Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern
By Lee Karl Palo, © 2005 Lee Karl Palo
The Hebraic Conception of Knowledge
The idea of knowledge in scripture (Yadah)
A. Yadah in the Old Testament
As the main focus of this thesis is on theological epistemology with wide reaching implications for other areas of thought, it would be prudent to give some attention to the concept of knowledge in scripture. The word for knowing in Hebrew is yadah. As we shall see, yadah bears more resemblance to Polanyi’s conception of knowledge than most of what is thought today to be knowledge.
Yadah knowing comes through personal participation. Like Polanyi, yadah often refers to the skill a person has in a particular field. As one would guess, yadah knowing comes by one’s direct experience with the thing known. One interesting famous example is when Adam “knew” Eve. In this case yadah is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Another example, related to the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, is that of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Given the mythological character of the creation and fall accounts it is likely that many of the things described therein took on a much more symbolical character. As knowledge was seen to come through personal participation, it is likely that the tree represents activity which leads to knowledge of good and evil.
The phrase “that you may know that I am YHWH,” used in reference to God’s acts in history, has the idea of personal participation. Ezekiel often uses it as a threat, and Moses uses it in reference to many of the plagues of Egypt in a similar fashion. Thus revelation from God takes on a very personal witness-like character. It is interesting to note that the Feast of Booths like other Hebrew religious observances has as its function to bring the people back, in a sense, to relive God’s acts in history. More striking than this is the Passover Haggadah, the wording of which puts the historical saving act of God in the first person. It is not said that God saved our ancestors, but God saved us from slavery in Egypt! Ever after a grand act of God in history the way the people come to know God is to relive, in a ceremonial celebratory manner, those revelatory events.
On the negative side, the book of Hosea has God condemning Israel because “there is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land” (Hosea 4:1 NAS). In Hosea’s context God is angry with Israel for “prostituting” itself to other “gods,” presumably by participation in religious ceremonies of Baal. Hosea 2:13 puts it thus: “And I will punish [Israel] for the days of the Baals when she used to offer sacrifices to them” (NAS). In consequence God says “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge…” (Hosea 4:6 NAS). As can clearly be seen by the aforementioned examples a good way to state what yadah means (by one of the more helpful books1 in describing yadah):
Knowledge for the Hebrews was not knowledge of abstract principles, or of a reality conceived of as beyond phenomena. Reality was what happens, and knowledge meant apprehension of that. Knowledge of God meant, not thought about an eternal Being or Principle transcending man and the world, but recognition of, and obedience to, one who acted purposefully in the world…2
B. Yadah in the New Testament
As A Theological Word Book of the Bible states knowing the truth in the New Testament sense, based on the Old Testament yadah, “…has in view conduct rather than theory…”3 In the New Testament the Old Testament yadah is conserved when the New Testament speaks of one who comes to know the truth being synonymous with one who becomes a Christian. In light of what has been said about Jewish religious practices one wonders what this might mean for the Christian sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.
As we have seen William James emphasizes faith as an integral part of knowing, and the Apostle Paul also has this in mind. To the Apostle Paul faith, being related to knowing, issues in Christian behavior. A popular phrase puts it thus: “Good works do not make a Christian, but a Christian does good works.”4 The epistle of James further drives home this point. Because one knows Christ one lives like Christ in one’s life.
C. Yadah and Polanyi today
One may wonder how it is that an understanding of knowledge through personal participation, as has been evidenced by the Hebrew Scriptures, could be so different and removed from many contemporary concepts of knowing? Much of our educational system is designed for learning through books and lectures, and later testing based upon the data disseminated through those books and lectures. Prior to college the vast majority of learning I did was through this method. Interestingly it is through sports and art classes that personal participation in the learning process is most actively utilized prior to college. Once in college this method of learning through books and lectures was still utilized, but it was also much more actively supplemented by personal participation through writing papers, performing experiments, limited internships, volunteering in the field being studied, etc. The gap between the different types of learning was not always bridged, either prior to college or after. Polanyi laments the current educational system when he states that schools teach the data and theories of science, but do not always teach how to formulate new data and theories. Basically the educational system teaches people what is known, rather than how to know.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides an explanation for how this state of affairs has come to pass. Maslow’s hierarchy is a hierarchy similar to Polanyi’s hierarchical stratification of reality. There are important differences between the two hierarchies. The book A Guide to Psychologists and Their Concepts describes Maslow’s hierarchy thus:
Maslow’s theory of motivation contains two major concepts, basic needs and metaneeds. Basic needs are those of hunger, affection, security, self-esteem, and the like. … Metaneed is a distinctive concept [to Maslow’s thought]. Maslow argues that man needs beauty, justice, goodness, wholeness, and order in his life just as much as he needs food, air, sex, and security.5
Those who have already satisfied their basic needs undertake the fulfillment of metaneeds. Maslow calls the people who undertake the satisfaction of metaneeds self-actualizing persons. In a Polanyian sense, fulfillment of metaneeds relies on the proper fulfillment of the need levels below them. However the higher level needs (metaneeds) can operate once they have first been actualized even at the expense of improper actualization of lower level needs (basic needs.) A good example of this would be martyrs who permanently forsake the actualization of lower needs in favor of some principle held to that originated at a higher level. Maslow notes that once people reach the levels of metaneeds they prefer to stay there. In the case of many (including the example of martyrs) the lower level needs can be ignored or sublimated should they come into conflict with the higher level needs.
As already referred to in the previous chapter, Nietzsche’s doctrine of the “will to power” is not unrelated to Maslow’s self-actualization. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, in the correspondence between the will to power and self-actualization that I postulate,6 Nietzsche is considerably more pessimistic than Maslow about the average person’s ability to actualize the higher impulses in humankind. I tend to agree with Nietzsche, though I think it could be possible for things to get better. In any case Nietzsche has much more respect for the moral dimension running through his theory than Maslow has of his own theory. I would say that sin in the world must be dealt with in order for people to become greater than they are. That I see Jesus Christ as having something to do with this problem of sin inhibiting people from becoming actualized persons is why I am more optimistic than Nietzsche is. Nietzsche has no doctrine of salvation, as he acknowledges no God that could aid in our salvation.
To get back to the task at hand, Maslow’s theory of self-actualization requires that some time be available to actualize the higher level needs. In a mostly agrarian society people spend most of their time in the satisfaction of basic needs. It follows that the way knowledge was understood by the Israelites would be tied to the satisfaction of basic needs and the skills required for the satisfaction of those needs. Thus knowledge would have a first-hand practical value to someone living in an agrarian society.
One can begin to see how a Polanyian framework can apply to knowledge. Knowledge has a lower level that is very personal and concrete. Knowledge also has a higher level where knowledge becomes more abstract, and because its basis in personal life becomes tacit it then appears as though knowledge is more objective and transcendent. Interestingly, yadah knowing is what is personal and knowledge of God too is personal. It was not knowledge that was transcendent to the Hebrews, but God who was transcendent. The Hebrews personally understood God through God’s acts in their history.
The famous child-psychologist Jean Piaget demonstrates that the way children know things changes over time as children get older. Like the Polanyian general rule that lower levels must operate properly in order for the higher levels to function, Piaget indicates a clear line of succession in the stages of a child’s intellectual development. The intellectual level of concrete operations must be achieved in order for formal operations to develop (which allows more abstract thinking to develop.) Piaget has ages roughly defined when children are at certain stages of intellectual development. Much research has been done on Piaget’s theory to determine if the ages at which Piaget says children go through the different intellectual stages of development are the same cross-culturally. Interestingly, research would indicate that children in third-world countries take longer to get through the stages of intellectual development. This would seem to corroborate my postulation, relying on Maslow’s hierarchy7 of needs, that knowing is related to the fulfillment of needs.
D. Implications of yadah and Polanyian “knowledge” for some of today’s conceptions of knowledge
With these important ideas having been explicated I can now move to another criticism of some current theories of epistemology. When one faces the reality that knowledge is not all on the same intellectual level there are important and absolutely crucial implications for any theory of epistemology. Many other theories of epistemology assume that all knowledge is on the same plane (level). Consequently only a one-plane conception of knowledge is necessary. Polanyi’s theory of the stratification of reality has intrinsic to it a multi-planar concept. The different planes in Polanyi’s theory are related to each other, but, as we have seen, they look very different from each other, even to the point of having radically different rules apply to each successive level. This leads to an understanding of knowledge where there is knowledge that is more personal (like yadah) and knowledge that is more abstract. Separated from each other these types of knowledge appear to have different properties that would lead one to different definitions. The knowledge that comes from the scientific method as well as much, if not all, of knowledge that comes through philosophical thinking are on higher levels than what one would consider every-day personal knowledge (like driving a car).
It should not be a surprise to discover that philosophers and scientists have more time (beyond what is necessary to fulfill their basic needs) to devote to their respective intellectual pursuits, which comprise part of higher level metaneeds. All it would take is self-esteem gone too far into pride for the philosopher/scientist to attribute superiority to their knowledge, being abstract and above the knowledge of most people. Consequently we have some philosophers echoing the famous saying of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In the end knowledge becomes defined chiefly by more abstract concepts, whereas Polanyi’s theory of knowledge applies equally well to mundane knowledge (driving a car). This superiority of more abstracted knowledge in the contemporary world is reminiscent (to my mind) of Gnosticism. Abstract, or in Gnostic terms “secret,” knowledge is the primary value that leads to salvation, while mundane knowledge, and much of life, is denigrated. The naturally wise soul is entrapped in the mundane world and loses its identification with reality (reality in this case is the secret, abstract, knowledge). This phenomenon of the valuation of abstracted knowledge over all mundane knowledge is also a theme uniting all of the various forms of Neo-Platonism from Plotinus and Porphyry to the various religious Neo-Platonisms,8 and it is most overt in the religious movements variously called Gnosticism. As it may be surmised by now this generalization can also be seen in philosophy today. This generalization is most overt in the Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism of the ancient world, which is why I use them in this thesis. Today theories of knowledge like Polanyi’s and James’ stand out due to their ability to incorporate lower, less abstract, forms of knowledge. It has already been demonstrated how Polanyi’s theory relates to that which is not normally considered knowledge, and James defended a right of a person to believe in many things despite higher intellectual criticism.9 It seems to me that Neoplatonism’s valuation of spirit and soul with its denigration of the material realm corresponds to the contemporary prolific valuation of abstract knowledge10 over that of mundane knowledge (much of which is not given the title of knowledge properly so-called). Abstract “high” knowledge has forgotten that it has the “low” as its root,11 which can be understood in a Polanyian “from-to” sense. The naturally wise immortal soul being entrapped in the material, mundane, world sets up a very sharp dichotomy between abstract knowledge and tacit mundane knowledge (that is generally unreflective).
To the Hebrews there really was no concept of an immortal soul, which might help one to understand why the Hebraic concept of yadah was so grounded in the real world. It was the ground out of which human beings were created. To Nietzsche, who had a profoundly great amount of respect for the Jews, belief in the soul was a child’s belief.12
The religious pluralism prevalent during Israel’s ancient history would also impinge on any concept of knowledge that had universal implications. If Israel knew its God, so too did other cultures “know” their gods. To acquire knowledge that would lead to a way that would guarantee that the crops one planted would survive until it was time to harvest them was dependent on what society one lived in. The Philistines, in their worship of Baal, thought, in their acts of worship, they were doing something that would guarantee their harvest. Other cultures had their rites designed for this effect. But, as I mentioned earlier in the chapter, some of the Israelites aside from acknowledging YHWH as God also offered sacrifices to Baal designed to guarantee their harvest. What one will gather is that worship of one’s god was understood to be part of knowing how to raise crops. In this case the Israelites that had offered sacrifices to Baal were only trying to “hedge their bets.” There was no universally understood truth about how one went about raising crops. YHWH God, the ONLY God, the UNIVERSAL God, demanded that the Israelites should have NO other gods except YHWH. Without this claim to universality, truth in philosophy could never have any far-reaching implications. Can it truly be said given what I have just articulated, that it would be surprising that one of the things Socrates and the early Christians were accused of was atheism? A denial of the gods (plural) would be necessary to any claim to universality. There can be only one God, one reality, and one truth.
The problem that we today are back to is that while there may be only one God, one reality, and one truth there are many subjective understandings of that one God, one reality, and one truth. This is precisely what William James meant by “a pluralistic universe.”13 Today we may have given up on the belief that a subjective knower can ever truly know that he or she knows the (universal) truth, but now we have concepts like intersubjective agreement within a specialized knowledge discipline. We also have talk of ‘verifiability,’ etc. To my way of thinking this makes it all the more important that we pay attention to those who develop epistemology through a recognition of the role of the personal, subjective, element in the formulation of knowledge. Some of those developing epistemology along these lines would include Polanyi, James, Nietzsche, and Thomas S. Kuhn. Of course, the Biblical concept of yadah would be useful in the aforementioned regard.
It is ironic that the world would start out understanding truth itself pluralistically, and end up understanding truth through the pluralism of different people. In any case it has been and continues to be the goal of philosophy to understand the universal truth to the best of its ability.
To both Polanyi and the ancient Hebrews knowledge is emergent from reality. To put it succinctly: Knowledge emerges from reality. Philosophical knowledge is an emergence from human existence. Knowledge is an emergence from the corporeal and is not inherently incorporeal, despite what abstraction may make you think it is. Now that there is a sufficient foundation for it, The next chapter will begin with a synthesis of Polanyian epistemology with theology.
1 Alan Richardson ed. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. (London: Camelot Press Ltd., 1950)
I found it ironic that one of the most concise works on Biblical word concepts would be the most helpful. Many of the other works said a lot, but took a lot more time and effort to wade through.
2 Alan Richardson ed. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. (London: Camelot Press Ltd., 1950), 121.
3 Alan Richardson ed. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. (London: Camelot Press Ltd., 1950), 122.
4 I have heard this phrase often, but unfortunately I do not know its source. Perhaps it is just a contemporary Christian colloquialism.
5 Vernon J. Nordby and Calvin S. Hall, A Guide to Psychologists and Their Concepts. (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1974), 117.
7 Maslow himself relied on Polanyi’s concept of the stratification of reality.
9 James defended religious belief despite empirical or philosophical criticisms, and in Pragmatism James emphasizes that all different types of people can employ the pragmatic method, from intellectuals to non-intellectuals.
10 i.e. math, science, philosophy.
11 cf. the Tao Te Ching, especially ch.39 “The high has the low for its foundation.”
12 cf. Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche [Thus Spoke Zarathustra], 146.