Archive for the ‘Epistemology’ Category

Ayatollah Mutahhari was one of the most profound ‘ulama of the 20th century. Here follows a summary of some his views on knowledge. The numbers are references to page numbers in The Theory of Knowledge: An Islamic Perspective, trans. Mansoor Limba (published in 2011 by ICAS Press in London on behalf of an Iranian institution called “Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies”).

Both individuals and groups have “worldviews,” and those worldviews give rise to “ideologies” about how individuals and groups should live. In classical terminology, these were referred to as “theoretical wisdom” and “practical wisdom.” [2-3] A worldview is built on knowledge, which is either correct or incorrect. [4] Various thinkers explored the limits of doubt, but the fact that one believes one can distinguish true versus false perceptions is proof enough that knowledge is possible. [5-11]

The Qur’an exalts knowledge in the story of Adam, and encourages humanity to seek deeper knowledge of all things. [12-21] Both the senses and the intellect are required to generate sound knowledge [28-32], and the Qur’an upholds this view. [32-37] The heart also plays a role, and this is acknowledged by the Qur’an. Each has their own sphere and proper functioning. [38-46]

Nature itself is a source of knowledge, and the senses are the tools to access it. The intellect and heart are also sources of knowledge, and philosophical thought and refinement of the self are the tools to access these sources respectively. [54-8] History is also a source of knowledge. [69-73] The Qur’an denies false distinctions between outward objective reality and inward subjective reality. [58-63]

There are varying views of the stages of knowledge, but the main point is that the senses take in particulars from nature, and the intellect derives more general insights from analysis of these particulars. In this regard there are two fundamental stages of knowledge: perception and analysis of those perceptions. [77-103] Attachment based on love and aversion based on hatred can color our perceptions of reality. [117-121] Knowledge itself is not experienced through direct perception. It exists as an immaterial symbolic reality, which pushes us toward greater awareness of the immaterial realm. [124-130]

The normal operations of the mind exist on the basis of the unconscious mind, which is far vaster. [134-140] The existence of the immaterial unconscious mind is analogous to the immaterial unseen realm upon which this universe is built. Abraham, upon him peace, followed this line of reasoning to its ultimate conclusion, that there was only One unseen Creator of all that is perceptible. [142-147]

Focusing on whether or not knowledge can be put into action – for example, the way an engineer uses her knowledge to make a smartphone – is only one criteria of validity. The answers to many questions, such as the origin of the universe, are not actionable, and therefore their validity is not determined by their usefulness. [157-166] The widespread acceptance of a view, even by the learned, is not a proof in and of itself. [173-8] For example, the widespread acceptance of a view, combined with the focus on putting knowledge into action, is not foolproof. Ptolemaic observers of the heavenly bodies could accurately predict solar and lunar eclipses, and their views were widely accepted. [189]

Leaving aside a quest for true knowledge turns knowledge into a tool for wielding power. [204] Even focusing on putting knowledge into action is a type of search for true knowledge and preferable to a political nihilism that sees knowledge as nothing more than an instrument of power. [205-7] Putting knowledge into action is the foundation of all higher knowledge, and thus has its own intrinsic value. [208]

ربي زدني علما

اللهم صل على محمد و آل محمد


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4 types of knowledge

I was having a conversation with a friend and fellow intellectual sojourner yesterday, and I realized that I had a very particular “personal theory of knowledge.” I saved my friend from a detailed explanation of it, but resolved that I should write it down, to make my own subjective thoughts available for public consumption and critique. It is often not until we have exposed our ideas to critique that we discover their true worth or unexpected flaws.

Over the years, I have teased out a few particular strands of knowledge, each of which has a different “taste.”

  1. Knowledge as Entertainment: This type of knowledge is gained easily and casually. Even if the subject is of a serious nature (Islamic history, for example), it is not gained for anything other than the pure pleasure of learning. For me learning has a particular type of pleasure, just as food, sex, rest, and power/influence have particular types of pleasure. It is because of this pleasure that I can spend days lost in books, with little human contact. This type of learning is not a means to an end – it is an end in and of itself.
  2. Knowledge as Interpretation: This type of knowledge can also be pleasureable, but it is more serious in nature. I have a complex question that I want to answer, and so I may forgo other learning which is more pleasureable because I know that I need to spend time learning certain things in order to justifiably answer a question that I have posed to myself (for example, how Islamic law developed the way that it did). This type of knowledge requires equal parts curiosity and mental discipline, primarily because it is highly synthetic – it is made up of many different types of information brought together for their collective usefulness in answering a question. It is also cumulative and communal – any answer to the question is based on the writings of other people who have attempted to answer the same question or related questions. This is the type of knowledge that leads people to write long and complex books, and then admit that for all their decades studying the subject, they are still unsure of many things. As such, it requires a great deal of intellectual humility before the vastness of knowledge.
  3. Knowledge as Problem Solving: This is the most practical type of knowledge, in worldly terms. It involves a lot of the second type of knowledge, but it is not interested in interpretation – it is interested in action. It is not interested in any more depth than is necessary to do something in the here and now, and is ultimately more concerned with the action upon which knowledge is built than the knowledge itself. For example, when I have some money to invest, ultimately all I really want is the maximum return on invesment that I can get, within the limits of law and ethics. So I spend some time doing research in order to make a decision about where to invest my money – whether I was right or wrong is determined solely by whether or not I make money on my investment. The sophistication of my research means little if it does not have its intended impact in “the real world.”
  4. Knowledge as Self Rectification: This type of knowledge is the type that I believe is the most important. Al-Ghazālī states that this type of knowledge, “increases your fear of God Most High, improves your ability to discern the faults of your ego, makes you more cognizant of how to worship your Lord, reduces your desire for this world, increases your longing for the next world, and opens your spiritual insight to the disastrous defects of your actions so you can avoid them.” (taken from Bidāyat al-Hidāya [The Beginning of Guidance]) This knowledge, although at times containing elements of the previous three, is built on a unique premise about which the other three are essentially unconcerned – that I will eventually die and be judged on how I spent my life. As such, this type of knowledge revolves around a concept of otherworldly priorities – what can I study today that will matter most should I die tomorrow. This is the most serious type of knowledge, because it demands that I bring all of myself to its doorstep. I must check my intention, for it demands sincerity. I must be committed to pushing my self, because it demands improvement. I must admit my inevitable limitations, for it demands that I read in the name of “the One who taught by the pen / taught humanity that which they did not know.” This type of knowledge is unique because it has no meaning unless it is embodied – one might read one line that takes years to implement in one’s life. In the meantime, if one is intellectually gifted, one can do tons of learning for entertainment, interpretation, and problem solving – all the while still struggling to live up to that one line.

I recognize that I have been blessed more than most human beings in the history of the Earth to have the time and luxury to study and think and discuss. And my main conclusion so far is that the first three types of knowledge must be subordinate to the fourth type of knowledge. Knowledge as Self Rectification can be immensely pleasureable, but that is not its purpose, only a secondary benefit. At times, it can actually be incredibly gut-wrenching, because it exposes me to the worst of my own self and demands that I change. Knowledge as Self Rectification can involve matters of complex interpretation – for example, I needed to gain a fair degree of literacy in Muslim history and the Islamic intellectual tradition before I was able to truly benefit from the historical legacies of Islamic law, theology, and Sufism. Even after much study, I know that my perspective is not the only justifiable one – it is a constantly evolving process which can always be improved based on more knowledge. Knowledge as Self Rectification can also involve problem solving, such as trying to make as much halal money as possible in order to fund further studies! Ultimately, though, Knowledge as Self Rectification provides the lens through which all of knowledge acquisition makes sense in light of the most important fact I know (that I will die) and the greatest idea that I have ever committed to (that God will be waiting for me when I do).

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