The sun of postmodernism has set. The Baha’i ‘framework for understanding’ shifts the hermeneutic paradigm and marks the dawn of a ‘new era’. Truth is both discovered and constructed. For the first time in human history, generation of knowledge is everyone’s responsibility. The global Baha’i community has utilised the most advanced understanding of the various sources of knowledge and educational processes to advance the process of the unfoldment of truth. It has given birth to the next generation of rationality: a framework for learning in action. Does truth exist? What is the foundation of knowledge? How do we find meaning? We have grappled with these questions since the dawn of civilisation.
“Man is the measure of all things”, said Protagoras, one of the best-known Sophists. Sophists rejected the existence of objective reality. They argued that knowledge was relative and everyone had his own truth. They held no value for the ‘truth’, but for practical knowledge and winning arguments.
“I know one thing: that I know nothing” is a well-known phrase attributed to Socrates. Socratic method seeks knowledge by demonstrating one’s ignorance. Unlike the Sophists, Socrates believed that knowledge was possible. He believed that the first step to knowledge was recognition of one's ignorance.
Socrates exalted truth as the highest value, suggesting that it could be discovered through reason and logic in discussion. Socratic method is a dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to assist understanding, stimulate critical thinking, and challenge underlying assumptions. It is a dialectical method in which the defence of one point of view is scrutinised. Socrates established the system of definition and induction – the essence of the scientific method.
The interaction between Sophists and Socrates on the foundation of knowledge gave birth to two opposing ideologies: objectivism proposes that truth exists independent of judgments and beliefs. It is mind-independent. Relativism states that truth and falsity are products of different frameworks of judgement and that their validity is limited to the context in which they arise.
Plato distinguished between knowledge, which is certain, and true opinion, which is questionable.
Using his allegory of the cave, Plato argued that there was a world of ideas or forms, which exist independent of the people thinking about them. The forms do not change. They distinguish opinion from knowledge. Only through understanding the forms can one have real knowledge. Understanding the material things only results in opinions.
Plato believed that knowledge of the forms was innate. We are born with all knowledge. Learning is the extraction of ideas deeply buried in the soul. Nothing is ever learnt. It is simply remembered.
Using Meno’s paradox, Plato suggested that truth was both known and unknown: If one knows what one is looking for, inquiry is unnecessary. If one does not know what one is looking for, inquiry is impossible.
“Plato is my friend, but truth is a better friend” – Aristotle is known to have said. Skeptical of Plato’s world of the forms, Aristotle looked for truth in the world around him. Plato believed we were born with an understanding of the world of the forms. But Aristotle suggested that all humans were born a blank slate.
Aristotle considered knowledge as scientific, or demonstrative, when it is derived from certain or necessary premises through a certain or necessary process of reasoning. He developed inductive and deductive reasoning, and systematised logic and definition. The scientific method was born.
The differences between Plato and Aristotle on the point of knowledge laid the foundation for two separate camps of epistemologists for centuries to come: Rationalists believe that our senses can be deceiving and that we should only rely on logic to arrive at truth. Empiricists believe that everything we know is gained through experience. And the debate between rationalists and empiricists has continued ever since.
St. Augustine's epistemology asserted that there was such a thing as truth and that it was available to human reason. Augustine, like Plato, believed in the world of forms as the source of knowledge. He suggested that there was a basis for knowledge and, as a result, accepted that the forms were eternal and unquestionable. To make them such, he located the forms in the mind of God. He claimed that knowledge would be impossible if God did not illumine the human mind and allow it to see or understand ideas.
St. Augustine introduced divine revelation as the foundation of knowledge.
“I think, therefore I am” is a proposition by Descartes to establish the availability of certain knowledge. Descartes defined knowledge in terms of doubt. In a methodical process of searching for indubitable knowledge he doubted all his beliefs, senses, and God, but could not ultimately question thought. He believed knowledge of the reality derived from reason, not the senses. He suggested that knowledge of eternal truths – such as mathematics, and the epistemological and metaphysical foundations of the sciences – could be attained by reason alone, without the need for any sensory experience. This commitment to innate ideas places him in the rationalist camp, along with some other prominent thinkers such as Leibniz and Spinoza.
Rationalists argue that certain truths exist and that the human mind can directly attain these truths. This is because reality has a rational structure. All aspects of reality can be understood through mathematical and logical principles, and not simply through sensory experience.
Rationalists believe that some ideas and instances of knowledge are innate to us or are gained by intuition and deduction. They could not have been attained through sense experience.
Moderate views of rationalism grant reason precedence over other ways of acquiring knowledge. Radical interpretations of rationalism identify reason as the only path to knowledge.
Locke proposed that the human mind was a ‘white paper’. As a person’s life proceeds, experiences from sense perception are written on it. Nevertheless, he believed that one could derive some knowledge – for instance knowledge of God's existence – from intuition and reasoning alone. Locke, along with some other influential philosophers, such as Berkeley and Hume, are known as empiricists.
Empiricists, in general, believe that the origin of all knowledge is sense experience and sensory perception. They maintain that reason alone does not give us any knowledge.
A central concept in science and the scientific method is that everything must be empirically based on the evidence of the senses. Science uses hypotheses that are testable by observation and experiment.
Such potent time in history as the rise of modernity and the birth of the scientific method saw yet another dichotomy in the evolution of epistemology – a dualism that was to dominate the debate and polarise the discourse for centuries to come.
Kant is generally considered to be the founder of epistemology in the modern sense. He bridged the gap between rationalism and empiricism through his theory of transcendental idealism. He suggested that rationalism and empiricism could be understood as components of an equilibrium: our knowledge is gained from empirical encounters and rational operations. Kant proved that purely empirical or rational approaches did not lead to knowledge.
He believed that we knew about the world inasmuch as we experience it according to the fixed and universally shared mental structure. People perceive the world in terms of categories like time and space, cause and effect, substance, unity, plurality, necessity, possibility, and reality. Whenever we think about anything, we think about it, for example, as existing or not existing, its causes, as being one or many, real or imaginary, and whether it has to exist. This is not the way the world is. This is the way our minds order experience. There can be no knowledge without sensory perception, but sense experience cannot alone provide knowledge either. Knowledge is possible because it is about how things appear to us, not about how things are in themselves. Reason provides the structure of our knowledge, the senses provide the content.
Modernism and Science
With the development of science and technology in the modern era and the consolidation of the scientific method, everything became subject of scientific inquiry. Everything was scrutinised by empirical science to be proved scientifically. If it could not be proved, it was not truth. Verificationism raised its head and asserted that only statements verifiable through empirical observation were rational and intellectually meaningful. Science claimed to prove, with enough time, all that could be known. Science became the foundation of knowledge.
Popper attempted to purify science from non-science through his theory of demarcation. He took falsifiability as his criterion of demarcation between what is and is not genuinely scientific. A theory can only be considered scientific if it is falsifiable. A scientific theory is strong if it is falsifiable, but not actually falsified.
Kuhn argued that science did not progress through a linear accrual of knowledge. Science undergoes ‘paradigm shifts’ – sporadic revolutions in which the nature of scientific inquiry is suddenly transformed in a particular discipline.
He suggested that the definition of scientific truth was not objective. What constitutes scientific truth is subject to the consensus of a scientific community. We cannot understand science only as an objective system. Science allows for subjective perspectives as well. After all, objective conclusions are ultimately established on the subjective worldview of its. Science suggests that observation is the neutral judge between competing theories. Kuhn refuted this, arguing that prior beliefs and experience may influence the nature of observation.
Kuhn questioned the objectivity of science. He argued that individual scientists reached different conclusions when using the same criteria of scientific enquiry. This is because they favour one criterion over another or even add other criteria for selfish or other subjective reasons. Kuhn concluded that scientists' subjective experiences made science a relativised instrument.
Kuhn declared science to be no different from any other method of generating knowledge. Relativism raised its head once again. The successive re-emergence of dichotomy in the form of sophism-philosophy, rationalism-empiricism, or objectivism-relativism proved to be fatal to epistemology. The life cycle of epistemology saw many ebbs and flows, culminating in the Age of Enlightenment. But the reborn phoenix of scepticism finally axed down the frail and withered body of epistemology. With the downfall of such a mighty claimant to true knowledge – empirical science – epistemology itself is dead. All that can exist, many argue, is subjective interpretation and relative opinion.
To describe something as scientific or modern is no longer a compliment – it is discrediting it to an outdated seventeenth century thought.
Bernstein highlighted the chronic ailment that had disturbed philosophy as it oscillated indecisively between two untenable positions: on the one hand, the dogmatic pursuit of absolute truths, and on the other, the relativistic justification of our most cherished beliefs. He suggested that the root cause of this predicament was a thirst for certainty.
He challenged this fundamental assumption that only a robust and permanent foundation could support our knowledge of the world and daily activities. He proposed a multi-faceted foundation of knowledge, open to ongoing examination, modification, and critique. He suggested that such ‘practical judgement’ of this evolving foundation of knowledge as a process of tradition, consultation, practical reasoning, and interaction with the world helps us go beyond this dichotomy.
Postmodernism proposed that knowledge and truth were products of diverse systems of social, historical, and political discourse and interpretation – and, as a result, constructed. It is futile to search for a foundation for knowledge. We construct our knowledge as our unique frameworks for understanding interact with the world. Hermeneutics is born to replace epistemology.
Gadamer suggested that meaning and knowledge were not objects to be found. They are inevitable phenomena. In his hermeneutics, understanding is a dialogue and involves a fusion of horizons. The interpretation of a text will change depending on the questions one asks of the text. The meaning is not an object emerging from the text or the interpreter. It is, rather, a process evolving from the interaction of the two.
In Gadamer’s view, the process of the unfoldment of meaning is the result of an interplay between the subject and the object – like man and the text – through interpretation (hermeneutics), being (ontology) and practice (praxis).
The Baha’i Faith
In classical antiquity the world commenced a discourse on whether truth was objective or subjective, relative or absolute, and innate or acquired. Then began a search for the foundation of truth: Some believed in logic and reason, while others held to experience and sense perception. Some suggested divine revelation and religious text, whereas others proposed science as the foundation of truth. Disillusioned with the pursuit of a foundation for truth, some argued that truth had no foundation but a framework with various elements. Others claimed that truth was constructed and offered hermeneutics as an alternative. The sun of postmodernism has now set.
Framework for Understanding
The Baha’i Faith considers all the above criteria of knowledge as valid. But it goes beyond to introduce ‘framework for understanding’ and shift the hermeneutic paradigm. This marks the dawn of a ‘new era’.
Reality unfolds through the twin processes of discovery and construction, guided by an evolving framework. Evolution of the framework for understanding proceeds to the rhythm of study, consultation, action, and reflection.
Discovery of Reality
Reality cannot be discovered through sense perception, reason, or tradition alone. Our understanding of reality advances through various steps: comprehension, application, and implication. Through study of the text one forms a nascent understanding of a statement on an aspect of reality. Then, one applies the concept by acting on this learning. New experiences give new meanings to the concept and transform one’s life. In time, this evolving understanding organically impacts everything else in one’s life, as well as the relationships that sustain society.
Construction of Reality
Meaning is not only to be found. It is also to be generated through the interaction of the individual with the divine revelation. One translates what is written into reality through the process of study, consultation, action, and reflection: After interactions with the text or statement a group advances their understanding through consultation. The spark of truth comes forth through the clash of differing opinions. New experiences are generated as one brings the concept to bear on the life of the society. Learning in action sheds new light on the statement on reality. Reflecting on actions leads to the refinement of approaches. Commitment to this rhythmic process generates the pulse for the constant transformation of reality. An evolving framework for understanding is continually constructed and reconstructed through study, consultation, action, and reflection.
For the first time in human history, generation of knowledge is not exclusive to philosophers, scientists, or clergy. Every individual is part of a global enterprise of generation, acquisition, application, and dissemination of knowledge through the framework for understanding. The contribution of each serves to enrich the whole by maintaining a posture of learning.
Learning in Action
The framework for understanding is not only a theory of the generation of knowledge. A vibrant worldwide community thriving in every country and territory has adopted this framework as its mode of operation. The global Baha’i community vindicates in its daily growth the potency of this framework for the systematic generation of knowledge. The Baha’i community has utilised the most advanced understanding of the various sources of knowledge and educational processes to advance the process of the unfoldment of truth. It has established ‘training institutes’ that operate on this cutting-edge system for the generation of knowledge. They build capacity in individuals and communities to systematically contribute to the advancement of civilisation. These training institutes are accessible by anyone anywhere.
The Baha’i Faith has given birth to the next generation of rationality: a framework for learning in action.
About the author: Vargha Taefi is interested in religion and politics. He has done a PhD in politics, and has published and presented a number of interdisciplinary research works on process philosophy, just war, consensus decision-making, comparative religion, human rights in Iran, genocide, coercive diplomacy, diplomatic signalling, terrorism, generation of knowledge, and the Baha’i Faith.
‘Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha (Bahá'í Publishing Trust: 1982).
Baghramian, Maria and Carter, J. Adam, "Relativism", The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition).
Bernstein, Richard, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis (University of Pennsylvania Press: 1983).
Daniel, Stephen, “Epistemology: Kant and Theories of Truth”, notes on Intro to Philosophy module.
Epistemology, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
Gonzalez, Francisco, “Dialectic and Dialogue in the Hermeneutics of Paul Ricouer and H.G. Gadamer,” Continental Philosophy Review, 39 (2006).
Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason (Palgrave Macmillan: Second Edition 2007).
Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press: 1962).
Newman, Lex, "Descartes' Epistemology", The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition).
Ronald H. Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1969).
Rorty, Richard, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton University Press: 2009).
Ruhi Institute, “To the Collaborators”.
Russell, Bertrand, A History of Western Philosophy (Routledge Classics: 2004).
Sorensen, Roy, "Epistemic Paradoxes", The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition).
Taylor, C.C.W. and Lee, Mi-Kyoung, "The Sophists", The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition).
The Universal House of Justice, Message of Ridvan 2014.
The Universal House of Justice, Message of Ridvan 2015.