The History of Knowledge

I would like to say a few words about the concept of “knowledge.” We throw that word around, along with words like “truth” and “reality”, but rarely pause to think what we mean when we say it.  More to the point, we become confused when others use it in a way we don’t understand.  How can Christians “know” what God intends for the world, or even that God exists?  How do scientists “know” that the climate is changing and that humans are causing it?  How does anyone “know” how old the Earth really is?

I do not think those three statements rest on the same foundations. I am not claiming they are equivalent. I am saying that they highlight some of our confusion around what we mean when we claim to know something.  At the moment I am reading a fascinating book by Michel Foucault called The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. In it Foucault talks about different concepts of knowledge over the past 500 years, particularly in the study of language, biology, and economics.  My basic argument here draws heavily on his insights, but I’d like to take things one step further into physics and theology, because I think the pattern plays out and because I think it has had a profound impact on how we view science and religion.

First, let me introduce 3 periods of thought:

1300-1600 (CE) The Renaissance

1600-1800 The Enlightenment

1800-1950 The Modern Period

Those are, of course, gross oversimplifications, but it introduces the idea.  I’ll go into details later.  Foucault suggests that knowledge means different things in each of those periods.

Renaissance thinkers believed that there was a hidden order within the world.  The order can be compared to the logos of the bible, the physis (nature) in Greek thought, or the “Natural Law” of Scholastic theology.  It was a built in plan that humans could only discover interactively, by participating in and making comparisons with the thing they wanted to know.  Readers of science fiction may be familiar with the importance of something’s “true name” which gives you power over it.  This is a Renaissance concept.  We know through analogy and through decoding the order present in nature.  Language holds a privileged place as one of the most transparent mediators of meaning.

Enlightenment thinkers had very different ideas about knowledge.  In a move sometimes called “demystification”, they started thinking of the world as a series of mechanical devices whose order came from some external will.  The most common version of this at the time was to think of God giving order to the world and humans, being in the Divine image and likeness, participating in the mind of God to understand.  This is what early scientists thought they were doing when they discovered the “Laws of Nature.” There was a single best way to order the universe and it came about through understanding the ordered way in which God saw the world.  Other Enlightenment thinkers thought this could be done without God, simply by finding the best possible way to understand the world.  In both cases, there is an order which we create (or which we copy from God) ascribed to – not present in – the universe.  This was a timeless, perfect order admitting of no gaps or fuzziness, though we didn’t yet comprehend it.

Modern Thinkers added a historical component.  Instead of laying out an eternal network of lines that objectively ordered all things, we began to see objects and knowledge historically.  We began to speak of what we knew then as opposed to what we know now.  Both things and our understanding of them change with time.  This, by the way, is why “progress” becomes so central to modern thought. For the first time (or the first time in a long time), we started talking about “what we now know” as though it were different from knowledge present in, or possible in the past. I had not realized how pervasive and profound the shift was until reading The Order of Things.

Renaissance knowledge was an order in which you participated – something done with the whole self.  Enlightenment knowledge was the correct way of comprehending the world – something done with the (non-physical) mind.  Modern knowledge is the present state of your understanding – a contextual product of your constitution, history, and circumstances.  In the next post, I’ll start exploring how this plays out in our understanding of biology.  For now, it’s worth asking: What do you think when you think knowledge?  Is it one of these three types?


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