The Pendulum and The Fixed Points

… And then last year, when I saw the Pen­dulum, I understood everything.”

“Everything?”

“Almost everything. You see, Casaubon, even the Pendulum is a false prophet. You look at it, you think it’s the only fixed point in the cosmos, but if you detach it from the ceiling of the Conserva­toire and hang it in a brothel, it works just the same. And there are other pendulums: there’s one in New York, in the UN building, there’s one in the science museum in San Francisco, and God knows how many others. Wherever you put it, Foucault’s Pendulum swings from a motionless point while the earth rotates beneath it. Every point of the universe is a fixed point: all you have to do is hang the Pendulum from it.”

– Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

Why did not scientific revolution occur in India?

If one wonders why did not the scientific revolution happen in India some aspects of how knowledge was limited might have an implication. I present here a comparative study of conditions prevailing in the two societies, and how the presence of the printing press disrupted the traditional balance of knowledge and its sharing in the society. Unfortunately, in India, we have no counterpart to this event which could have lead to the spread of knowledge amongst the masses. Even if it were, the rigid caste system would have made it almost impossible for knowledge to be so freely transferred. In an era of a global village, we still feel strong repercussions of caste-based discrimination today.

Consider this about how knowledge was restricted to apprenticeship and was often lost in transition amongst the traditional Indian craftsmen.

The secret of perfection in art and crafts resided in individuals 
and was never widely publicized. Master-craftsmen trained their 
apprentices from a very tender age but they did not teach them the 
more subtle aspects of their craft. Neither did they write books 
revealing the secrets of their perfection. These points were revealed 
by the master-craftsman only towards the end of his life and only to 
a favoured apprentice. Their secrets often died with them. p. 211 
(Rizvi - Wonder that Was India Part 2)

This was compounded by the fact that the profession that one could practice was decided by the caste one was born in. In addition to this, the mostly oral nature of the Hindu theology in Sanskrit and exclusive rights to Brahmins as custodians of this knowledge played a huge role in stifling any societal or scientific progress. The extant books (both theological and scientific, mathematical) were mostly in Sanskrit, which again restricted their readership. And as they were reproduced by hand the copies and access to them was limited. The mobility between castes was strictly forbidden. Thus we have both theological as well as scientific, mathematical and technological knowledge bound by tradition which was not available to the general public by its design. Any leakage of such a knowledge to people who were not intended to know it was met with severe punishments.

In contrast to this, consider the situation in Europe. The church did have an control over the knowledge that was taught in the universities. The Bible was in Latin, which can be seen as European counterpart of Sanskrit in terms of its functions and reach, and the Church held authority over its interpretation and usage. The impact of movable type on the spread of the Bible is well known. The translation of the Bible to publicly spoken languages and its subsequent spread to the general public is seen as a major event in the renaissance and subsequently that of the scientific revolution. This was only possible due to the struggle between Catholics and Protestants, again this did not have any counterpart in the Indian context. But as with any subversive technology the printing press did not only print the Bible. Soon, it was put to use to create materials for all types of readership.

First appearing around 1450 in the German city of Mainz, printing 
rapidly spread from Johann Gutenberg's original press throughout 
the German territories and northern Italy, most notably Venice. 
This establishment, during the second half of the century, of 
scores of print shops corresponds to two related features of 
European, especially Western European, society at that time.
The first is the fairly high rate of literacy on which the market 
for books and pamphlets was based. The second is the quite sudden 
wide availability of a multitude oE philosophical and general 
intellectual options. Together, these two features created a 
situation in which knowledge for very many people was no longer 
so chained to the texts of the university curriculum. This was a 
new situation practically without parallel. p. 24
(Dear - Revolutionizing the Sciences)

This spread led to the creation of books in areas of knowledge where it was guarded or passed through apprenticeship.

In 1531 and 1532 there first appeared a  group of small booklets, 
known as Kunstbüchlein ("Iittle craft-books"), on a variety of 
practical craft and technical subjects. These anonymous books were 
produced from the shops of printers in a number of German cities, 
and catered to what they revealed as an eager appetite for such 
things not just among German craftsmen, but among literate people of 
the middling sort in general. They broke the perceived monopoly of 
the craft guilds over possession of such practical knowledge as made 
up metallurgy, dyeing or other chemical recipes, pottery or any of 
a multitude of potential household requisites. p. 26
(Dear - Revolutionizing the Sciences) 

Though, as Dear rightly points in the next paragraph just having access to information of paper about a craft does not necessarily lead to practice as experts, it nonetheless helped to overcome a belief about the fact that knowledge indeed can be transferred in the form of books via the printing press.

In the coming century, the presence of the printing press helped the spread of knowledge to all parts of Europe in all subjects of inquiry. There is no parallel to this in the Indian context. Neither the technology (in the form of a printing press) nor the drive to spread the knowledge to the general masses was present in India. In this post, I have glossed over many details but I believe there were two main reasons for a scientific revolution to not happen in India are, first the connection of caste with profession and non-availability of a technology to spread knowledge to the general public. As a result, though earlier we had a better technology and scientific knowledge we did not have a Scientific Revolution. In the current era, with the connected devices, and also with caste not being a barrier to one’s profession, who knows we might be on the doorsteps of a revolution.

 

Knowledge, its use and teaching

Bodies of knowledge are, with a few exceptions, not designed to be taught, but to be used. To teach a body of knowledge is thus a highly artificial enterprise. thus a highly artificial enterprise. The transition from knowledge regarded as a tool to be put to use, to knowledge as something to be taught and learnt, is precisely what I have termed the didactic transposition of knowledge.

Chevallard, Y. (1988, August). On didactic transposition theory: Some introductory notes. In International Symposium on Research and Development in Mathematics, Bratislava, Czechoslavakia.

Epistemicide!

When I read the word for the first time it invoked a very intense and intentional pun in my mind. The word was coined by a Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos in his multi-volume project Reinventing Social Emancipation. Toward New Manifestos.
In this post I will be elaborating on this term, for my own future use and reference.

Episteme is a philosophical term derived from the Ancient Greek word ἐπιστήμη, which can refer to knowledge, science or understanding, and which comes from the verb ἐπίσταμαι, meaning “to know, to understand, or to be acquainted with”. Plato contrasts episteme with “doxa”: common belief or opinion.

(from Oxford Dictionary of English)

Further more the suffix cide is combining form

  1. denoting a person or substance that kills: insecticide | regicide.
  2. denoting an act of killing: suicide.

So combining the two we get the word epistemicide.


What epistemicide essentially is then is an act of killing certain knowlege, or understanding or acquaintance. It is argued that the English academic discourse which is dominant world over has killed other ways of understanding, or acquiring or transmiting knowledge. To control or invade another territory physically may still keep the invaders and their culture away from the people who are invaded and their knowledge. But with an epistemicide this invasion is complete. For the invaders have successfully dissociated the people they have invaded from their own knowledge and replaced it with the dominant discourse.

For the way that a particular culture formulates its knowledge is intricately bound up with the very identity of its people, their way of making sense of the world and the value system that holds that worldview in place. Epistemicide, as the systematic destruction of rival forms of knowledge, is at its worst nothing less than symbolic genocide.

Epistemicide works in a number of ways. Knowledges that are grounded on an ideology that is radically different from the dominant one will by and large be silenced completely. They will be starved of funding, if the hegemonic power controls that aspect; they will remain unpublished, since their very form will be unrecognizable to the editors of journals and textbooks; and they are unable to be taught in schools and universities, thus ensuring their rapid decline into oblivion.

In the name of freedom and justice, he set about destroying all opposition…

(Bennett, 2007)

Are we performing an epistemicide in our classrooms by only promoting a certain way to learn and teach and worse a centralised way to evaluate and assess that learning? Teaching things which are dissociated from the immediate real world environment of the children? Perhaps we are. This post was just to keep a reference of this term and its meaning. I will explore this further in later posts.

 

References:

Bennett, Karen (2007) Epistemicide! The Translator 13(2)

Oxford English Dictionary (2010)

Knowledge: Technical and Scientific

Utility had been deliberately excluded from Aristotelian natural philosophy. Aristotle had nothing against practical knowledge, which he called techne; he simply did not consider it to be the same kind of thing as scientific knowledge, which he called episteme. From techne we have the word technology, which means to us largely the application of scientific knowledge, while from episteme we have the word epistemology, a branch of philosophy that deals with the theory of knowledge, scientific or any other. For Aristotle, however, the difference between techne and episteme was not a difference between application and theory, but was one of sources of knowledge and goals of knowledge. The source of technical knowledge was practical experience and its goal was, roughly speaking, knowing what to do next time. The source of scientific knowledge was reason, and its goal was the  understanding of things through their causes.

–  Stillman Drake, Galileo A Very Short Introduction (p. 4)

What Wikipedia is not… then what it is?

Although anyone can be an editor, there are community processes and standards that make Wikipedia neither an anarchy, democracy, nor bureaucracy.

via What Wikipedia is Not

Disclaimer: Let me make some things clear, I am not against Wikipedia, or its policies. I am (great) admirer and (very heavy) user, and (very little) contributor to the wonderful platform, which aims to provide free knowledge to everyone. In this post I am just trying to collect thoughts that I have about the Wikipedia’s social system and its relation to the society at large.

Then what is wikipedia? Is it a feudal system, which they do not mention in the list above? Although there are people who are called bureaucrats, they say it is not a bureaucracy, I think they mean it in the traditional sense of the wor(l)d (pun intended).

But for a new person, who is trying to edit the first article, there is too much of bureaucracy (read rules), involved, and it may not be a pleasant experience at all, especially for the so called technologically-challenged people. To describe in one word it is intimidating. The trouble is only there till, actually you become used to it, and become part of the system. This is more like the adaptation to smell, after a while in a stinking place, you don’t feel the stink anymore (just an analogy, I do not mean that Wikipedia stinks!). The rules become a part of your editing skills, which you do want to see in other editors. But how many people are able to get over this first major hurdle is not known to me, but I guess (which can be completely wrong) this number can be significant. This will in general reduce the number of producers and just tend to increase the number of consumers in the commercial sense of the word.

Another thing that the above quote says it is not a democracy. Again here I think, Wikipedia is not a democracy in the sense of common usage of the term. In a democracy, by definition the popular aspirations get through, and they may not be even the best for a society, as we many times see in the Indian context. But then it mostly the people who are editing the Wikipedia who decide by consensus that certain thing should be done. Is it not like majority win? So there is in fact a strong democratic element in Wikipedia.

Do we also want a society that is same as above “neither an anarchy, democracy, nor bureaucracy”? What kind of society would you like to live in?

 

A parable on…

A Parable

Once upon a time, in a far away country, there was a community that had a wonderful machine. The machine had been built by most inventive of their people … generation after generation of men and women toiling to construct its parts… experimenting with individual components until each was perfected… fitting them together until the whole mechanism ran smoothly. They had built its outer casing of burnished metal and on one side, they had attached a complex control panel. The name of the machine, KNOWLEDGE, was engraved on a plaque  set in the centre of the control panel.

The community used the machine in their efforts to understand the world and to solve all kinds of problems. But the leaders of the community were not satisfied. It was a competitive world… they wanted more problems solved and they wanted them solved faster.

The main limitation for the use of machine was the rate at which data could be prepared for input. Specialist machine operators called ‘predictors’, carried out this exacting and time consuming task… naturally the number of problems solved each year depended directly on the number and skill of the predictors.

The community leaders focussed on the problem of training predictors. The traditional method, whereby promising girls and boys were taken into long-term apprenticeship, was deemed too slow and too expensive. Surely, they reasoned, we can find more efficient approach. So saying,  they called the elders together and asked them to think about the matter.

After a few months, the elders reported that they had devised an approach that showed promise. In summary, they suggested that the machine be disassembled. Then each component could be studied and understood with ease… the operation of machine would become an open book to all who cared to look.

Their plan was greeted with enthusiasm. So, the burnished covers were pulled off, and the major mechanisms of the machine fell out… they had plaques with labels like HISTORY and GEOGRAPHY and PHYSICS and MATHEMATICS. These mechanisms were pulled apart in their turn… of course, care was taken to keep all the pieces in separate piles. Eventually, the technicians had reduced the machine to little heaps of metal plates and rods and nuts and bolts and springs and gear wheels. Each heap was put in a box, carefully labelled with the name of the mechanism whose part it contained, and the boxes were lined up for the community to inspect.

The members of the community were delighted. Their leaders were ecstatic. They ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ over the quality of components, the obvious skill that had gone in their construction, the beauty of designs. Here, displayed for all, were the inner workings of KNOWLEDGE.

In his exuberance, one man plunged his hand into a box and scooped up a handful of tiny, jewel-like  gear wheels and springs. He held them out to his daughter and glancing, at the label on the box, said:

“Look, my child! Look! Mathematics! ”

From: Turtle Speaks Mathematics by Barry Newell

You can get the book (and another nice little book Turtle Confusion) here.