understanding knowledge: a symphonic liberation

may 22, 1998

internalizing the relationship of understanding and knowledge as having a quantum duality; i.e. perceiving both nature AND thought as interrelating waves which 'contain' or 'engender' materiality, answers, for me, a lifetime of questions.

knowledge is rationality driven by desire to know. therefore it is focused on a particular subject of enquiry. understanding is what 'connects', in a naturally resonant manner, all of our fragments of knowledge, and this resonant connection occurs in a state of not desiring; i.e. when we are relaxing or sleeping. when we are in a desireful state, it is not easy for our minds to access understanding since understanding derives from the combination of the web of connective relationships straddling our knowledge fragments plus the knowledge fragments themselves. to shift sequentially from one knowledge fragment to the next, mentally holding it up and jotting down a few points on a spreadsheet and moving on to the next, in a large repository, could take forever and drive us mad in the process.

knowledge, seen in this detached light, is stand-alone 'meaning' which has nothing to do with the connective 'form' or 'geometric-dynamic' of our 'ontogeny' or developing life, but has exclusively to do with 'content'. understanding is what makes 'sense' of our knowledge in the context of the space-time dynamics of our lives. knowledge without understanding leads to dysfunction since we can be drawn by it to actions which make no sense relative to our continuing ontogeny or the ontogeny of the community in which we live.

aberrant behaviors such as school children shooting their parents and friends derives from this dysfunction of knowledge without understanding. this is the extreme tip of the iceberg discussed by anthropologists/psychologists such as jules henry ('culture against man'). that is, our educational system is geared to force-feed our children knowledge out of the context of ontogenetic understanding. it is a grossly unnatural and destructive action as r.d. laing has also pointed out ('the politics of experience', 'the divided self') and as maria montessori, a.s. neill and others worked to overcome.

we can be sure that the dysfunction will rise in proportion to the growth of knowledge and the decline of ontogenetic understanding, simply because rational knowledge is abstraction and the worlds of abstraction we can build with it, may have nothing to do with the harmonies of our history and tradition and our continuing ontogeny. in the cold world of abstract knowledge, once we have lost the guiding melody of our evolutionary history and future, anything can happen.

most of the processes by which we retain and propagate our transgenerational ontogenetic understanding have been seriously eroded. the harvard psychologist daniel schacter, in his book 'searching for memory', observes that the oral traditions which passed on the memories of the elders and provided transgenerational memory are all but gone, having been displaced by the media. the choice of the word 'displace' rather than 'replace' is not by accident; i.e. the memories of the elders captured the unique geometries of ontogenesis while the media archives capture, abstract event fragments, out of the context of the evolving continuum of life, or, historical accountings so generalized as to be almost devoid of the feeling and understanding one derives from being immersed for many decades in the flow of life.

Schacter, citing Freeman, explains how this geometric essence of life, which transcends isolated events, is preserved through our enshrinement of photographs, portraits, and other heirlooms; 'As these enshrinements become veiled by time, ' Freeman observes, 'they lose their clarity, definition and meaning but retain a visceral presence which carries the energy and culture of the moment in which they were created.' In other words, what we are left with in the 'enshrinement' is an understanding of the pure and unique spatio-temporal swirl or 'geometry' which makes 'sense' out of all the discrete objects and events in our lives, while what we are left with in the media archive are artifacts which have lost their ontogenetic sense while retaining their stand-alone clarity, definition and meaning.

schacter's research shows that resonant storytelling ability (as opposed to knowledge skills) improves with age; that is, human ability to capture the ontogenetic 'sense' or 'understanding' of one's life increases with age, though memory of specific objects and events may fade and blur. it's worth listening to schacter speak to this, as it may 'ring some bells' as it certainly did for me, particularly with respect to why technological solutions cannot substitute for the oral tradition, an observation that was burned into my brain (though not fully understood) through comparing the efficacy of after-work pub sessions as propagators of understanding with technology-supported alternatives in the workplace.

"The storytelling abilities of elderly adults have important social and cultural implications. In many societies, the primary function of elderly adults is to pass on significant personal and cultural lore to younger members of the group --- to tell stories about their own experiences and about the traditions and momentous events of the society. Because many of the autobiographical memories of the elderly and the collective memories of society derive from the remote past, older adults can draw freely on these highly elaborated and structured [associatively connected] memories. They can use their storytelling abilities to the fullest, unimpeded by difficulties that arise when they attempt to remember recent events. This storytelling function of old people is not fully appreciated in American and other contemporary Western societies, where negative stereotypes of aging are unfortunately all too common. It is far more prominent in many tribal societies with richly developed oral traditions, where the stories and knowledge [i.e. understanding] of the elderly are seen as manifestations of wisdom that command special respect.

The history of Native North Americans provides a harsh contrast between these two perspectives. Elders in North American tribes were traditionally viewed with deference as sources of cultural memories that provide essential guidelines for numerous aspects of tribal life. These intergenerational memories frequently take the form of creation stories that are passed down from generation to generation by tribal elders, containing vital lessons about the origin of the tribe, how to behave towards others, hunt, prepare food, relate to animals, treat the environment, and so forth [i wonder how much of this type of understanding was accessible to the child who fired on his schoolfriends in oregon (day before yesterday)?]. One such creation story told by a Seneca elder is referred to as 'the remembering." People who take to heart the lessons of 'the remembering' prosper and lead happy lives, but those arrogant enough to ignore the stories of their elders are ultimately doomed to repeating the mistakes of the past. "The remembering could not serve those whose self-importance had blocked the Knowing Systems of the Ancestors who had created the memories.' according to the elderly storyteller. 'For those still living in harmony, a new understanding had been added to the memories.' N. Scott Momaday, a Native American and one of the worlds's preeminent writers, reflected on his own encournters with a storytelling tribal elder: 'It did not seem possible that so many years --- a century of years --- could be so compacted and distilled. An old whimsy, a delight in language and in remembrance, shone in her one good eye. She conjured up the past, imagining perfectly the long continuity of her being.'

... "The need to preserve memories across intergenerational time, ... is a fundamental human imperative."

while schacter, freeman and others make a strong case for the fundamental role of ontogenetic understanding in society, through the example of the native north americans, they paint a dismal picture of what can ensue as this base of understanding (termed by schacter 'socially significant knowledge') is eroded, and make it clear that 'knowledge' per se is no substitute.

Their views resonate with my own observations from the organizing of 'wellspring sessions' (open discussion on what the heart or gut feels have been important lessons in one's personal ontogeny) with retirees and with youth (20 year olds). for example, the most elderly retirees, some of whom had been high level managers during their professional lives, expressed concern that many amongst those regarded by the 'cultural system' as the 'cream of the crop' coming from the educational system were 'humilityless twits'. this concensus remark was strangely incongruent with the otherwise balanced and considered 'wisdom' proferred by the participants and was clearly coming from 'concern' for the social system rather than 'sour grapes'.

meanwhile, the youths (in this case, moderately rebellious individualists outside of the so-called 'successful' mainstream) were saying that they had grown up starving to share in the experiential learnings of their parents and teachers, but all they got was 'politically correct bullshit'; i.e. they saw teachers, parents, authorities, playing 'unreal' pseudo-roles and telling them in abstract terms how it 'should be' instead of openly sharing their experiences. The youths bemoaned the fact that their parents and educators who grew up in the sixties had iconoclastic experiences of historic import, but instead of sharing them, held them close to the vest and simply told them 'how they must behave'; i.e. they force-fed them with knowledge out of the context of ontogenetic experience. meanwhile, the iconic heros and dreams of the pre-sixties had been shattered or shot down with jfk, and there were no replacements visible, not even on the horizon. they felt they were entering into an abstract deconstructed world, while being deprived of the navigational aids which could have come through the sharing of experience with their elders.

In the case of native north americans, schacter comments; "Tragically, the imposition of Western culture and religion that destroyed so much of Native life had a devastating effect on the respect accorded, and role played by, traditional modes of remembering that centered on the stories of the elders. "With this replacing of longheld tribal religious values,' comments a prominent Native scholar, 'the Indians lost the basis of their old ways of life and, just as importantly, their old ways of remembering. . . . Protestant and Mormon missionaries still appear to be working overtime to eradicate native tribal religions, by seeking to subvert the long-honored wisdom of medicine-makers and elders of tribes.'"

. . .

"As reliance on external storage devices has increased, the transmission of socially significant knowledge [understanding] and events has relied less and less on the autobiographical recollections of elders. This may have contributed to what has been called a 'crisis of memory' ...... 'Society's most important memories now reside in the electronic archives of the mass media, not in the heads of individual rememberers and storytellers. With such immense amounts of information electronically coded and readily available, the memory-preserving role of elders with stories to tell and knowledge to impart has been diminished considerably."

on a personal note, after working many years in the field of 'information management' in a large corporation and, as 'chief of technical computing', looking at the global strategy of technology supported 'knowledge management', it is apparent to me that the knowledge which is being technologically captured and archived is highly fragmented, project and event based and purged of the bulk of it's ontogenetic 'sense'. at the same time, work has become more complex and specialized and the number of 'elder professionals' who can make ontogenetic sense of it are on the decline. 'career development' practices, such as rotating employees runs across the grain of the organizational ontogeny, can leave the high flying professional or executive, at the end of his career, with only a fragmented understanding of the evolutionary flow of the people collective termed 'organization'. and in the pub, the good stories continue to come from people who have together experienced a shared destiny within a trial-filled ontogenetic dynamic, and this 'fills their eyes with shining as they conjure up the past'.

so, it was not out of mysanthropy that heraclitus said; 'the learning of many things teacheth not understanding...', but out of a love for the natural harmony or 'logos' of life and a dismay at what the rise of greek rationalism was about to do to it [and to us!], by reifying or 'euclidianizing' all manner of experience into knowledge fragments, thereby removing essential ontogenetic understanding which gives 'sense' to knowledge.

as the russian psychologist vygotsky has insightfully pointed out, the 'self' is not a euclidianizable 'thing' but is a boundary or interface akin to the crust or 'tectonosphere' of our earth whose material structure embodies a record of the interplay between what lies inside and what lies outside. the self has a quantum duality which manifests in terms of desire and non-desire, states which both oppose and complement each other at the same time. when the self is in the state of desiring, it is knowledge-seeking and this involves a focus on the external which stiffens the tectonospheric 'drumskin' and damps out natural oscillations coming from the environment; i.e. it closes down on 'listening' to the environment. when the self is not desiring, the tectonospheric membrane relaxes, opening the way for natural co-resonance between the internal and the external; i.e. allowing the self to become a resonant part of the overall evolutionary flow or ontogeny.

as the imagery suggests, knowledge is steady-state and its very pursuit shuts down our tuning-in to the enveloping external; i.e. it shuts down the 'gates' for tuning in to relationships. as david abram says; 'The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears, and nostrils --- all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness.'

on the other hand, understanding is dynamic and resonant. because it is dynamic, it cannot be captured on a flat euclidian sheet of paper or in binary media archive, but must be passed directly from mind to mind. ontogeny is not something which can be captured in unambiguous words and this is why the oral tradition of the native north americans, celts and ancient mythopoeic peoples, the zen koans of the buddhist etc. involve an essential and intentional ambiguity whose completeness is only satisfied by the resonance of internal breath flowing out through the words to meet and co-resonate with the external 'wind who has always been there'. that is, words-as-knowledge are transformed into 'sense' or 'understanding' when they are reconstituted into thought by coming into co-resonance with the spatio-temporal flow of natural life.

today, we are not only forgetting the oral tradition and depending for transgenerational memory on fundamentally inadequate technology, but we are rapidly developing more and more knowledge out of the context of our own ontogeny. as david abram says in 'the spell of the sensuous', "Today, we participate almost exclusively with other humans and with our own human-made technologies. It is a precarious situation, given our age-old reciprocity with the many-voiced landscape. We still need that which is other than ourselves and our own creations."

thus, the children of today are lost in a growing maze of force-fed fragmenting abstractions, drifting off further and further from a grounding in ontogenetic history and traditions which give 'sense' and understanding to life.

this situation does not come about by accident. as r.d. laing says in 'the politics of experience', "It is Henry's contention that in practice education has never been an instrument to free the mind and the spirit of man, but to bind them. We think we want creative children, but what do we want them to create? --- 'If all through school the young were provoked to question the Ten Commandments, the sanctity of revealed religion, the foundations of patriotism, the profit motive, the two party system, monogamy, the laws of incest, and so on ... --- there would be such creativity that society would not know where to turn.

Children do not give up their innate imagination, curiousity, dreaminess easily. You have to love them to get them to do that. Love is the path through permissiveness to discipline; and through discipline, only too often, to betrayal of self."

and thus, love is the path through which children forsake understanding for knowledge.

it seems time for us to let our love convert our commerce-oriented schools-as-prisons into children-oriented gardens of understanding, subordinating the acquisition of knowledge to th more natural and fulfilling purpose of discovering the 'sense' of one's ontogeny. that is, rather than force-feeding them with knowledge, a process which fragments all understanding, we need to help our children 'find their place in the family of things', as mary oliver says in 'wild geese';

You don't have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains

and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air

are heading home again.

Wherever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting _

over and over

announcing your place

in the family of things.

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