Wednesday, November 03, 2004

From Knowledge to Wisdom: Preface to 2nd Edition

Nicholas Maxwell, FROM KNOWLEDGE TO WISDOM (Blackwell, 1984, pbk 1987).

I am at present at work on a second edition of my book From Knowledge to Wisdom. Below is a copy of the Preface to the second edition. As I explain in the Preface, the book calls for a revolution in the aims and methods of academic inquiry, so that the basic aim becomes to promote wisdom rather than just acquire knowledge. Much has happened since the book was first published, but the called-for revolution has not happened. Indeed, the idea that we need such a revolution, and the arguments in support of this need, have not even entered the public arena. They have been ignored or forgotten. In the Preface below I attempt to explain what the revolution would amount to, why it is so urgently needed, and why the case for the revolution has so far been ignored. For further information see:

Preface to Second Edition 2004

Academia as it exists today is the product of two past great intellectual revolutions.
The first is the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, associated with Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Boyle, Newton and many others, which in effect created modern science. A method was discovered for the progressive acquisition of knowledge, the famous empirical method of science.
The second revolution is that of the Enlightenment, especially the French Enlightenment, in the 18th century. Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet and the other philosophes had the profoundly important idea that it might be possible to learn from scientific progress how to achieve social progress towards an enlightened world. They did not just have the idea: they did everything they could to put the idea into practice in their lives. They fought dictatorial power, superstition, and injustice with weapons no more lethal than those of argument and wit. They gave their support to the virtues of tolerance, openness to doubt, readiness to learn from criticism and from experience. Courageously and energetically they laboured to promote reason and enlightenment in personal and social life.
Unfortunately, in developing the Enlightenment idea intellectually, the philosophes blundered. They botched the job. They thought the proper way to implement the Enlightenment Programme of learning from scientific progress how to achieve social progress towards an enlightened world is to develop the social sciences alongside the natural sciences. If it is important to acquire knowledge of natural phenomena to better the lot of mankind, as Francis Bacon had insisted, then (so, in effect, the philosophes thought) it must be even more important to acquire knowledge of social phenomena. First, knowledge must be acquired; then it can be applied to help solve social problems. They thus set about creating and developing the social sciences: economics, psychology, anthropology, history, sociology, political science.
This traditional version of the Enlightenment Programme, despite being damagingly defective, was immensely influential. It was developed throughout the 19th century, by men such as Saint-Simon, Comte, Marx, Mill and many others, and was built into the intellectual-institutional structure of academic inquiry in the first part of the 20th century with the creation of departments of the social sciences in universities all over the world.
Thus academic inquiry today, devoted primarily to the pursuit of knowledge and technological know-how, is the outcome of two revolutions: the scientific revolution, and the later profoundly important but very seriously defective Enlightenment revolution. It is this situation which calls for the urgent need to bring about a third revolution to put right the structural defects we have inherited from the Enlightenment.
The urgent need for this third revolution is the subject of this book.
But what, it may be asked, is wrong with the traditional Enlightenment Programme?
Almost everything. In order to implement properly the basic Enlightenment idea of learning from scientific progress how to achieve social progress towards a civilized world, it is essential to get the following three things right.

1. The progress-achieving methods of science need to be correctly identified.
2. These methods need to be correctly generalized so that they become fruitfully
applicable to any worthwhile, problematic human endeavour, whatever the aims
may be, and not just applicable to the one endeavour of acquiring knowledge.
3. The correctly generalized progress-achieving methods then need to be exploited
correctly in the great human endeavour of trying to make social progress towards
an enlightened, wise world.

Unfortunately, the philosophes of the Enlightenment got all three points wrong. And as a result these blunders, undetected and uncorrected, are built into the intellectual-institutional structure of academia as it exists today.
First, the philosophes failed to capture correctly the progress-achieving methods of natural science. From D’Alembert in the 18th century to Popper in the 20th, the widely held view, amongst both scientists and philosophers, has been (and continues to be) that science proceeds by assessing theories impartially in the light of evidence, no permanent assumption being accepted by science about the universe independently of evidence. But this standard empiricist view is untenable. If taken literally, it would instantly bring science to a standstill. For, given any accepted scientific theory, T, Newtonian theory say, or quantum theory, endlessly many rivals can be concocted which agree with T about observed phenomena but disagree arbitrarily about some unobserved phenomena. Science would be drowned in an ocean of such empirically successful rival theories.
In practice, these rivals are excluded because they are disastrously disunified. Two considerations govern acceptance of theories in science: empirical success and unity. But in persistently accepting unified theories, to the extent of rejecting disunified rivals that are just as, or even more, empirically successful, science makes a big persistent assumption about the universe. The universe is such that all disunified theories are false. It has some kind of unified dynamic structure. It is physically comprehensible in the sense that explanations for phenomena exist to be discovered.
But this untestable (and thus metaphysical) assumption that the universe is comprehensible is profoundly problematic. Science is obliged to assume, but does not know, that the universe is comprehensible. Much less does it know that the universe is comprehensible in this or that way. A glance at the history of physics reveals that ideas have changed dramatically over time. In the 17th century there was the idea that the universe consists of corpuscles, minute billiard balls, which interact only by contact. This gave way to the idea that the universe consists of point-particles surrounded by rigid, spherically symmetrical fields of force, which in turn gave way to the idea that there is one unified self-interacting field, varying smoothly throughout space and time. Nowadays we have the idea that everything is made up of minute quantum strings embedded in ten or eleven dimensions of space-time. Some kind of assumption along these lines must be made but, given the historical record, and given that any such assumption concerns the ultimate nature of the universe, that of which we are most ignorant, it is only reasonable to conclude that it is almost bound to be false.
The way to overcome this fundamental dilemma inherent in the scientific enterprise is to construe science as making a hierarchy of metaphysical assumptions concerning the comprehensibility and knowability of the universe, these assumptions asserting less and less as one goes up the hierarchy, and thus becoming more and more likely to be true. In this way a framework of relatively insubstantial, unproblematic, fixed assumptions and associated methods is created within which much more substantial and problematic assumptions and associated methods can be changed, and indeed improved, as scientific knowledge improves. Put another way, a framework of relatively unspecific, unproblematic, fixed aims and methods is created within which much more specific and problematic aims and methods evolve as scientific knowledge evolves. (A basic aim of science is to discover in what precise way the universe is comprehensible, this aim evolving as assumptions about comprehensibility evolve.) There is positive feedback between improving knowledge, and improving aims-and-methods, improving knowledge-about-how-to-improve-knowledge. This is the nub of scientific rationality, the methodological key to the unprecedented success of science. Science adapts its nature to what it discovers about the nature of the universe.
So much for the first blunder of the Enlightenment.
Second, having failed to identify the methods of science correctly, the philosophes naturally failed to generalize these methods properly. They failed to appreciate that the idea of representing the problematic aims (and associated methods) of science in the form of a hierarchy can be generalized and applied fruitfully to other worthwhile enterprises besides science. Many other enterprises have problematic aims; these would benefit from employing a hierarchical methodology, generalized from that of science, thus making it possible to improve aims and methods as the enterprise proceeds. There is the hope that, in this way, some of the astonishing success of science might be exported into other worthwhile human endeavours, with aims quite different from those of science.
Third, and most disastrously of all, the philosophes failed completely to try to apply such generalized progress-achieving methods to the immense, and profoundly problematic enterprise of making social progress towards an enlightened, wise world. The aim of such an enterprise is notoriously problematic. For all sorts of reasons, what constitutes a good world, an enlightened, wise or civilized world, attainable and genuinely desirable, must be inherently and permanently problematic. Here, above all, it is essential to employ the generalized version of the hierarchical, progress-achieving methods of science, designed specifically to facilitate progress when basic aims are problematic.
Properly implemented, in short, the Enlightenment idea of learning from scientific progress how to achieve social progress towards an enlightened world would involve developing social inquiry as social methodology, or social philosophy, not primarily as social science. A basic task would be to get into personal and social life, and into other institutions besides that of science – into government, industry, agriculture, commerce, the media, law, education, international relations – hierarchical, progress-achieving methods (designed to improve problematic aims) arrived at by generalizing the methods of science. A basic task for academic inquiry as a whole would be to help humanity learn how to resolve its conflicts and problems of living in more just, cooperatively rational ways than at present. This task would be intellectually more fundamental than the scientific task of acquiring knowledge. Social inquiry would be intellectually more fundamental than physics. Academia would be a kind of people’s civil service, doing openly for the public what actual civil services are supposed to do in secret for governments. Academia would have just sufficient power (but no more) to retain its independence from government, industry, the press, public opinion, and other centres of power and influence in the social world. It would seek to learn from, educate, and argue with the great social world beyond, but would not dictate. Academic thought would be pursued as a specialized, subordinate part of what is really important and fundamental: the thinking that goes on, individually, socially and institutionally, in the social world, guiding individual, social and institutional actions and life. The fundamental intellectual and humanitarian aim of inquiry would be to help humanity acquire wisdom – wisdom being the capacity to realize (apprehend and create) what is of value in life, for oneself and others, wisdom thus including knowledge and technological know-how but much else besides.
In short, if the Enlightenment revolution had been carried through properly, the three steps indicated above being correctly implemented, the outcome would have been a kind of academic inquiry very different from what we have at present.
This difference, over time, would be bound to have a major impact. What we have at present, academic inquiry devoted primarily to acquiring knowledge and technological know-how dissociated from any intellectually more fundamental concern to help us resolve our conflicts and problems of living in more cooperatively rational ways – dissociated, that is, from the pursuit of wisdom – is a recipe for disaster. Scientific knowledge and technological know-how enormously increase our power to act. In endless ways, this vast increase in our power to act has been used for the public good – in health, agriculture, transport, communications, and countless other ways. But equally, this enhanced power to act can be used, and has been used, to cause human harm, whether unintentionally, as in environmental damage (at least initially), or intentionally, as in war. It is hardly too much to say that all our current global problems have come about because of the successful scientific pursuit of knowledge and technological know-how dissociated from wisdom. The appalling destructiveness of modern warfare and terrorism, vast inequalities in wealth and standards of living between first and third worlds, rapid population growth, environmental damage – destruction of tropical rain forests, rapid extinction of species, global warming, pollution of sea, earth and air, depletion of finite natural resources – all exist today because of the massively enhanced power to act (of some), made possible by modern science and technology. Nevertheless, science as such is not the problem, but rather science dissociated from the pursuit of wisdom, the result of our failure to put right the structural defects in academic inquiry, inherited from the blunders of the Enlightenment.
Hence my conclusion: we urgently need to bring about a third intellectual revolution, one which corrects the blunders of the Enlightenment revolution, so that the basic aim of academia becomes to promote wisdom, and not just acquire knowledge. Every branch and aspect of academic inquiry needs to change if we are to have the kind of inquiry, both more rational and of greater human value, that we really need.
The task of this book is to make clear what this third revolution, from knowledge to wisdom, amounts to, what its implications are for science, for social inquiry, for the humanities, for education, for the relationship between academia and the social world; to make clear what the reasons are for the revolution, and how urgently the revolution is needed, how big an impact it would have on our capacity to resolve our current immense, intractable global problems, how
important it is that humanity should acquire a kind of inquiry rationally designed to help us learn how to create a better world.
When the first edition of this book was published, in the Orwellian year of 1984, I did not expect it to bring about the called-for revolution overnight. At that time the cold war was still in existence, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were in power, reactionary policies dominated, the future looked grim, and it must have seemed quixotic in the extreme for someone to urge that we need to bring about a revolution in academic inquiry so that the basic task became to promote wisdom. I did, however, hope that the message of the book would gradually disseminate throughout the academic world, and would gradually come to exert a certain influence on academic policy. I hoped that, at least, the argument of the book would become generally known to historians, philosophers and sociologists of science, to educationalists, and to others professionally concerned with the aims and methods - the philosophy - of inquiry. In particular, I hoped that philosophers would become aware of the argument of the book, in view of its ramified implications for philosophy, indeed for the very nature of the discipline. The blunders inherited from the Enlightenment, that are built into the intellectual-institutional structure of current academic inquiry, are above all philosophical blunders, blunders about what the overall aims and methods of inquiry ought to be. It becomes the prime duty and responsibility of philosophers to shout out, loud and clear, that we need to bring about an intellectual and institutional revolution in the aims and methods, the whole structure and character, of academic inquiry, so that it takes up its proper task of helping humanity learn how to create a wiser world. This, after all, is even a somewhat traditional task for philosophy: “philosophy” means “love of wisdom”.
In all this I was to be bitterly disappointed. When the book first appeared it got some good reviews, and some not so good. It went into paperback twice, and then quietly went out of print in 1992, and seemed to die. And yet the basic message of the book was just as relevant and urgent as it had ever been. The revolution I argue for had not, and still has not, taken place.
A number of factors were, I believe, responsible for the failure of the book’s message to receive greater attention. It is possible that I, as author, did not blow my trumpet hard enough in public places - the newspapers, the radio, and so on. (I became absorbed by the problems of quantum theory; and how exhausting and humiliating it is, in any case, for an unknown person to try to speak in public places. I did however do all that I could to put the basic message across, in an apparently endless sequence of lectures and articles.) Again, there are powerful mechanisms built into academia, discussed in the book, which are designed to preserve the status quo, and marginalize and neutralize a message such as the one of this book, calling for a change in the aims and methods of science, and of academic inquiry. Another factor has to do with the state of philosophy at the time. Philosophers, especially in the USA, were split into two camps: so-called Continental philosophy, and analytic philosophy. The Continentals, suspicious of science and reason, were unlikely to be enthusiastic about my book. The analytic philosophers, still absorbed in a kind of conceptual analysis, could only have been baffled by what they would see as ‘the absurd pretensions’ of the book. Philosophy, properly conceived, fits into neither conventional mould. It has the task to tackle rationally our most general, fundamental, urgent problems - problems that cut cross all conventional boundaries of academic discipline and speciality. This book does just that; it tackles the fundamental, urgent, and much-neglected problem: What kind of inquiry can best help us create a good world? To an analytic philosopher - obsessed with technical puzzles about concepts and meaning, and seeking to preserve a modest territory secure from the mighty onslaught of science - a book tackling such a broad and fundamental problem, and daring to challenge aspects of the scientific enterprise, must have seemed nonsensically over-ambitious. And the fact that I was not very polite about academic philosophy and philosophers in the first edition cannot have helped!
The neglect of historians, sociologists and philosophers of science has a somewhat different explanation. This has to do with the impact of the so-called “strong programme” in the Sociology of Science. The strong programme holds that science is inherently social in character. Scientific knowledge is just one belief system amongst others, without privileged access to the nature of reality. There is no such thing as scientific progress, only change of scientific “belief”. The scientific picture of the world is, in short, a myth, a social construct; it does not deserve to be taken more seriously than any other, rival system of beliefs. I vividly remember attending the annual conference of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science in Edinburgh many years ago. The strong programme, rather understandably, received a great deal of discussion: it was created by Barry Barnes and David Bloor, both at Edinburgh University. We philosophers of science concluded that it was too silly to be taken seriously. In fact it subsequently became enormously influential. It exercised a major influence over History of Science. Many historians of science came to believe that scientific knowledge is no more than a social construct; they abandoned the serious central problem of the discipline - the problem of understanding how scientific progress has come about - and instead sought to show that scientific change (not progress!) has been determined by social factors. Some philosophers of science sought to point out the fallacies of this movement, but failed to stem the tide. It is not surprising that the first edition of this book, tossed into this battle, was somewhat neglected. Historians and sociologists of science, seeing how seriously the book takes such notions as scientific progress, scientific rationality and scientific knowledge, could not but regard the book as belonging to the enemy. Philosophers of science, on the other hand, seeing that the book is critical of aspects of science, and concerns itself with the human and social implications and aspects of science, also took it for granted that the book came from the enemy camp. Both sides of the dispute, locked in their anti-science/pro-science debate, missed the point.
In order to come to grips with the human and social aspects of science it is essential to consider the aims of science, not just the intellectual aims, but social and humanitarian aims as well. And it is essential to consider, not just natural science, but social inquiry and the humanities as well - indeed the whole academic enterprise. Judged from the standpoint purely of its intellectual aims, natural science must be judged to have made extraordinary progress in improving knowledge and understanding of the world. But judged from the standpoint of social and humanitarian aims, it is much less certain that science, and academic inquiry more generally, have achieved such extraordinary success. As I have remarked, many of our most serious global problems have come about as a result of population growth, technological development, modern industry and agriculture, all made possible by modern science. The failure of academic inquiry to help humanity learn how to deal wisely with its new, immense powers, acquired from modern science and technology, has everything to do with intellectual blunders, inherited from the Enlightenment, and now built in to the institutional/intellectual structure of academic inquiry. The profoundly important task, especially for all those who care about the rationality, the intellectual integrity of inquiry, and its social value, is to free academic inquiry of these Enlightenment blunders. This involves, first, freeing natural science from an influential, widely upheld, but untenable and irrational philosophy of science which, unfortunately, most philosophers of science take for granted, in one or other form, as the sine qua non of scientific rationality. It also involves transforming social inquiry so that it becomes social methodology or social philosophy rather than social science. Unfortunately, sociologists and historians of science, influenced by the strong programme, presuppose, and base their work on, just the kind of conception of social science that needs to be rejected. As I explain in chapter 5, one incidental outcome of the revolution I argue for in this book would be that the current deep division between Sociology and Philosophy of Science would entirely disappear: these two disciplines, still at loggerheads with one another, would become one and the same discipline. The current dispute between the Sociology and Philosophy of Science is a symptom of the deep malaise from which the whole of academic inquiry suffers, in seeking knowledge rather than trying to promote wisdom by cooperatively rational means.
My hope, of course, is that those who attack, and those who defend, scientific rationality will both come to realize that what is being fought over is not rationality, but a characteristic kind of irrationality masquerading as rationality, and both parties will drop their current rather sterile dispute and join with me in seeking to develop a more rational, more objective kind of science, and academic inquiry generally, the outcome being a kind of academic inquiry that is of greater human value.
One consequence of the neglect of the first edition of this book by those concerned professionally with studying science has been that the central ideas and arguments of the book have not, during the past twenty years, filtered into the literature.
Some ideas I came up with during the course of developing the central argument of the book have, it is true, subsequently been developed independently by others. Thus I argued that emotion has a fundamental and rational role to play in inquiry devoted to the pursuit of wisdom; this anticipates, to some extent, subsequent work, by some neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers, on the fundamental role that emotion plays in cognition, and on the vital role emotion can have in guiding us towards that which is of value in life. Again, the account I gave, in chapter ten, of what I call “the generalized Darwinian research programme” anticipates, to some extent, a great deal of subsequent work on implications of Darwin’s theory for the social sciences. Yet again, I argued that values play a fundamental role in science, so much so that recognition of this fact by the scientific community could only help enhance the objectivity, rationality, and human value of science: some of these points are much more widely acknowledged today than they were in 1984. In chapter 10 I argued that what is of value is an inherent, intrinsic, aspect of human existence, of our human world; this anticipated subsequent discussion of “value-realism” in the philosophical literature. During the course of developing the central argument of the book, and discussing objections to it, I developed an account of the evolution of consciousness, and of the fundamental role played by imagination in human consciousness; these ideas have been developed subsequently by others, especially since consciousness became a respectable topic to study, some time in the 1990’s. The version of quantum theory, sketched in chapter 10 anticipates, to some extent, contributions to quantum theory made subsequently by others. I cite these examples of anticipations in part in an attempt to indicate what I judge to be the extraordinary potential intellectual fruitfulness of the conception of inquiry I argue for in this book, inquiry devoted to the pursuit of wisdom.
But despite subsequent intellectual developments such as these, anticipated to some extent by the first edition of this book, the central ideas and arguments of the book have not appeared elsewhere (except in my own subsequent publications) during the intervening twenty years. The passage of time has not in any way rendered these ideas and arguments out of date. They remain as relevant today as they ever were. In preparing this second edition I have not had to change, to any significant extent, the intellectual content of the book. In the main I have confined myself to changing references to topical events, such as the cold war, the nuclear balance of terror, the Soviet Union and the policies of Margaret Thatcher. I have also brought references to books and articles on relevant topics up to date. And I have added sentences and paragraphs here and there throughout the book designed to clarify ideas and arguments.
There is, nevertheless, a considerable amount of new material in this second edition. Science, and academic inquiry more generally, have changed during the twenty year interval between first and second editions. In some respects, changes that have come about may be regarded as a general movement - agonizingly slow, piecemeal and faltering, and sometimes fiercely resisted by rearguard actions - towards the kind of inquiry I argue for. This can be seen in the increasing interest in the role of values in science, and in academic inquiry more generally. It can be seen in committees monitoring the ethical dimension of scientific research, and in the creation of departments concerned with such issues. It can be seen in the rise of “the public understanding of science”. There is today much more criticism of aspects of science by the public than there was in 1984. In order to take developments such as these into account I have added a number of new sections to chapter 6. In this chapter I seek to determine which of the two rival conceptions of inquiry I consider prevails over scientific and academic practice. I have also added a new section to chapter 11, which discusses developments which may be regarded as contributing towards bringing about the revolution I argue for in this book.
Finally, I have added five new chapters in this edition. Chapter 12 discusses contributions I have made to the conception of natural science I defend in this book (which I call aim-oriented empiricism) after publication of the first edition in 1984. I also show how this conception of science can resolve philosophical problems about science, discussed in chapter 9, which the current, widely accepted, orthodox conception cannot solve. In chapter 13 I give an account of intellectual, institutional and political developments that have taken place since 1984 relevant to the themes of this book. In chapter 14 I sketch policies for a better world which, I conjecture, social inquiry would endorse if pursued in the way I argue it ought to be pursued, as social methodology or philosophy, concerned to promote more cooperatively rational tackling of conflicts and problems of living in the world. In chapter 15 I respond to critics. And in chapter 16 I give an account of some work going on in and out of academia that can be regarded as attempts to do what I argue needs to be done: put what I call the philosophy of wisdom into practice in personal and social life.
The object of this book is to make a contribution towards changing the overall aims and methods, the intellectual and institutional structure, of academic inquiry. But the book also has a more direct and personal message: it seeks to indicate a new way of thinking about ourselves in the world, a new way of seeing, a new vision. This gives absolute priority to the miracle of our existence in this strange universe, the supreme value of conscious life, and sentient life more generally, our fundamental problem being the problem of realizing what is of value in life as we live. The scientific quest for knowledge and understanding, the technological quest for solutions to practical problems, are but aspects of the central and fundamental quest: to see, to experience, to enjoy what is of supreme value in existence, whatever this may be. Impersonal, academic inquiry, properly organized and constituted, is there to aid what really matters, the searching, the explorations, that we individuals engage in as we live, in seeking to apprehend, to experience, to participate in, what is of value, potentially and actually, in existence. The philosophy of wisdom is not just a conception of inquiry; it is also a way of life.


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