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A Problem Word

Sunday, June 04, 2006


[Translation of Una palabra difícil by Enrique Baltanás published in Al margen de los días on 2-June-2006.]

The explosion in information has undermined knowledge. There is no longer a total overall vision; only partial and subjective views. The essay has taken the place of the treatise and the summa. Everything is a question of perspective: relativism is the underlying philosophy of our time.

It is not only the sciences and humanities that have fragmented, seemingly irreversibly, but each of those parts subdivides and fragments continuously, in such a way that the specialist specialises even further and seems to know more about less. Specialisation demands an exhausting effort, so much so that the specialist has no desire or time to take interest in anything apart from his specialism. According to Juan Arana, “The problem is that the price of each square metre of knowledge has risen greatly and it takes an enormous effort to own a modest area; if we succeed we tend to feel that we are fully realised as human beings.” He gives an illustrative example: if hundreds of thousands of theorems are published every year, which mathematician can follow this deluge and keep himself in touch with everything new in his discipline?

Arana champions interdisciplinarity, conceived as a “theoretical synthesis”, as the solution.

But I have some doubts about this.

Firstly, such syntheses already exist. Books are continually being published, without counting the encyclopedias, manuals and text books, that try to offer global visions of culture and knowledge. Examples of these are: Vida, naturaleza y ciencia. Todo lo que hay que saber (Life, nature and science. Everything you must know), by Detlev Ganten, Thomas Deichmann and Thilo Spahl (Taurus, 2004) or La cultura. Todo lo que hay que saber (Culture. Everything you must know) by Dietrich Schwanitz (Suma de Letras, 2005) or Compendio de Historia cultural (Compendium of cultural history) by Ute Daniel (Alianza, 2005) or many others that appear to be descendants of Isidorian etymologies.

Secondly, the concept of interdisciplinarity implies a neutral axiology (value theory) that doesn't really exist. All knowledge and ideas would have to agree with all others without contradictions. But wisdom not only assumes reaching the truth but also negating other candidate truths. “Truths” compete. To give an example, you either accept the thing in itself as unknowable, like Kant, or you don't accept it, like Hegel. Many people aspire to the truth, but how many have reached it? And which scholar could verify it? Of course, Boyle-Mariotte's law lacks axiological value and everyone of right mind considers it to have been proved and incontrovertible, but the physical-mathematical laws tell us 'how' not 'why' or 'for what reason', which is precisely what wisdom is.

Thirdly, there is the common man. I am not only referring to the illiterate or scarcely cultured, but to the graduates and doctors of philosophy that are now so common in our society. The majority of these do not have the patience to read all these interdisciplinary books, and even fewer can decide or think rationally about all the partial “truths” on offer. But the point is that he, the common man, believes that it is not necessary to read the books because he already knows everything that he needs to know to live in the world. And what is it that he knows? What he believes. The foundation of our being is not in what we know but in what we believe. People don't consider themselves left-wing or right-wing because they have studied the economic or social doctrines in detail, but because they have already decided their position. It is an act of faith, of membership, or confidence, or credibility as people say nowadays. People aren't evolutionists or creationists because they have read biology books but because they “believe” in the one thing or the other.

Ortega said, “Mankind is fundamentally gullible, or saying this in a different way, it is our beliefs that constitute the most fundamental layer of our lives, sustaining and supporting all the other layers. Our beliefs are the terra firma on which we build our lives.”

Belief, as a form of knowledge or a means of understanding the world, is something that is extremely problematical. Hume who was one of the first to think about this said, “To date, this mental act has been one of the greatest of the philosophical mysteries.”

I have described here three reasons why I don't believe that interdisciplinarity is a solution to relativism and specialisation. We must therefore look for the solution elsewhere. Not in this word that is so difficult to write and pronounce, but in another that is much older and simpler: wisdom.


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