What exactly does the word knowledge mean ?10 min read

To many it means an aggregate of that which has been learnt by hearsay and experience. It is clearly opposed to, and in fact dispels, ignorance. Both “ I know ” and “ I don’t know ” are conditions of which one is conscious, and it is in the nature of man to try to replace the latter by the former. But this is not all, for the “ I know ” of to-day may be replaced by a contradictory “ I know ” tomorrow. In other words, knowledge is often proved to be false knowledge in the light of further experience. This has often been the case in the history of the development of science. In this article I propose to examine what different people mean by this word knowledge, and how far knowledge can be said to be absolute.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word knowledge as being “ familarity gained by experience ”. This definition does in fact sum up the modern psychological and philosophical view of knowledge : that is, that all knowledge of the world is gained through the senses and assimilated and arranged by the mind into a coherent whole. For this process to take place there has to be a time-space sense, and with this every normal child is born. By touch, sight, taste, smell and sound the child comes into contact with an object, such as his rattle. Each sense leaves its own impression of the rattle on his brain, and from these impressions he builds a pattern, or picture in his mind, which much later he expresses symbolically by the word “ rattle

Firstly, therefore, knowledge of the world is gained through sense-experience, but science has taught us that there is much more in the world which is knowable than that which can be known by the unaided senses. With a telescope we can study the stars, with a microscope microbes, and we know of electro-magnetic waves beyond the visible light waves, such as the short waves of wireless and the long waves of radium. Although knowledge of the world through the unaided senses is limited, it is by extending not transcending the senses that scientific knowledge has been gained.

Secondly we have the means of abstract thought ; the world of ratiocination, inference and cogitation, which is expressed in mathematics and logic, and limited by the laws which govern these sciences. The world of sense perception is transcended in the world of abstractions, but it is dependent upon man’s mental capacity, his time- spatial sense, and in the case of inference is inaccurate and sometimes misleading. You may say here, what of the fine arts ? Do they not belong to the world of abstract thought ? In one way they do if they are trying to express an idea such as Motherhood, as in the early Madonna and Child paintings, or the law and harmony in nature, as in the pictures by Cezanne. But they are always limited by the sense perceptions to which the art appeals-—the eye in painting, the ear in music—and as no man can imagine what he has not experienced, he is limited both in concept and execution by his own experience.

Lastly there is the means of hearsay, that is, evidence given on a subject by an authoritative source. This is the means by which we are taught in school, particularly in such subjects as geography and history. Such knowledge demands faith on the part of those who are learning by it, and depends upon the authority for its validity. Unless the authority has actual experience of what he is speaking, it is wise to compare the statements with those of other authorities. In any case unless what we are told is checked by reason and one’s own experience it is only second-hand knowledge. Far the greatest part of what we know is this kind of knowledge. All these three means of knowledge are adequate within their own sphere, but they are limited and can only give us knowledge of the empirical world. This knowledge is dependent upon time and space, and upon knower, knowing and known. There is no knowledge in this realm which is not dependent on the act of knowing. Knowledge of this kind can not be called absolute ; it is an intellectual action taking place within the brain of man.

The Socratic view of knowledge is quite different from this. Plato has written four dialogues, Charmides, Lysis, Laches and Protagoras, in which he shows that the five Greek virtues of justice, temperance, courage, wisdom and holiness are themselves knowledge. In Lysis, Socrates declares that without knowledge it is unsafe for a person to be free, therefore he is bound ; that ignorance is an evil to the soul as illness is to the body, and that the lover of wisdom, who is himself neither wise nor unwise, yearns for knowledge as a cure for the ignorance which clings to him. To Socrates knowledge was a liberating power, not connected with intellectual action but rather with right and virtuous action. This same view of knowledge was also held by Leo Tolstoi, who expresses it in his Confessions in these words :—

“ I understand that for the meaning of life to be understood, it was necessary for life to be something other than evil and meaningless, and afterwards that there should be the light of reason to understand it.

My conviction of the error into which all knowledge based on reason must fall, assisted me in freeing myself from the seductions of idle reasoning. The conviction that a knowledge of truth can be gained only by living, led me to doubt the justness of my life. . . .”

To Tolstoi this was not mere “ idle reasoning ” ; he proved his “ conviction that a knowledge of truth can be gained only by living ” by giving away his money and living the life of an ascetic. This idea is not understood by modern thought, for it is generally considered that knowledge is the outcome of an active mind, not of a pure mind. Much reasoning is used to rationalise desires rather than to discover the truth, and such reasoning is the outcome of an active but impure mind. For reason to be true and unerring it must be detached from all personal desire and prejudice.

In the Bhagavad Gita chapter XIII, Shri Krishna gives a list of virtues beginning with humility and modesty and ending, in verse eleven, with “ Constancy in Self-knowledge, perception of the end of the knowledge of Truth, this is declared to be knowledge and what is opposed to it is ignorance.”

In his commentary, Shri Shankara says that “ these attributes ”, these virtues, are declared to be knowledge as they are conducive to knowledge. In one sense we can call them knowledge, for they are opposed to the world of desire and hatred which is ignorance. The man living in virtue is like a man living in a dark cave who turns on an electric torch to see his way out. The artificial light is not the same thing as sunlight, but it is derived from the sun and enables the man to see. The virtues are the artificial light, not absolute knowledge (which is the selfluminous sun) but derived from it, and it is by their aid that the man finds his way to the sunlight.

Shri Shankara, who is the great exponent of the Adwaita system of philosophy, divides knowledge into two kinds —empirical knowledge and spiritual knowledge. For empirical knowledge there are valid means called pramanas> which would include those means to knowledge recognised by modern Western philosophy. These means, however, are of no value where spiritual knowledge is concerned, for which aparoksha or direct intuitive perception is the sole means. This empirical knowledge is not false, but it cannot be called absolute knowledge because on acquiring spiritual knowledge it fades, as a dream fades on waking. It has the same reality as the death of a friend in a dream ; it is very real during the dream, but on waking and seeing that friend alive and well it no longer has any validity. According to Shri Shankara there are three conditions to all knowledge which must be satisfied if that knowledge can really be called knowledge. They are—

(1) That it must be true for all three divisions of time.

(2) That it must be uncontradictable.

(3) That one must be able to verify it in one’s own experience.

Let us see what these mean. That water is wet fulfils the three conditions. It can be experienced by the senses, it is true for the past present and future and it is uncontra- dictable. That there is a brown rug on the floor fulfils the last two conditions, but it cannot be said that it always has been there or always will be there. That tomatoes are nice to eat fulfils all conditions except the second one that it is uncontradictable ; it is not knowledge, it is opinion. That Christ had red hair is a widely held idea, but it cannot be verified in any way, and remains merely belief and opinion. In this way we see that there is very little of what we know that we can call knowledge in the sense in which Shri Shankara would call it knowledge. What of spiritual knowledge, jnana ? Being spiritual it is immortal and therefore true eternally, being as true in the past as in the present or future. It is verifiable by all those who are eager to verify it, and are prepared to renounce their personal gain, to cultivate the virtues and undergo the training and discipline which the teacher prescribes. Thirdly, it is uncontradictable, and all the seers have declared the same thing —“ Shivo Hum ”, “ Ana al-Haqq ”, “ I and the Father are one ”.

We must therefore conclude that there is an absolute knowledge but that it is not empirical knowledge. This consists mostly of opinion, belief, probability and owing to everything in the world being subject to change often varies from day to day. At the best it will last until replaced by something eternal and this eternal replacement is spiritual knowledge. Absolute knowledge is therefore spiritual knowledge, jnana. It has always existed and always will exist, it cannot therefore be created as by adding A to B a third category X can be created ; neither can it be discovered, because as knowledge itself it is always known. A man wearing glasses searches everywhere for those very glasses, and cannot find them. It is by their aid that he sees and is able to search, and it is for this reason that he cannot find them. So it is with jnana, it is under the light of jnana that we are able to think, reason and experience what the senses perceive ; therefore we cannot

make jnana the object of our thoughts, reasoning or perception. No man can imagine his non-existence; the nearest he can get is the state of deep sleep, but even in deep sleep he is still conscious that he exists, as is proved by his saying on waking, “ I have been asleep.” If anyone should say to us, as the Red Knight said to Alice, “ you are only a sort of thing in my dream ”, we would merely laugh, for our own reality is to us self-evident. How do we know we exist ? It is not through the senses, or by reasoning, or even by hearsay : therefore it cannot be classed as empirical knowledge. Yet it is uncontradictable, true for all three divisions of time and verified by our own experience : therefore it really is knowledge. This knowledge of Self, when not veiled by deep sleep, when purified of the feeling of individuality and separateness and when the mind is withdrawn from the distractions of the empirical consciousness, is absolute knowledge, jnana. In Shri Dada Sanghita, a Mahatma says that jnana is ever realized and therefore there is no means to it ; the best way to jnana is silence of speech and thought. Life, he explains, is like a person chasing his own reflection in a mirror which he holds in his hand. As he moves towards it, so it moves away from him, but if he stands still and examines the reflection, he will eventually realise that it is nothing other than his own Self.