureaucracy and geopolitics they cannot become a passport for social mobility. The underlying basis of welfare state defined by the accessibility of public good and protection of individuals from each other confront globalisation challenges.
The appropriation of rational tradition helps social and national integration. Intellectuals, like truth seekers or modern scientists, are not prisoners of conceptual jail. They break it through discursive reason or evidence-based information in tune with the flow of things. The representative account of knowledge demands people’s participation in its products and its relevance for society.
Now, social science theories are being questioned from above by globalisation, below by social struggles for new knowledge to retain culture and identity and horizontally by the globally linked market forces and civil society bringing infinite incentives, standards and solidarity. This means solution of problems requires inter-subjective knowledge. It refuses the superiority of science over social science, humanities and spiritual knowledge. Science itself is split between its capacity to build human understanding and incapacity to free self from manipulation. All analytic knowledge, therefore, requires fresh impetus for philosophical reflection and discourse, not making humans as a measure of everything but conceptualising them in the oneness of the web of life.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)