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Scholars and Sages: to K. Paul Johnson

Sep 09, 2004 03:55 AM
by Pedro Oliveira

Dear Paul:

I have followed with interest your posts on Prothero.
Although not a scholar, I did study Philosophy in
Brazil. (Incidentally, the military governements that
ruled the country for over twenty years removed
Philosophy as a subject from the public schools'
curriculum saying that it was 'subversive'.) The
following is my 0.0001 cents on the subject.

Perhaps it would not be unfair to say that the matrix
of western scholarship has its roots in the
Aristotelian system and its categories. We need
categories to understand and relate to reality: time,
space, causality, extension, quality, quantity, etc.
So the reality we see and which we try to understand
is contantly "measured" by the use of categories. The
scholarly search for evidence, for example, is a form
of measurement.

This system works well for the physical world, for the
world of sensate experience. But it is insuficient to
understand (and measure) those dimensions of existence
which lie beyond categorial awareness. That such
dimensions do exist is exemplified in the universality
of mystical or spiritual experience existing at the
heart of many religious traditions in the world. (A
word on the meaning of 'mystical' later.)

Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" is possibly the very
foundation of modern rationalism. In it he reasserts,
with greater sophistication, the role of categories in
the process of understanding reality. But even Kant,
one of the most brilliant intellects of his time as
well as of the history of western philosophical
thought, conceded, in his well-known statement, that
"the things in themselves cannot be known". Our
knowledge, therefore, is a knowledge "about" things,
not of things in themselves. It is a mediated,
categorically-induced knowledge. It is not the
knowledge of what is.

In his book "Einstein, the Life and Times", Ronald W.
Clark mentions a conversation between Einstein and his
friend Dr. Chaim Tschernowitz, narrated by that

"Suddenly he lifted his head, look upward at the clear
skies, and said: 'We know nothing about it all. All
our knowledge is but the knowledge of school

"Do you think", I asked, "that we shall ever probe the

'Possibly', he said with a movement of his shoulders,
'we shall know a little bit more than we do now. But
the real nature of things, that we shall never know,

"He knew as did Socrates, that we know nothing."

The etymology of the words is also quite revealing.
The word 'scholar' comes from the Latin *schola*,
meaning "school", which in its turn comes from the
Greek *skhole*, "leisure, disputation, philosophy,
lecture-place". It seem to describe fairly well the
world of a scholar. The world obviously needs
scholars, intellectuals, philosophers, specialists.
Their contribution is to make knowldege more widely
available, to advance the sum total of human knowledge
and understanding. But there may be dimensions in life
which their scholarship cannot sufficently measure,
and I am not referring to personal beliefs nor faith.
I am referring to the awareness of the sacred. 

The word 'mystic' comes from the Greek *mustikos*
(*mustes* initiated person), the root being *muo*,
"close eyes or lips, initiate". A genuine mystical
experience has nothing to do with seeing colours,
angels or auras, or hearing sounds, etc. Real mystical
experience is an untranslatable experience of the
Ground of Being, the sacred foundation of all
existence. Such experience, in its essence, is
completely non-categorizable; it is beyond language.

To paraphrase Ravi Ravindra, scholars don't need
mystics or seers, nor seers need scholars, but a
humanity enlightened by knowledge, but still groping
in the dark and deeply divided, may need both. Or not.


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