(1998 August 26)
Everybody is concerned with knowledge. The epistemologist may be interested in the theory of knowledge, but
the others also need knowledge. We all acquire knowledge from the day we were born into this world, until we die.
A Buddhist may say we acquire knowledge until "we" attain Nibbana.
However there are various kinds of knowledge. Some refer to scientific knowledge as distinct from the other knowledge. Then there is the so-called objective knowledge. A recent addition has been the indigenous knowledge, which is defined in such a way by the westerners so as to give the impression that there is some kind of common world knowledge. The indigenous knowledge is local while the non-indigenous or the common world knowledge is global.
These categorisations of knowledge come to us from the west. We are told that objective, scientific, global knowledge (sometimes expressed as a single system as objective scientific knowledge) is discovered by eminent people. However even in the west there has been a school of thought for some time, according to which knowledge is not discovered but constructed. According to them knowledge is constructed by the society. As the society is not a homogeneous body, this implies that there have to be different systems of knowledge. The social construction theory of knowledge would have been influenced by Marxism, even though the Marxists adhere to objective knowledge.
Any theory, which believes in an objective knowledge, discovered by Newtons, Darwins and Marxs have a difficult problem to solve. If there is only objective knowledge then it is easy to maintain that knowledge is there to be discovered by the top scientists and thinkers. But the problem is that there is knowledge other than the so-called objective knowledge. Even the Marxists had to admit that there is a non-objective knowledge. The knowledge branded as metaphysics by them is not objective, but it exists as a system of knowledge. If that is knowledge who discovered it? If it was discovered then it would have been there as an objective knowledge waiting for somebody to discover it.
If it was not discovered then it would have been fabricated by somebody. Can knowledge be fabricated? One way to get around this problem is to declare that only objective knowledge is "true" knowledge and the rest is fabrication. But then it raises more questions. One obvious question is how does one identify this "true" objective knowledge. Then there is the question of people who base themselves on the so-called non-objective knowledge. How do they interact with the "objective world" whose properties are expressed by the "objective knowledge"?
The Marxists themselves have faced this problem on many occasions. For example they found that their much admired proletariat did not behave according to their objective theories. Then they "discovered" another piece of objective knowledge, which said that it was the "false consciousness" of the proletariat, which made it to act contrary to their previous objective theories.
The problem is that many people who do not have access to this objective knowledge get along with their work without much of a problem while those who posses the objective knowledge have to go on "discovering true theories" which explain the behaviour of the former. If the non-objective knowledge is fabricated what guarantees that the objective knowledge is not fabricated?
The most important question is how does one distinguish objective knowledge from non-objective knowledge. There is no satisfactory answer that can be given to this question. Then there is the question of the entity, explained or understood or whatever by this objective knowledge. Is there an objective world independent of us, or to use a technical term of the observer, existing over there waiting to be discovered? But then this raises the most interesting question. How does one know objectively that there is an objective world independent of the observer?
It is impossible to deny that the statement "existence of an objective world" is also knowledge. Is that an objective knowledge? If that is an objective knowledge then we have the following situation. We have an objective knowledge of an objective world existing independent of us. How did one discover objectively, that is independent of the observer, this objective knowledge? If that knowledge is not objective then what we have is a non-objective knowledge of an objective world. No "objective" person can be satisfied with such a situation.
An objective world existing over there is merely the knowledge of such world. The "objective world" cannot be separated from the knowledge of it. As such there is no "objective world" independent of the knowledge of an "objective world". The knowledge of the "objective world" is not independent of the observer. It is another creation or construction of the human mind and we have to accept it as such.
There are schools of thought within western philosophy, which can be categorised as relativistic. Some of us in the Jathika Chinthanaya movement in Sri Lanka have been influenced by these relativistic philosophies. However that does not mean that we have imitated them blindly or otherwise. We were able to assimilate some of the knowledge created in the west into our culture. The philosophy that we have been developing may be called constructional relativism. In Sinhala, in which all the literature pertaining to these developments have been published, it is called Nirmaanaathmaka Saapekshathavadaya.
Constructional Relativism is based in Buddhist culture. With slight modifications most of it can be formulated within the Hindu culture as well. In order to construct (constructional relativism is also relative and created!) constructional relativism we start with Avidya or ignorance. It is due to avidya of anicca, dukka, and anatma that we create knowledge. (Within Hindu culture one can say that we create knowledge due to maya). Once anicca, dukka and anatma is "understood" "one" attains Nibbana. All our activities on creation of "knowledge" is on "this side of Nibbana" (This is only a way of expression. Nibbana is not something that exists somewhere in space.). The knowledge that is created due to avidya of anicca, dukka and anathma is relative. It is relative to the sense organs, the mind and the culture of the person or the persons who create knowledge.
If people had different sense organs then they would have created worlds different from their present constructions. In constructional relativistic formulation, the world is the same as the knowledge of the world. It is not a case of knowing a given world or creating models of a given world. There is no world independent of the knowledge of the world. As mentioned before the statement that there is a world independent of the observer, is itself knowledge and that knowledge has been expressed by an observer with sense organs and a mind. In other words the knowledge of an objective world is itself relative to an observer or observers.
The word model is sometimes used to describe a theory without implying a model of something that exists over there independent of the observer. A theory or model once created is not only knowledge but constitutes the "relevant part" of the world as well. The totality of the models or the theories, the concepts etc., of an observer constitutes the world relative to that particular observer or the observer's world.
The relative worlds of different observers do not imply that they are the ways in which a world existing over there appears to different observers. The observers create their own worlds due to avidya or ignorance of anicca, dukka and anathma. Constructional relativism is different from other relativism in this aspect. It does not talk of relative pictures, relations or any such thing. In fact there are no such things independent of the observers.
For example different people reading "this article" will create their own articles while reading according to their tastes, attitudes, frames of minds etc.What appears in print is my article. What you read is your article. It must be emphasised that the articles you read are not different versions of my article. In reading you give different interpretations (not to"this article") and create your own article.
Some philosophers and sociologists in the west also talk of different readings of books and articles. Some have even gone to the extent of raising questions such as "where is the text?". However they have not explained or "created an explanation" why there is no text as such. The avidya of anicca, dukka and anathma is not within the western culture.
The culture plays an important part in the creation of knowledge. People of different cultures create different worlds. The worlds created by the westerners are in general different from those created by the Asians and the others. We create and experience different worlds. This does not mean that there is nothing in common between these worlds. The fact that all human beings have the same sense organs imply that there are some common elements between these worlds. In fact the idea of an objective world has been created as a result of this commonness.
Constructional relativism is clearly not a materialistic philosophy. It is neither an idealistic philosophy. The concept of the mind or the mind itself is also a creation. The mind or the ego or I-ness or self is also created due to avidya of anicca, dukka and anathma. In constructional relativism things neither exist nor do not exist. They are created due to avidya or ignorance. One might even explain these in terms of dependent origination but that is outside the scope of this article.
One important aspect of constructional relativism is that even the so-called science has been created due to avidya and that western science is only one system of knowledge created in the west with respect to the western culture. There are other systems of knowledge and other sciences created in other parts of the world. They are not mere indigenous knowledge confined to particular regions but systems of knowledge of an equal status as the western system of knowledge. If the western system has acquired a global status, it is due to the cultural colonialism and not because of any intrinsic merit, which the other systems do not have.