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Tag Archive: Knowledge

The idea of the good is the highest knowledge

Posted: Saturday, April 2, 2011 (7:55 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Saturday, April 2nd, 2011:

Socrates on the knowledge of the good, in Plato’s Republic (Book VI, Jowett translation):

When little things are elaborated with an infinity of pains, in order that they may appear in their full beauty and utmost clearness, how ridiculous is it that we should not think the highest truths worthy of attaining the highest accuracy! … [Y]ou have often been told that the idea of the good is the highest knowledge, and that all other things become useful and advantageous only by their use of this. . . [Without the knowledge of the good], any other knowledge or possession of any kind will profit us nothing. Do you think that the possession of all other things is of any value if we do not possess the good?

Some knowledge is useless, and is not really knowledge at all; some is trivial, and distracts from the pursuit of wisdom; some is useful for understanding; some is essential to understanding; and then some is understanding itself.

Or…

Mark 8:36 (DRV)
36 For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?

1 Corinthians 13:2 (DRV)
2 And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

The Ordering of Knowledge

Posted: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 (11:39 pm), by John W Gillis


0615082001a

One of the benefits of my recent living space changes has been the opportunity to revisit my library cataloguing scheme.

For years, I used Dewey Decimal Classification coding to organize my books. The Dewey system has the advantage of having had the majority of books already catalogued within the system – and most of the newer volumes include a Dewey number assignment within the Library of Congress cataloguing information after the title page, meaning that not only would I not need to go through the process of categorizing and assigning lookup numbers to the books, but I would often have the cataloguing information readily at hand, without even having to look them up in another library’s holdings. It’s a ready-made system that can be implemented with very little effort – and, furthermore, knowing the system makes it very easy to find works in many other libraries.

However, I decided a few years ago to move to a simpler system – and lacking ready access to a suitable alternative, I resorted to making up my own. The problem I had with the Dewey system was that it made too fine a distinction,for a library as small as mine, among subjects. I find it very useful in larger libraries that the Dewey system co-locates books based on fairly precise subject matter (all within a simple framework of basic disciplines), but it tends to scatter multiple books by the same author, which is pretty non-intuitive. Moreover, in a small library, there won’t be a lot of exact duplication of call numbers among the various volumes, unless the collection is quite topically focused. The end result is a library that seems inadequately grouped.

A library ordering scheme needs to implement two organizing functions: grouping and sequencing. For a personal library like mine, I think a broader categorization at the subject level is appropriate, facilitating the co-location of most or all of a writer’s body of work. For example, Thomas Oden wrote a three-volume systematic theology, where one volume focused on God the Father, a second on the Word of God, and a third on the Spirit of God. One could argue that these belong together as a set regardless, but apart from that, in a large theological library, one could justifiably locate the second volume among Christological works, the third volume among Pneumatology, etc. But this would hardly make any sense in a library with few if any other pneumatological works.

Sequencing the collection is equally important, as good sequencing not only makes a logical path through a collection to facilitate finding things, but should also serve the grouping principle so as to keep somewhat more loosely related works near each other. But sequencing, done well, should also reflect the order of knowledge. One of my beefs with the Dewey system is that it fails to reflect any concept of the hierarchical ordering of knowledge in its sequencing – even though it does a pretty decent job of reflecting such a hierarchy in it grouping. To wit, the Dewey system basically places miscellany at the head of the order of knowledge, very much reflecting the modern era’s loss of any sensibility of teleology. Ironically, this “General” section has of late largely been taken over by Computer Science – a perhaps ominous development.

My system, in contrast, reverts to the pre-Enlightenment recognition of theology as the queen of the sciences (and their necessary unifying principle), and goes even further, recognizing Revelation as the source of all knowledge (including, of course, theology). The following table reflects the differences between my ordering and the Dewey system, at the highest level:

Dewey “Disciplines” My High-level Categories
000 Computers, information & general reference (1000s) Revelation
100 Philosophy & psychology (2000s) Theology
200 Religion (3000s) Spirituality & Religion
300 Social sciences (4000s) Philosophy & Human Culture
400 Language (5000s) The Word (Language, Art, Music)
500 Science (6000s) History
600 Technology (7000s) Mathematics & Modernity (Natural & Social Sciences, Technology, Business)
700 Arts & recreation
800 Literature
900 History & geography
B. Biography
D. Drama
F. Fiction
P. Poetry
S. Short Stories

If I had more books in the higher numerical ranges, I would break up the 7000s into hard and soft science (making soft science and technology an 8000 range), but there’s no point in doing that given the content of my collection – especially since I’ve thrown out the vast majority of my IT books, which have no lasting value.

The system is still far from perfect. For starters, there are many works that could fit into more than one classification – even at the highest level (e.g. should Aquinas be classified under theology or philosophy? I chose theology, but that’s certainly debatable). An electronic “tagging” system would be an ideal means of classifying (so that works could easily fall into multiple categories), but there’s no way that’s going to help me arrange the shelves.

However, having all the books in the same room is helping me see how I could improve some of the inner sequencing. I’ve already made minor revisions to the scheme at least twice since moving everything in here in late May. But I still have refinements to make, and I’d like to complete them by my birthday. I’ll post the detailed schedule when I’m done. Perhaps I’ll break up the empirical and pseudo-empirical sciences after all – I’d really like to find a way to sequence psychology to flow into fiction, it would be just.

Looking in the Mirror

Posted: Saturday, July 12, 2008 (11:58 pm), by John W Gillis


Ever since high school, I’ve been keeping a journal of at least occasional thoughts, as well as some other minor writing. Sometime during the summer of what I think was 1984, I threw away all my collected writing to date – with the exception of a small set of poetry that was the lyrical content of some music I was composing at the time.

I’ve often since regretted that action, thinking that, in my rashness, I’ve deprived myself of a good source of knowledge and insight into myself as a person. I’m not sure I still regret it, though, as I don’t know how keen I would be to encounter the young man behind those ten years worth of missing documents. I’m not entirely certain of the reason for this, but I have some ideas.

I still possess what is now over twenty years of the document record of my life, often recorded at low moments of melancholy bellyaching, yet also including a fair amount of constructive thought, in one form or another. Occasionally, I go back through it to recollect the way I have traveled. The bellyaching tends to be pretty repetitive – I’ve been struggling against more or less the same demons for most of my life, even if my footing in that struggle has changed radically over time – but I’ve always found it at least entertaining, and at times even inspiring, to re-enter the thinking of my younger self.

Lately, though, I’ve been finding myself less comfortable with what (or who) I encounter when I dig into my past. I’m not referring to the record of my struggles – I understand what that’s all about, regardless of how frustrating it might be to see the evidence of sin’s tenacious perseverance, and my own characteristic feebleness – but rather to the record of my ideas about things that were important to me. Where once I would have found my younger self’s thinking to be at least a good jumping off point for considering some matter, I now find myself, more and more, rolling my eyes at the narrowness and shallowness of what I once thought.

p>It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be able to say that I’ve moved on, but I’m beginning to not recognize myself in my own history, if I can say that without undue melodrama. It’s not that I’ve ever been completely satisfied with the way I’d put things ten or fifteen years prior, and I’ve certainly always felt there was room for improvement and development, but I’m beginning to consider my youthful thinking less in terms of development (of at least certain strands of thought), and more in terms of correction – even repudiation. It seems I was, in some matters, right out to lunch.

The net result of this has been a loss of confidence in myself, and in my ability to perceive reality with sufficient and appropriate clarity. It’s great to learn from one’s mistakes, to grow, to overcome deficiencies. But what should this suggest my current life might look like to me in another fifteen or twenty or thirty years? Would I discover (or at least surmise, for how could I say with certainty even then?) that my ideas, today, had been not only immature and unrefined (which would be par for the course), but even at cross-purposes with reality (that is: lies)?

Multiply this problem by, not a few decades, but the infinite shadow of eternity, and it becomes easy to fall prey to the conceits of the relativists, and their confounded coupling of skepticism and progressivism. At the least, it does seem to raise a valid question about the limits of human knowledge, and of what it means to be coming to know the truth. If we are growing in wisdom, we should always have the luxury of looking back with a certain bemusement, but it seems illogical to me that the path to truth should ever look, in retrospect, to have been just plain wrong – leading me to wonder exactly what path I’m actually on.

As I write this, it occurs to me that I must sound like I am complaining of a lack of personal infallibility. So many people have such trouble with the concept even of the infallibility of the Bride of Christ, and here I am grousing about how inconsistent it seems with life in the Spirit of Truth for an individual to fall into error. It sounds silly when I put it like this. But, still, wrong-headedness must be seen, it seems to me, to be rooted in resistance to the Spirit.

In reality, some of the Protestant theories of revelation tread down this same path – I’m thinking of the doctrines of soul competence and the perspicuity of Scripture. They’re not identical to what I’m talking about, but they likewise assume that error can be known (or avoided), not through the faculty of reason, but through grace, somehow. And that this is available to individuals through the Spirit. When you examine them, these are really much more radical doctrines than the Catholic dogma of infallibility, which grace is attributed only to the Church as a whole – including, in some circumstances, the Pope speaking for the entire Church.

So I really can’t go there, as tempting as it is. In the end, I suppose I simply cannot know just how misguided I may be at any particular time. That’s the inherent danger of opinion, isn’t it?

What’s frustrating is the stubborn obscurity of the distinction between opinion and understanding – not that I’ve ever witnessed understanding attempting to masquerade as opinion, but opinion certainly strives mightily to be passed off as understanding. It’s very easy to walk away with an ignorant opinion from an encounter with a genuine source of knowledge. Isn’t that, in a nutshell, the basis of faithlessness?

As for whether my younger self had any real clue whatsoever, or what my older self would make of my current self, I suppose I just need to be at peace with myself, and cultivate hope. And it wouldn’t huty to consider the significance of the fact that the areas of my youthful thought I now see the need to renounce are exactly those areas where I had trouble, as a youth, with Catholic Church teaching.

Adler on Liberal Education

Posted: Saturday, April 5, 2008 (10:16 pm), by John W Gillis


I wanted to write a follow-up tonight to my last post, refuting the silly (if a bit scary) notion of celebrity gossip as a legitimate form of moral discourse, but I strained my neck last night, and have been unable to spend enough time in front of the computer. I’ll have to come back for that. Instead, I’ve been trying to get through a Mortimer J Adler book I started in late February but wasn’t able to do much with in March.

I’m not prepared to get into too much detail about it yet, as I’ve only just begun part four of the book, but it is really a fascinating read. Adler, whom I consider one of the great American minds, was always concerned with promoting liberal education, and that is the simple purpose of A Guidebook to Learning. He begins by poking some fun at what he calls alphabetiasis – the modern tendency to order our knowledge alphabetically – which makes for easy lookup for reference purposes, but provides a learner no context for understanding the relationships between ideas or bodies of knowledge, let alone any (gasp!) hierarchy of value that might exist among them.

He wrote this book more than twenty years ago – before the ubiquity of personal computing – and I wonder where he would have gone with digital media’s potential for multiple layering of content relationship paths, coupled with it’s almost inherent difficulty in imposing such order.

Anyway, he spends probably half the book surveying ways in which the cataloging of knowledge has changed from the topically-ordered and hierarchically-structured understanding of the ancients, through the scientific revolution, to the egalitarian but uninstructive contemporary models. He sees in modernity, as many people do, a great leap in information, and even knowledge, but he observes that nobody is ever heard calling our age an age of increase in understanding – let alone wisdom. He also rightly notes that there is a hierarchy of importance in these various goods of the mind, moving upwards from information to knowledge to understanding, and finally, to wisdom. Adler would have us consider that perhaps the “information age” has created a kind of mental imbalance in our cultural measure of learning that over-emphasizes the trivial at the expense of what is of real value.

One neat idea he identifies in the book is a distinction made in medieval thought between the use of the mind in the first intention and the second intention, where the first intention refers to the knowledge and understanding of reality, and the second intention refers to knowledge and understanding of the branches of knowledge by which reality is known. In modern, techno-parlance, we could almost say that second intention knowledge is meta knowledge through which we are able to comprehend the knowledge of particulars in first intention thought. In other words, the knowledge of mathematics and mathematic principles provides the framework through which we understand the reality of time in an intelligible way. Inversely, first intention knowledge would continually flesh out second intention knowledge.

I think this model does a pretty good job of explaining the nature of creativity or ingenuity, where the human mind is capable of taking knowledge learned from experience in one particular situation, and applying it to other situations where it can be employed. This extrapolation is admittedly a long way from Adler’s attempt to explain the challenges of categorizing all the fields of human knowledge, but I think it’s interesting to consider how creativity might be dependent on the robust health of, not only generalized knowledge, but generalized knowledge about knowledge. Even if this weren’t an era of hyper-specialization in which the arts have largely been reduced to a banal pop kitsch, I think Adler would agree with me.