The Particularity of Knowledge

The contemporary scholar considers themselves well versed and well informed, guided by the thorough system of contemporary academia. Rems of research papers, scrupulously peer-reviewed, inform and shape their thoughts. And indeed, the contemporary scholar is a paladin of a particular realm of knowledge. Though, crucially, they, and the rest of us, would do well to appreciate the particularity of our realm of knowledge.

A tacit assumption exists in our day, that our institutes and centres of learning lay command over all knowledge as a collective. It is for this reason that we find the conclusions (or statements) of a method of enquiry are extrapolated beyond their remit. This is most notable with Science, an area of understanding built upon the observable, yet we see it’s torchbearers colonising the unobservable.

Were we to know of the particularity of our current state of knowledge, and the narrow confines within which it operates vis-à-vis the totality of knowledge, perhaps we would gain a degree of humility in our pursuit of knowledge.

The particularity of knowledge can be understood by adopting a lateral perspective, which unveils the unspoken assumptions of an area of intellectual inquiry. An example, which I would be familiar in speaking about, is Economics. Today, Economics models human behaviour around utility maximisation. This does hold it’s merits as a method of analysis, but that is besides the point. Such a model is crucially dependent on a Benthamite Utilitarian framework, under which actions are to be evaluated on how far they maximise human happiness. This sounds like a reasonable perspective, unless, according to the People of God, the means by which we attain this happiness should be in accord with Divine Instruction. But, retorts the Secularist, that would be to institute religious thought, which we have advanced far beyond. Irrespective of one’s opinion on this debate, a particular stance was taken by academia, and it has been this choice that has shaped Economics until today. And this choice was of course informed by the experience of Western Europe in taking up Secularism. So, the very particular circumstance of Western Europe, at a very particular point in time, has shaped Economics as a discipline. The conclusions of Economics therefore reside within the parameters shaped by it’s assumptions. What if Western Europe were not to have taken up Secularism, what would be the content of Economics today? It is very hard to say, but undoubtedly it would be different to what we have today.

Thus, we see that contemporary academia lies within a particular remit, shaped by historical events, which can (but not always) will inform and influence the outcome of intellectual debates. It is these outcomes which deeply embed themselves in a subject, beyond immediate sight, so as to claim to exist almost beyond question. The course of the subjects progression thus proceeds centred around these assumptions, limiting it’s scope. When the subject arrives at another pivotal debate or historic context, the outcome of this moment further pushes the subject into more particularity.

This is most obvious in the social sciences, as in the above example of Economics. They are particularly susceptible to particularity. Maths however is immunised by the arbitrary nature of numbers that stretch through space and time. Science is also, in theory, immune. It restrains itself to the material, the observable. However, the manner in which Science is used for ideological purposes is certainly the product of intellectual particularity.

In considering the case of Science, we can come to understand that the real influence of particularity moves beyond the lone subject, and instead creates a structure in which the entire Academy has the potential to force knowledge into an ideology. Science itself is blind, lacking an ideology. It states the observable. Then, the scientist may appendage an ideology onto it; ‘Science is the way, the truth and the life’, remarks Dawkins. Science has been appropriated by the New Atheist movement. Even without the explicit presence of the Atheism, an atmosphere that regards religion with, at best, scepticism, has been created; conversations with PhD students who are overtly Muslim has shown this. This atmosphere has probably come about as a result of Western Europe’s experience with religion and science; at a point in time, one was synonymous with oppression, the other with liberty. The outcome of that scenario then cast a light with which science was to be viewed for centuries to come i.e. that religion shackles humanity’s progress. Thus a particularity was created, not from within Science, but from around it. Regardless, the effect is the same, that is to create parameters within which knowledge exists.

Understanding the particularity of knowledge is important for a number of reasons. It can grant intellectual humility, which brings with it an openness to further knowledge. Today’s age is marked by a sense of intellectual complacency; subjects of intellectual enquiry which have been subject to thought across the millennia have been swiftly written off (religion, spirituality, the world beyond our own). For the sake of variety of knowledge, intellectual humility is essential.

Perhaps even more importantly, if we fail to acknowledge the particularity of knowledge, our pursuits will send us toward greater confusion rather than insight. We may move some distance in understanding a subject within its particularities, and indeed this knowledge is true and useful, but insofar as we continue our intellectual pursuit by understanding particularities, humanity will struggle to move towards grander insights than permeate through our knowledge. One may fully understand a shattered fragment of a vase but understanding the entire vase will be very difficult through this approach. The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts; the human is more than the chemicals that make up the body, the house greater than bricks and mortar, the bouquet more meaningful than a single flower.

For one to better understand the particularity of contemporary knowledge, they must seek out the unspoken assumptions upon which today’s subjects are built. Without understanding these assumptions, there is yet much benefit to gain, but by understanding these assumptions, the parameters which confine knowledge are seen, the perhaps, this may show the briefest of insights into the knowledge beyond.

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