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How to define knowledge and wisdom?

posted Aug 20, 2011, 2:17 AM by Sarat Kumar Sarvepalli   [ updated Oct 10, 2011, 10:00 AM ]
 – FEBRUARY 26, 2007
The world needs more interactive civil society activism!

Knowledge : Old and new meanings

There is a Knowledge Commission deliberating about creating a knowledge society. But what is knowledge precisely? Knowledge is a word first coined by a management guru,Peter Drucker, 30 years ago. So also came the knowledge worker. And now the talk of competitive advantage for a more knowledge-based economy and society. But there is a more deeper meaning to knowledge and a very long history of knowledge called, epistemology. This is missed out in all our debates, both in the academic community and in the corporate rooms. Unfortunately, the academic community is beaten by the more arcane debate about material knowledge. Academic autonomy demands to keep the knowledge debate high at the more philosophical level.

Philosophy, what? Today? Where is it? What relevance we, of this generation, have for philosophy, if at all? Yes, such questions would spring upper most in all of our minds. After all we constitute the urban middle class,right? Even among the present generation,if anyone imagines that he or she had made the first millions or even the billions, might dismiss the use for philosophy and simply have no use or time for such obscure thoughts!

As far as I am concerned what is uppermost in my mind today is where India counts in the intellectual debate. The current pre-occupations with the international terrorism has raised the debate about what the basic premise is for the rise of this Muslim terrorism. There is the talk of a “clash of civilizations”. Where does India come in, if at all? It looks we in India don’t matter much in the intellectual debate at all! But it seems to me that at a time we are talking about the creation of material wealth, we also seem to be talking of knowledge creation. So, a Knowledge Commission is working on the subject. Subject of what? Knowledge? What knowledge? The terms of reference of the Commission are: build excellence in the education system to meet the knowledge challenges of the 21st century.

This is rather deceptive for what constitutes knowledge can be debated. It is not the knowledge in the sense of knowledge that can be commercialised into intellectual property rights! Also, now there is the debate on the OBC quotas. Or,the talk of knowledge economy I am having in mind.

Yes,I am very well aware the context in which I raise such questions. This is India, India of today! India of the rising middle class, India of the vast opportunities thrown up by the globalisation, the opening of the economy, the IT revolution and the new generation or the first generation lower middle class making the first millions and the billions. This is plainly the era of materialism and its many visible benefits, good and rising salaries, lifestyle changes, the cars, the bungalows or apartments and good schools for your kids and there is everything here, there is every opportunity to grab, every reason to forget about the rest of the things!

I am talking of knowledge in the sense of the philosophy of knowledge, in the more philosophic jargon of “Epistemology”. Yes,there are 20 odd pages in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica on “epistemology”! The original word for epistemology is Greek episteme, “knowledge”. It is the study of the nature and validity of knowledge, what we can say precisely we know. It is a long subject, a tough subject and the debate is not yet over, there is no end to such debates, the debate is relevant even today if we bother to know what is all about and how it lies at the very basis of our knowledge pursuits.

The point is that we in India have a long philosophic tradition and as such the time is always there to know and integrate and have an international perspective on such a momentous topic.

Dr. S. Radhakrishnan

Unfortunately, there has not been much serious thought on debating philosophy after Dr.S.Radhakrishnan.But there are philosophers, even now,like J.N.Mohanty and others who can be invited to give a philosophical face to our current high academic pursuits.

Philosophy, the study of philosophy, not in any West-East syndrome but with an open mind is the need of the hour when India seeks to establish itself as a software super power. Unless you are respected as a knowledge super power, you have no standing at all. We seem to be so enamoured by the current Indo-US relationships, the political, nuclear and the IT, ITs linkages now blind us from thinking of abtruse subjects like high acdemic philosphic issues. But such a serious topic that grips men’s beliefs and belief system have to be a top priority if we want to raise India’s image in the world of high culture and intellectual standing.

Colonial hangup that haunts a subservient national mentality!

The Knowledge Commisison member Dr.P.M.Bhargava has rightly put the blame for the anti-quota agitations by the medicos to the gross selfishness of the Indian middle classes! He is both right and wrong. Right in diagnosis. Wrong in prescription! The Indian middle classes have a long history. Indian middle classes emerged owing to the British regime to give concessions to the educated Indians and we see that the first ICS job went to one member of the Tagore family. It was a time when even the great, very prosperous “Prince” Dwarakanath Tagore took up the job of Srestadar under a district collector simply because it gave great prestige and social standing.

See, even today the well-educated and even engineers and doctors who after passing the stiff exams and employed, seek to pass the IAS and IPS and even the Revenue Service tests and go to join this old style slavery! Under some illiterate politicians! Why? Simply because of the colonial past social habits.

Non Brahmin movement

The TN’s 69 per cent quota has its origins in the older Non-Brahmin movement started by very well-off sections, land owners,successful professionals like doctors and ICS members under the British Raj wanted to get a fixed share in education and government jobs under the alien government. The movement was justified at that time as the government services were monopolised by the Brahmins, the Tamil Brahmins thus became an object of intense jealousy. So, the forward community had to pay a heavy price!

The Dravidian parties under the Self-Respect movement progressed much. Now, the demand for the creamy layer being excluded from the current quota system is brushed aside by the beneficiaries! So too the caste-cum-economic criteria, advocated by the CPI(M) is not taken seriously. Casteism is deeply rooted in our present political ideologies. To the exclusion of the OBCs’ interests.

So, some sort of a quota-cum-economic criteria is a must for admissions to higher education in government institutions. The entrance exams must make room for quotas on a reasonable basis. But the final merit of the students in the final exams and the final selection for highly sensitive jobs quotos have to go!

Now, to cut the story short, today our new and prosperous middle classes, even in the medicines etc have to be taken into consideration to win the public confidence. Even those who made it big as the IT and BT czars have this same old Indian mindset, to seek status through their association with the Government, not to participate in any policy-making or nation-building but seek some service or recognition, with no questions asked, so long it is an award or a recognition!

Middle Class mind-set

Indian middle class, be they bureaucrats, experts or technocrats or simply any other”proessionals” they all want to serve the governments of the day by seeking favours. That is why India has no basic independent intellectual base even after all these years of English education and even having got Independence for more than 60 years. See any big idea or policy, we seem to seek from outside, the experts from outside India always commands a premium!

Our national mindset as such is only of colonial hangup with the intellectual and knowledge base seeking justification and legitimacy only from our colonial masters or the new masters like the US government and academic establishments. In a much more intellectual sphere, we see even today, either we seem to be operating on secondary sources of authority and we never dare to ask original questions for ourselves. Even the best of India brains are based either on this colonial sources of authority or we simply migrate and seek to make our living abroad and sitting out there as NRIs, we seek to give to serious basic intellectual and philosophic issues, we have to follow the history of such ideas. This we can do only from the Western, I mean the ancient Greek and Roman sources and the Greek and Roman civilizations only gave rise to basic and fundamental philosophic and political thoughts.

Plato, Aristotle

So,we state here: it is only after Plato and Aristotle talked of philosophy and politics, philosophy was born and political philosophy started dominating the minds of man. Greek and Roman traditions we call the Western traditions. If we trace the history of ideas we see again that after the Middle Ages, there is the continuity of the tradition, starting with the Italian Renaissance and then gradually ideas migrate towards the Western European countries. So,England and Europe come to the forefront of developments.

Of course,we have to have a sense of history all through if we are to get a balance. This is more so for Indians who are much conditioned by the British connections and our educated generations were largely tied to what was given by the British masters! This trend even continues today! Our media,the mainstream English media even now mindlessly imitates and reproduce much content that originates more and more from UK and now increasingly from the US writers and columnists! This may be unavoidable in this age of globalisation and the Internet web media era.

It is easy to quickly fill the pages in our newspapers and magazines by searching through the web pages and whatever content we want we can fill it almost instantly! That is why even our much-rated financially more established national newspapers, coming out of the national capital, is just junk reading materal!

National newspapers?

Just Junk reading!

Down South, the colonial hangup is rather heavy. We read more about the British royal household’s goings-on,rather than how some of our states like TN or Gujarat are going down in civilized governance norms, be it revenge politics or communal frenzy!

Even our larger political perspectives are marked by sheer political survival opportunism and we,as politicians or honourable professionals in politics rather choose to look the other side when it comes to the sensitive questions of what constitutes truth or morality or even holding to some of our basic convictions!

So, now back to the original topic! Philosophy from the very beginning always led to political philosophy! That was because philosophy was always concerned with truth, morality, freedom etc. For Plato and Aristotle were advisers to the kings,they wrote poltical constitutions, they advised the monarch, Aristotle tutored the young Macedonian king,the future Great Alexander!

So, let us recognise the fact that any great philosophy,worth its salt, is basically political philosophy and it concerns with the people,the citizens and the masses.

Ancient Athens

The great Pericles whose Funeral Speech after the Peloponnesian War exemplify the points I have made here. Even a cursory reading of any of the Greek histories would give us the fullest feelings of a great civilization, the great minds and the great ideas of everything we are talking about even today!

There were citizens, masses, slaves,the Popular Assembly,the wars, too many, the rise and flowering of the great Greek art, literature, history, philosophy and everything we can think of today, had already been thought of by the Greeks. I would dare say our modern very vocabulary I find there in Greece and Rome just thousands of years ago!

So, in short, I want to say this: you can’t build a great nation, a great society or a great independent base for new ideas and philosophies,have to base our fundamentals on the Greek, Western intellectual traditions. Plato had been shown by successive scholars as a revolutionary of the Left, had also been shown as a forerunner of Fascism and yet he remains the first proponent of the pure idea of the Good and an authoritarian of pure reason!

Louis Fischer on Lenin

Louis Fischer,the famous American journalist who knew Lenin and Gandhi personally so well and who wrote memorable biographies about them says Lenin “was profoundly Russian, He sensed Russia had made exact studies of its conditions, literature and history. But Western Europe was his spiritual home. He had lived in the west during many years of exile and he respected its attainments” (Men and Politics, An Autobiography, 1941, page 67). When in Kremlin, Lenin spoke to the Third International-the Comintern, the representative of the Communist parties of the world, all nationalities, religious sects, Lenin spoke,his speech was in German and Lenin often searched for equivalent Russian word! So too Trotsky who was much more proficient in German, French and Russian, he could” speak non-stop in German for two and a half hours in exquisite German, immediately thereafter he delivered the same address again in fluent, rich French and then gave it a third time in Russian” (Louis Fischer, page 56)

Ideas and philosophies spring forth out of an atmosphere for contemplation and leisure. The universities and academies and the educated elite play a role in the emergence of ideas and opinions that crystallise into deeply held principles and beliefs. There are also other developments that matter, history, politics and the sort of society all matter. In the case of India the historic context of India having been a long time colonial dependent country makes our mindset conditioned to a sense of dependency and sense of lack of a confident outlook in a wide variety of matters.


As we have seen that even men like Lenin Trotsky, so widely read and so experienced could not do much in what they set about achieving. Their Communist dream went off-track very much when Lenin was alive and very much Trosky was in full control of the affairs. Any politics is always like that and more so when a Revolution of the magnitude of 1917 was enacted with all its imponderables. In India too we saw the same unpredictable poltiics under Mahatma Gandhi with his own reading and instinct for the varying situations as the Fredom struggle gathered momentum.

M. N. Roy

There were so many learned men when Gandhiji was leading the struggle, they were all learned in the Western traditions, in the Congress, in the Communist and Socialist parties, M.N.Roy was a notable example of how such a great intellect could not go further than he went in realising his utopia. The point is that historic moments come rarely and often unexpectedly. And when it comes,it can’t be said that most leaders of nations or parties do the right things. That is why so much blood is shed and so many wars erupt, so advice to India and Indians here!

The National Knowledge Commission of which Sam Pitroda is the Chairman got much rebuke from some politicians for the simple reason the chairman lives and makes his money in the USA and yet thinks fit to lecture to Indians on what constitutes knowledge!

Readers of this column might have found such references even earlier and yes, we Indians have a knack of evading uncomfortable truths and uncomfortable questions! This is one such instance. Another question that often troubles and amuses me is the fact that we Indians rate the officials, the bureaucrats who write books as intellectuals. This is another falsehood!

The important point I want to raise here is that when it comes much misery is witnessed. Even today with so much of positive good things have come about, the spread of modern knowledge, sciences and technologies,the IT, Internet and much of the wealth creation for the first time in human history, we can’t still say that human misery if far from minimal. Wars are still being waged, nations and nationalities are being divided and so much mutual tensions are engendered by terrorism, religious intolerance and much by the older and bigger powers.

Big countries matter

Small countries also matter!

America is a big democracy and by fairly reasonable assessment had been a force for the world peace. But there are any number of smaller and older countries that are still farm from areas of peace and stability. It is noted that the European Union, once the sources of all political instabilities and all political madness even now is not a source of light and human wisdom. The latest to demerge is Montenegro, the smallest country with all so many ethnic populations.

As one modern historian notes, it is the small countries that dont start wars, the big ones, Germany, France, along with UK had been sources of arrogance and cuases of wars. The smaller ones like Portugal and Spain had a glorious past and as a result they today even have world’s largest population, 210 million people speaking Portuguse language! And also an enduring stake in transatlantic perspective. Colonisers and the colonised nations!

That must give us another perspective, more so for the Indians as to what we can claim as part of the world legacy as our own and that part of legacy or legacies that are the disadvantages with us as the colonial legacy. This is a line of argument that could produce much new light and much new perspective to form or revise our own mental hangups, be it independent thinking or dependent thinking, in areas of intellectual and practical policy spheres.

The study of English language as we do now, might need a radical change so as to become indepedendent people with our own languages and also as part of the new globalised priorities where Indians have to take advantages of the new market opportunities for our human resources skills in other languages as well. India is an old country, admitted. But India is still not a confident country in its own new perspectives.

There is no point in look past to our glories like the discoveries of ancient Indians in some of the ancient sciences. We have to come to terms with the modern sciences and also with the modern world’s own perspectives of what constitutes as knowledge in the modern world.

Starting from the first World War which led to disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and split the empire into many bits of nations.

Austrian Empire, with Vienna as its historic capital was the source of much of the 20th century’s intellectual genius and much of originality of ideas and philosophies, Sigmund Freud is only one of the new geniuses,the others were too many to list here.

Philosophical convergence

The only such international philosophical convergence we can see is the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. This was a movement of intellectual currents encompassing a wide spctrum of man’s knowledge of different disciplines: ancient roots, from Greek and Roman times, the Italian Renaissance, the scientific revolutions of Descartes, Galileo (1632) and Newton(1687) all swept away the old Ptolemic astronomy, Aristotelian natural philosophy etc. Yet,Galileo has to face the Inquistion, get the pardon of the Pope etc. New knowledge didn’t find approval easily. Enlightened religion,the Christian faith had to be redefined.

It is like now the evolutionary biologists training their guns towards creationism! Then, the whole subject can be studied under what constituted Enlightenment. The modern world and its knowledge base can be traced back to the Enlightenment. The subject is vast and I can write pages after pages, as I had been taught and my thought processes were moulded by some of the great philosophers and thinkers of the Oxford philosophy. I had already in previous issues indicated some of the names. The ones I had not mentioned, or not mentioned in sufficient length and depth are many.

Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, Witgenstein (they were all at Cambridge)and at Oxford A.J.Ayer(Language,Truth and Logic), Gilbert Ryle(The Concept of Mind), H.H.Price (Thnking and Meaning) and Lord Quinton and many others who taught me philosophy and ethics, political ideas are too many and they have all given me, if I can say so, basically a Western, rational and a cosmopolitan and a more secular view of the modern life and times.

So,when we use such words like secularism (Prof.Amartya Sen in his latest book writes a whoe chapter on secularism) we or rather our minds immediately rush to find some current meaning. Yes,this is right and yet there is the more thoughtful question as to how to reconcile our religious beliefs with our more detached secularist positions on a wide number of issues.

Here,the more academic writers like Prof.Sen is no help. Nor,our present or past political leaders who formulated secularism in our Constitution are also of any help. We have to come out with a new formulation where we would intelligently lead a citizen’s life more responsibly and where we can contribute to the cultivation of a more sensible socially harmonious life. There is too much of the present hanging on our imagination. Too much of the present preoccupations! Too much of the present, the 21st century developments. The technology revolution, the IT and the biotech revolution, the new generation entrepreneurs in India, the present day political pre-occupations, the middle class pressures impinge upon the intellectual deliberations,if at all, of the more articulate sections today.

Yes, all this is true and yet there seems to be some areas where there is a greet vacuum. I mean the present has to be balanced with the past. In what degree is for everyone of us,the thinking sections to ponder over. It all depends upon where each one us, the concerned amon us stand!

Prof. Amartya Sen

Even our great Nobel Prize economist and thinker Prof.Amartya Sen gives me the impression that so long you dispense wisdom by quoting the British sources like James Mill and Edmund Burke,then you are world class. I found in his latest two books James Mill’s India history figures prominently, Mill who was a clerk in the East India Company and he wrote a much prejudiced view of Indians and their civilizations and yet we, Indians, continue to quote him and we don’t even bother to counerbalance Mill with the much more erudite Max Mueller who was venerated by Swami Vivekananda and other prominent Indians of his time!

Why all these peliminaries? Even our great Dr.S.Radhakrishnan who did much to elevate Indian philosophy to the attention of the Western world, didnt bother to confront his Oxford counterparts and I find no mention of the fierce philosophical debates that were going on at Oxford when he (Dr.Radhakrishnan) was very much a part of the All Souls establishment. I often used to wonder: why Radhakrishnan avoided to take up the Oxford philosophy debates into his own discourses. That question even now hangs on inside my mind and I dont think I can find an answer, any quick or thought out answer so easily. It is a riddle, nevertheless and we Indians or those who are much more competent than me, have to come out with a suitable answer.

What Gandhi and Nehru wrote

We need more searching enquiries today!

One more point before we proceed to our main topic. There is also the simplistic and uncritical view that our great leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru wrote much and their writings can be considered as authoritative.

The very international perspective of today’s knowledge base can be so traced back to the rise of modern knowledge where reason, secularism and science come to dominate our current thinking processes.

They are not! We need more searching enquiries, be it ethics or morals or philosophies or political philosophies in the tradition of the history of the Western critical intellectual traditions.