Monday, September 22, 2008

Philosophical view of Gnosis

“I can find nothing on which to hang a world view. The best certainties are either too flimsy or too hard to pin down. The best reasoning is often simply wrong. All the knowledge I have is on its very best days merely provisional.”

Looking for certainty in philosophical propositions in the postmodern era isn't likely to succeed. All formulations of knowledge are provisional, but that is the nature of knowledge since it involves ourselves.

Yet, there is deeper knowledge than the formulations we can make. And while formulations and conclusions are provisional, this deeper knowledge is not. It is simply what cannot be any other way given the shape of our existence. What is certainly true is isomorphic, it cannot be any other way. It is a part of who we are, not something we can directly articulate or determine.

We come to understand more of it by living deeply, by exploring who we are. Knowing oneself in this deep way isn't a pass-time, it is a necessary pursuit -- an investigation into the nature of being. At the same time it is liberating for it frees us of false notions, non-provisional formulations of knowledge, and overreaching conclusions. It is a process of becoming who we truly are and achieving excellence. This is what I call the path of Gnosis, following an ancient understanding.

“You and I might agree, but I'd shy away from the word gnosis. I do like living deeply.”

Unfortunately, there is no equivalent word in English. It is the Greek word originating from the Proto-Indo-European root of gnō. We could use the Sanskrit jnãna, but Indian philosophy developed its terminology somewhat differently from Western philosophy. Of the four words in Greek covering the meanings of "knowledge" in English, gnosis is the most primary and direct: meaning both recognition and investigation.

In the fifth chapter of the Republic, Plato developed his epistemology of types of knowledge. It is generally impossible to make out in English translations, but he is determining what forms of systematic knowledge (epistēmē) and perceptual judgment (doxa, used as a technical term) are based on gnosis.

Whatever terminology we may use to point to this deeper form of knowingness, it is the primary form. Basing certainty at the level of a secondary type of knowing seems inherently flawed, it certainly has failed so far. One can do as Plato did, and try to move from the primary form to a secondary type, but there are severe limitations. In Plato's view one can have systematic knowledge based on gnosis only of noetic content, for example.

In general, this deeper approach takes one beyond the level of cognitive logic and mental "work space" to that which generates/encapsulates them. So, instead of considering contents, one considers the structure of the container. I would also argue that this is a way of understanding notions of no-self. There is no "self" as a being in the way in which we ordinarily understand "self". Yet there is an emulation of a "self" that is a process within a deeper structure.

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