Knowledge and Civilization

by Barry Allen
ISBN: 0813341353

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A Review of: Knowledge and Civilization
by by Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala

In Knowledge and Civilization Barry Allen gives us another account and reworking of the problem of knowledge, which he inherited and admirably developed from the philosophy of his mentor, Richard Rorty. This book offers an extension of the thesis fleshed out in Truth in Philosophy, which Allen published twelve years ago. Both books are redescriptions of philosophy not only after metaphysics, but also after the so-called "analytical/continental division" that is quietly coming to an end. The conclusion of this philosophical division is not being replaced by another foundational division, but by "conversational philosophy" (at the end of his book, discussing the meaning of "civilization" for the Greeks, Allen clearly states that "we are still pursuing the conversation, which is still called philosophy.") This is neither a philosophical position, nor a statement about method, but a way beyond interpreting "knowledge" as justified beliefs with foundational pretensions. The book contains a foreword by Rorty and is divided into three parts: In the first part knowledge is variously defined-analytically, dialectically, and polemically; in the second part, Allen looks at knowledge as it is conceived and presented by three great modern thinkers: Nietzsche, Foucault, and Rorty; and, finally, in the last part, knowledge is discussed as an aspect of the history and evolution of human civilizations. "Knowledge," according to Allen, "is artifactual; it exists through our act alone" as a bridge, a museum, or even as a book since these are kinds of achievements that "reveal ourselves more than they reflect, mirrorlike, an order of fact' or being'." Pragmatically considering "knowledge" not as a problem of essence (of what something is), but rather of existence (of how it can bej), Allen has produced a text which counters not only what C.P. Snow meant by the "two cultures", but also what Quine posited when he said that "philosophy of science is in philosophy enough." There are no methodological justifications to divide culture strictly into scientific and humanist spheres, and likewise there is no need to reduce philosophy to the realm of science (with its narrow domain of truth') since knowledge comes from "civilization, not from truth." Snow's division and Quine's reduction are precisely what Allen is arguing against in this book.
While writing this review in Rome (Allen would probably call it a town of infinite overlapping artifacts of materialized history), it occurred to us that the most interesting point Allen makes in his introduction is that knowledge was cultivated some 50,000 years after the evolutionary consolidation of our species, and, moreover, that despite what the Bible says, knowledge does not grow on trees and does not exist just because we need it. Knowledge is not a methodological linguistic game or scientific routine; it is a "superior artifactual performance", and "its performance" is what counts, not its essence.
Thus, Allen is processing an "actual philosophy", which does not focus on the presence of a form that makes a thing knowable, but on the form's integral involvement in the history-making of human civilization. Rejecting traditional epistemological theories which confine knowledge to language, he not only demonstrates how knowledge is older than civilization (which began with the first cities some 5000 years ago), but also how the millennia of urbanism has left its mark on knowledge. In his arguments against epistemology, Allen explains that non-discursive knowledge cannot be translated into language-a number of true sentences-because, for example, there are no grounds for enshrining true sentences about engineering in order to produce a global condition of knowledge related to engineering. Otherwise, an engineer would only have to understand a number of true propositions about engineering in order to become a successful engineer. But experience shows us that there are different schools, traditions, and most of all, each engineer has its own talent and intuition to aid him.
The chapter on Rorty, in the middle of the book, is very useful for understanding both the link between Allen and his mentor, but also Allen's redescription of Rorty's conversationalist idea of knowledge. Although Allen is not convinced that "language is the ultimate context" for understanding knowledge, he is certain "that we enjoy no direct, intuitive, spontaneous, unmediated cognitive contact with anything. Thought, awareness, choice, experience, intention, and action are invariably mediated: by artifacts, symbols, preferences, neurology, culture, ecology, evolution." Allen agrees with Rorty when he states that language was the only thing taken really seriously in twentieth-century academic philosophy (despite the analytical/continental division which characterized it), but he does not think it is possible to "separate language from the organism that speaks. You cannot separate language from the neurology that makes speech possible, and you cannot separate that neurology from the entire evolution that made it possible." The big difference between Allen and Rorty lies in the fact that Rorty does not see anything worthwhile in epistemology, whereas Allen recognizes it as an "academic tradition of bad answers to good questions."
The questions were good because they stemmed from earlier human activity which helped constitute the civilized world we live in now: "philosophy," Allen argues, "has always been an interrogation of the civilization that embeds it. There is no occasion for philosophy prior to cities, and the city, its urbanity and civility and all that they shelter, set the topics for every enduringly interesting work of philosophy. Knowledge is such a topic because civilization is an accomplishment of knowledge."
The final part of the book, entitled "Knowledge, Evolution, Civilization", is where Allen states his two main theories: On the one hand, "the bio-cognitive structures through which we apprehend the world are products of the same mechanism that makes the world the way it is," and, on the other hand, "the evolution of our species is not the evolution of knowledge, whose origin is postevolutionary. Cultivating knowledge is not something we evolved' to do, but something we discovered we can do, superbly, because of how we did evolve."
The pragmatic nature of Allen's theory of knowledge recalls Dewey, James, and Heidegger's philosophical temperament; it doesn't bind knowledge to any process of natural selection, as Neo-Darwinian theories of knowledge have done. Instead, it recognizes the "contingency" of civilization. This knowledge, which we now call "civilization of the West", began many times over as "the contingently discovered preference of a few," and not as a mechanism responding to natural laws. According to Allen, natural selection didn't uncover our capacity for knowledge; we "did that ourselves when, well after the evolutionary emergence of our species, the cultivation of knowledge came into view as an option. At that moment biological forces or natural selections were well and truly done with us, and the rest is everything we made for ourselves."
The fact that it was an "option" may dishearten many readers who believe that the history of evolution has taken the only one, predestined course toward truth. But the origin of our culture is nothing other than the cultivation of "preference": culture consists of the subjective decision to do things we did not evolve to do, but "discovered" we could do. The "value of knowledge" and the "civility of cities" become two sides of the same problem, and this will determine our future on earth.
Allen concludes the book drawing considerations from evolutionary biology, anthropology, archeology, history of cities, art and technology, in order to show that life in cities-therefore civilization-is a choice we acted on for the past 5,000 years, and which recalls that every city has "an architectural actuality" or "urban net" that continues to determine our future. The main achievement of Knowing through Civilization is that it brings knowledge into the greater field of "performative artifacts" rather than "systematic language" (as most modern philosophy has done until now). Recognizing Western philosophy as predominantly epistemological, as fixated on propositional truth, Allen has convincingly argued that "knowledge is not belief-plus anything, [nor is it what] is essentially true, [and neither] does truth explain its value. It is the accomplishment, at once artistic and technical, of superlative artifactual performance." This book will help philosophers, biologists, anthropologists, and many intellectuals understand that their work and knowledge of the world is not a simple interpretation or description, but an active production which is dissolving the objective-subjective cultural division in which Snow and Quine believed.

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