How do we know? How do we determine that our knowledge is reliable? What do we mean when we say we know? These questions belonging to the branch of philosophy known as epistemology or the study of knowledge, have tested the best minds in history, from time immemorial, in different philosophical traditions.
In the western modernist tradition, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) laid the philosophical foundation of the mechanistic worldview later brought into a comprehensive mathematical frame-work by Isaac Newton (1642-1727). The Newtonian-Cartesian mechanistic world-view, where the world was viewed as a sum of its parts as opposed to a comprehensive interconnected whole, dominated western thinking up until the middle of the 20th century. Two paradigm shifts in physics, Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics, forced western philosophers to modify/abandon this mechanistic world-view and open up to the possibility of multiple realities summed up best in Einstein’s famous quote, “God does not play dice!”
Post-modernist thought emerges as a response to the central tenets associated with this mechanistic world-view which gave rise to modernity. In the three pillars of post-modernist critique of modernity- meta-theory, foundationalism and over-determined subject, the question of knowledge creation forms a core question.
Saussure, the founder of linguistics, claimed that the relationship between the sign and the object (what it signifies) was arbitrary. For example, there is no natural relationship between the word (sign) ‘chair’ and the chair (object). In fact, the relationship is entirely arbitrary. This relationship is established by a process of repetition and convention. As Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) put it, the sign is associated with what it signifies due to it being ‘iterable’ and therefore is instituted as opposed to being natural. While ‘iteration’ or repetition in different contexts is necessary for meaning to be signified, the process of repetition carries the possibility of being misinterpreted or misunderstood with the result of a loss or change of meaning. For example, the word ‘beauty’ gains meaning through use in many contexts but may carry multiple nuances in different cultures and settings. These nuances applied over time in different contexts results in a change of meaning. In this process, there are decisions made such as which types of beauty are valid and which types of beauty are invalid. Is slim or is robustness beautiful? Is the hardy male the embodiment of handsomeness or is it the metro-sexual? In this process of determining what counts and what doesn’t, there are inclusions and exclusion. Often, power plays a determining role in the process of including what counts and excluding what doesn’t. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) wrote extensively on power relations and its determining role in generating meaning and identity. Extending this argument further, Derrida says that knowledge is established through a process where concepts, arguments, incidents etc., which are deemed relevant, are carried forward while those deemed irrelevant/unknown/unavailable are excluded. Therefore, what constitutes as knowledge is essentially a decision that makes exclusions. In other words, the process of constitution of knowledge includes ‘violence.’
While this ‘violence’ is necessary for us to create knowledge, Derrida says that the extent of violence can vary according to the status we give our decision. This he termed as ‘economy of violence.’ When we create knowledge, should we account for it as the absolute truth or the best knowledge we have at that moment in time? Derrida’s answer is the latter. According to him, there are no absolute conditions, pure concepts or complete theories of the human condition which he called ‘ontological totalizing.’ Let us take a concept such as ‘democracy.’ By definition, it entails a society that is at constant criticism with itself. The criticism it endures is nothing but its exclusions coming back to question or ‘haunt’ the existing order. The moment one says the system has achieved ‘full democracy’ it no longer provides the space for its exclusions and therefore a ‘full democracy’ means the death of democracy! In other words, the notion of a full or pure democracy is a fantasy. Thus post-modernists reject totalizing meta-theories of the human condition such as in Marxism (with the proletariat as its chosen people), lebensraum of the Aryan people or the fantasy of the free market.
In short, no knowledge is ‘full’ knowledge. This is bare-bones Derridean deconstruction. In the next essay, let’s look at a different approach in a different tradition.
(to be continued……..)