- In European societies, knowledge is often pictured as a tree: a single trunk – the core – with branches splaying outwards towards distant peripheries. The imagery of this tree is so deeply embedded in European thought-patterns that every form of institution has been marshalled into a ‘centre-periphery’ pattern. In philosophy, for example, there are certain ‘core’ subjects and other more marginal, peripheral, and implicitly expendable, ones. Likewise, a persistent, and demonstrably false, picture of science has it as consisting of a ‘stem’ of pure science (namely fundamental physics) with secondary domains of special sciences at varying degrees of remove: branches growing from, and dependent upon, the foundational trunk.
- Knowledge should indeed be thought of as a tree – just not this kind of tree. Rather than the European fruiter with its single trunk, knowledge should be pictured as a banyan tree, in which a multiplicity of aerial roots sustains a centreless organic system. The tree of knowledge has a plurality of roots, and structures of knowledge are multiply grounded in the earth: the body of knowledge is a single organic whole, no part of which is more or less dispensable than any other.
- The toolkit of the responsible enquirer contains
But there is no single correct way of using those tools in one’s interrogation of reality.
- empirical observation,
- logical techniques of deduction, induction and inference to the best explanation, and
- the pooling of discovery through testimony.
- Epistemic stances are not exactly like routes up a mountain. It is not so much that each stance interrogates a part of reality as that each aspires to interrogate the whole of reality, but does so in a particular manner. …. It would be an error to dogmatically infer now that reality is only structure or that it is only category. Similarly, modern science is an epistemically plural undertaking, despite the oﬃcial narrative. Science excels in producing descriptions of causal connections and providing for their explanation; but there are other ways to interrogate the reality we share.
- The picture of knowledge as a banyan tree encourages a certain epistemic ideal: that these diﬀerent but commensurably valuable sources of epistemic nutrition can belong within a single epistemic organism. Of all the departments of knowledge within a modern university, it is philosophy that seems most addicted to the centre-periphery picture of enquiry, to the old European tree. Were it able to re-imagine itself according to this new ideal, its practitioners would ﬁnd themselves freed from their terror of not being quite ‘at the centre’, and the profession might ﬁnally emerge from its long struggle to overcome its inability to conceptualise diversity in content and composition.
For the full text, see Aeon: Ganeri - The tree of knowledge is not an apple or an oak but a banyan.
- There’s much good stuff in this paper that deserves consideration, and I hope to consider it in due course.
- The author shows his bias towards Jainism, and his beef about some sub-disciplines of philosophy – especially his own – being marginalised, but these aspects can be excised from the argument.
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