Knowledge, Freedom and Limitation

Monday March 3, 2008


A few weeks ago, I wrote about transcendence – in a psychological rather than a metaphysical sense – and suggested that transcendence, worldly transcendence, may be necessary component of a happy life. A couple of days ago, as I was teaching my class on the philosophy of happiness, and whilst we were chewing over the idea of transcendence, it occurred to me that one dimension of transcendence, understood psychologically, is that of the recognition of the limitations there are to our capacity for knowing. This is partly simply to do with the fact that there are just so many things to know, and we can only know a handful of them – as Chuang Tzu says, the objects of knowledge are unlimited, and our capacity for knowing is limited, so why chase the unlimited with what is limited? But it is also something to do with the fact that when we do know – or claim to know – something, this knowledge is always partial, not the full story, incomplete.

This is not – at least, not in my reading – a reason to abandon knowledge, and it is certainly not a reason to fill in the gaps that we do not know about with extravagant metaphysical postulates such as gods, otherworldly forces, ghosts and spirits, ectoplasm and so on; but I do think that it is a reason to abandon what pretensions we may have to absolute knowledge, and to change our relationship to the things that we claim to know. The fact that there is always more to know means that the world will never be entirely sewn up for us.

On occasions, whilst attempting to get to grips with the stuff of life in conversation with more orthodox philosophers (not to mention more orthodox Buddhist scholars) it is precisely this absence of an dimension of openness that has troubled me, the sense that everything is all sewn up and there is nothing more to be done except to offer endless commentaries upon whatever the favoured System might be. Whether in conversation with hardcore Kantians, passionate phenomenologists (one of the more curious of philosophical breeds) or straight-down-the-line Theravadin scholar-monks, I have sometimes been dogged by the sense that, for my interlocutor, everything without exception can be accounted for within the System. And whilst all these traditions of learning may be, in a very real sense, deep and wide, this sense that everything has already been said is one that in the end seems to be dispiriting and not exactly conducive to a zesty and satisfying life.

For me, to recognise the limitations of our models of the world leads to a kind of freedom. There is always a further dimension to be explored, another angle to take; and therefore we are never simply stuck with the knowledge that we have, the world that we have constructed. To recognise the limitations of our present knowledge is to recognise that our models are only approximations; and when we recognise this, then we can let the world – the world that so often lies forgotten as we lose ourselves in admiration of the rickety edifice of our favoured System – pour back in.

# · Padmakara

Good post Will! You really put your finger on the button of something I have felt for ages. I have sometimes felt claustrophobic in my commitment to the Buddhist tradition. Yet it can be confusing because there is a radical enquiry within the tradition. It is usually the reformers and radical shakers who open it all out. I would say that the value of openness and willingness to stay with the unknown is a necessary condition of spiritual and psychological growth and health. But I do often get the feeling that most (?) Buddhists do think or feel that there is nothing new. It is a case of applying the conclusive values and practices of Buddhism to the changing world. But the changing world is not seen to be something that offers new emergent values and perspectives.
Best wishes

# · Fiske


Andre Comte-Sponville discusses a similar problem of knowledge in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, what he describes as the fundamental mystery of the Absolute.

One conclusion I have reached after studying arguments between theists and atheists is that both sides of the debate are driven by a desire for certainty. The most strident voices on both sides assert their dogmas unconditionally. They leave no room for doubt because they have emotionally rejected the unknown. I think it is more challenging, spiritually, to accept the unknown as unknowable.


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