Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction- A Review

Jennifer Nagel’s book is the latest in the Oxford University Press series and offers more to the TOK student than you might expect from its modest title. It is decidedly philosophical in scope and so does not look at the different Areas of Knowledge in any kind of depth. Even so, its survey of different concepts of knowledge from classical to modern is both interesting and informative.

The plural ‘concepts’ is germane, as central to Nagel’s thesis is that knowledge is a tricky thing to pin down. The Platonic definition of knowledge as ‘justified true belief’ which we look at in TOK is interrogated and found wanting. She includes a story Bertrand Russell tells in Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits of a man walking through a railway station, who having lost track of time, looks up at a clock and clearly sees the hands pointing to 1.17. Does he know that it’s 1.17? Well, it is 1.17, so it’s true; and he believes that it’s 1.17; and he’s justified in believing that the clock is telling him the correct time. The only problem is that the clock’s broken and just happens to be showing the correct time at that moment. So he has justified true belief but can he really be thought to have knowledge?

This leads to her looking at a whole range of different ideas about knowledge. There is an interesting section on Descartes’ rationalism, though surprisingly, she seems to accept his famous maxim cogito ergo sum, without questioning the sum part. She also looks at Locke’s empiricism and fills in some of the details which our broad discussions in TOK sessions have necessarily omitted. Even so, the search for the basis of what we can know seems a good place to start in any theory of knowledge. Strangely, though, she does not look at a priori knowledge at all, which I would have thought was something worth talking about if you are engaged in such a venture.

The sections on contemporary epistemology were particularly illuminating and include discussions of: the causal theory of knowledge; the tracking theory of knowledge; and the contextualist theory of knowledge.

There is also an interesting chapter on the importance of knowledge which comes from testimony, which fits in with the focus in the new TOK specification on shared knowledge as well as personal knowledge. What exactly is the relationship we have to a fact which we get second hand such as that Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and does it even count as knowledge?

It has to be said that much of this theorising is in response to what many philosophers seem to feel is the dead end of scepticism. If you can’t know for certain, does this mean that you can’t know anything at all?

The message of the book ultimately seems to be that whilst it is difficult to even know exactly what knowledge is, let alone be absolutely certain in our beliefs, a good enough theory of knowledge is something worth pursuing.

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Language as a Window into Human Nature- Stephen Pinker

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Uncertainty, Keats, and Negative Capability

In a famous letter to his brother, Tom, on 21st December 1817, the poet John Keats set out his ideas of what he called ‘negative capability’. In it he said, ‘& at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…’.

I was thinking about this after the Field Day Conference last year on ‘Uncertainty’ and it seemed to me that what he was saying applied not just to a ‘Man of Achievement’ or only in the field of Literature but had wider significance in other areas of knowledge and in our everyday lives too.

The ability to rationalize and work out the answer to a problem logically is of course of vital importance. I wonder, however, with Keats, whether we are in danger of closing possibilities down and settling for what he called ‘half knowledge’ if we do this in every instance.

The story of Archimedes in the bath having a moment of inspiration and shouting ‘Eureka’ when he finally lighted upon his ‘Principle’, or the almost certainly apocryphal story of Isaac Newton sitting under a tree when an apple fell on his head leading him to eventually discover the Law of Gravity are two examples of the ways scientists might arrive at truths through being in a state of negative capability rather than being super calculating machines.

Indeed, uncertainty seems to be built into the quantum level of Physics. Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’ states that we can know the path that an electron takes as it moves through space or we can know where it is at a given instant, but we cannot know both. The implications of this are enormous. In a sense, an electron doesn’t exist until it is observed. Or to put it another way, an electron must be regarded as being everywhere and nowhere. This makes no sense, and as one physicist commented, ‘a person who wasn’t outraged when first hearing about quantum theory didn’t understand what had been said.’

Back to Literature. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, both the golden compass and the subtle knife require the user’s mind to be in a particular state where it must be allowed to drift slightly whilst focus is retained in order to reveal its secrets. Pullman consciously links this to Keats’s idea about negative capability.

And in real life, too, it seems to me that there are a great number of occasions when we do not rely on reason alone to make our decisions but trust to our instincts instead (would we, for example, be happy to choose a partner simply on the basis of them being ‘good on paper’ and ticking all the boxes of the qualities we were looking for?) I wonder, then, if we more willingly and deliberately embraced negative capability, whether the quality of our decision making might actually improve. We can’t know, of course, but perhaps unless we take a chance and try it out, we might be in a state of contenting ourselves with half knowledge without even realizing it.

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Changing Paradigms- Sir Ken Robinson

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The Happiness Delusion

‘Better a discontented Socrates than a contented pig’- John-Stuart Mill

There is a famous scene in the film The Matrix, where the main character, Neo, is presented with the choice of taking either a red pill or a blue pill. If he takes the blue pill, he will wake up in his bed and go on believing whatever it is that he wants to. If he takes the red pill, he will be shown what the true nature of reality or the matrix actually is. ‘Remember’, says Morpheus, ‘all I’m offering you is the truth.’

I know that it is a bit portentous but I think that the scene presents to modern audiences the dilemma about the nature of reality Plato talks about in his Allegory of the Cave. What the cave-dwellers think of as reality is really just shadows cast on the walls, and actual reality exists outside.

There is no reason, of course, why reality should necessarily make us unhappy. In fact, there ought to be some kind of intellectual satisfaction gained from looking into the nature of Truth and discovering more about it. I think, though, that as a society, we would rather choose the blue pill than the red one. In fact, I believe that we do this in a very literal way. A report published at the end of last year found that antidepressant use in England had increased by a quarter in just three years. I do not wish to denigrate the use of antidepressants as they can provide a lifeline for people in difficult circumstances. Even so, I wonder whether part of the problem isn’t our possibly unreasonable wish to be happy in the first place.

On the face of it, how could anyone argue against happiness? Surely it is better to be happy rather than unhappy? And if so, then doesn’t it make sense to pursue it?

The idea that society is making progress and moving forward is called Positivism and comes from the Enlightenment and in particular the French philosopher, Auguste Comte. But as the English philosopher John Gray says, ‘(Whilst) progress is a fact, belief in progress is a superstition.’ I think that the belief in a perfectible personal state of happiness is linked to this and is similarly delusional.

It is difficult to look at the world around us and think that there is a lot to feel happy about in general. Even if we are able to extract our personal happiness from the common sum of misery, it seems to me as though happiness is something which exists more clearly in prospect than in attainment. By which I mean that we can want something very much indeed but as soon as we obtain it, the happiness it brings us is diminished and we move on to the next thing. In fact, our entire economic system is predicated on this being the case.

Happiness, I think, occurs almost incidentally. It is something we might feel when we are doing something else. Whilst it might make sense to try to develop a science of happiness and to promote it as the Action for Happiness movement is doing, I can’t help wondering whether the type of happiness we would feel isn’t the sort which comes from taking the blue pill- ie induced and so consequently inauthentic. ‘True’ happiness, if it can be attained at all, seems to me to be paradoxically more likely to be achieved the less we deliberately try to go after it.

And finally, perhaps if we could rid ourselves of the idea that we are somehow meant to be happy, we might, possibly, actually be able to be a little happier as a result.

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Translation

For my translation, I chose a poem by the Bengali poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore from his most famous work Gitanjali.

The Bengali version of the poem is the last in the original collection and is numbered 153.

১৫৩

প্রেমের দূতকে পাঠাবে নাথ কবে।

সকল দ্বন্দ্ব ঘুচবে আমার তবে।

আর-যাহারা আসে আমার ঘরে

ভয় দেখায়ে তারা শাসন করে,

দুরন্ত মন দুয়ার দিয়ে থাকে,

হার মানে না, ফিরায়ে দেয় সবে।

সে এলে সব আগল যাবে ছুটে,

সে এলে সব বাঁধন যাবে টুটে,

ঘরে তখন রাখবে কে আর ধরে

তার ডাকে যে সাড়া দিতেই হবে।

আসে যখন, একলা আসে চলে,

গলায় তাহার ফুলের মালা দোলে,

সেই মালাতে বাঁধবে যখন টেনে

হৃদয় আমার নেরব হয়ে রবে।

A literal line-by line translation of the poem is given below:

১৫৩

প্রেমের দূতকে পাঠাবে নাথ কবে।

Love’s messenger, you will send, God, when

সকল দ্বন্দ্ব ঘুচবে আমার তবে।

All confusion will flee my therefore

আর-যাহারা আসে আমার ঘরে

Other people come to my room

ভয় দেখায়ে তারা শাসন করে,

Fear make they discipline do (they chastise me to scare me)

দুরন্ত মন দুয়ার দিয়ে থাকে,

Restless mind door shut keep (the door of my mind is shut against it)

হার মানে না, ফিরায়ে দেয় সবে।

Mind defeated not, away send all

সে এলে সব আগল যাবে ছুটে,

He having come all bindings will go

সে এলে সব বাঁধন যাবে টুটে,

He having come all restrictions will be finished

ঘরে তখন রাখবে কে আর ধরে

In the room, then, can keep who and hold (nobody can keep and hold me in the room)

তার ডাকে যে সাড়া দিতেই হবে।

His call that answer have to give

আসে যখন, একলা আসে চলে,

He comes whenever, on his own he comes (whenever he comes, he comes on his own)

গলায় তাহার ফুলের মালা দোলে,

Neck his flowers garland of hanging (around his neck a garland of flowers hangs)

সেই মালাতে বাঁধবে যখন টেনে

He by the garland will hold when he pulls (he will pull me by his garland)

হৃদয় আমার নেরব হয়ে রবে।

Heart my silent will remain

Tagore himself translated his poem for the English version of the Gitanjali published in 1913 and is numbered 17:

17

I AM only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands. That is why it is so late and why I have been guilty of such omissions.

They come with their laws and their codes to bind me fast; but I evade them ever, for I am only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands.

People blame me and call me heedless; I doubt not they are right in their blame.

The market day is over and work is all done for the busy. Those who came to call me in vain have gone back in anger. I am only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands.

This is my own translation of the poem using all of the texts above:

17

I am waiting for you always, O Lord, to come and take me to you,

I can think of nothing else and the days slip through my fingers like sand till then.

They come and try everything to make me do what they think I should,

I do not doubt their intentions are good and I would be better off if I listened to them

But I cannot accept their way of looking at things

So I shut my mind off to their threats and entreaties

And think only of you, O Lord, to come and take me to you.

When you come all these laws which restrict me will fall away

When you come these bonds which tie me will be loosed and I shall at last be free

Those dark thoughts will no longer assail me and I shall have peace.

I am always ready to answer when I hear your voice,

I know you will come in your own time but when you do it will be only for me,

I will kiss you and wash your feet with my tears,

You will lead me by the hand and take me home finally,

And I shall follow silently.

I am waiting for you always, O Lord, to come and take me to you.

Gitanjali translates as ‘Song Offerings’. An equivalent in English would be the Psalms, and as well as the original poem and the various translations, I also had the Psalms, and particularly Psalm 51, in mind when I came to write my own.

As you can see from the literal translation, Bengali syntax is not fixed, and this gives it a sense of ambiguity and allusiveness which may particularly be brought to bear in poetry.

Tagore’s translation is a prose one, and I have attempted to reinstate the form of the original in my own version. There is a use of rhyme in the original Bengali, which I have reinstituted in a small way through the use of ‘nothing’ and ‘everything’ in lines 2 and 3, and ‘finally’ and ‘silently’ in lines 14 and 15. The refrain is something which is not in the original and was brought in to Tagore’s own translation, and which I have kept (‘I am waiting for you always, O Lord, to come and take me to you’).

In his Introduction to the original translation, the poet W B Yeats said, ‘I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days…and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me’. It is the feeling behind the words, and in particular, the sense of longing in the poem which is the thing that I think makes it so powerful, and which I have done my best to try to convey.

Finally, the biggest liberty I have taken in my version is to alter the idea of God being garlanded in the original to him being kissed and his feet washed with tears. This was a deliberate attempt to ‘Christianize’ the poem and obviously alludes to Mary Magdalene. It seemed as though this was a justified alteration in terms of crossing a cultural divide and also conveys the sense of an almost erotic love for God which sounds shocking but is actually an aspect of both Hindu and Christian traditions.

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Logical Fallacies: The Problem of Induction

In 2007, Royal Bank of Scotland made a disastrous acquisition of another bank, ABN Amro. It was one of the factors which led to RBS’s collapse in 2008. A report by the Financial Services Authority into what happened quotes the former head of  RBS’s investment banking division, Johnny Cameron:

“One of the things that went wrong for RBS was that, and I say this to many people, we bought NatWest as a hostile acquisition (in 1999). We did no due diligence. We couldn’t because it was hostile. After we bought NatWest, we had lots of surprises, but almost all of them were pleasant. And I think that lulled us into a sense of complacency. The fact is that the acquisition of  ABN was also hostile.. We got bits and pieces of information but fundamentally it was hostile. There’s this issue of did we do sufficient due diligence. Absolutely not. We were not able to do due diligence- that was part of doing a hostile acquisition.”

What Mr Cameron is essentially saying is that because the hostile takeover of NatWest yielded pleasant surprises, they therefore believed that all hostile takeovers would yield pleasant surprises.

It is hardly difficult to work out the problem with the logic of this. Even so, there were seventeen members on the RBS board, none of whom expressed any anxieties at all about the ABN deal at the time. It is always easy with hindsight to draw lessons about things which have gone wrong and to undertake to never let it happen again. However, the ability to stand up and tell the truth when everybody else in the room wants you to sit down and shut up is one of the rarest qualities in business or indeed any other walk of life that there is. It involves both intellectual, but perhaps more importantly, personal integrity. What you say may not be popular or welcome at the time but it may also be necessary and even help to prevent a financial meltdown or the like.

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