File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/97-04-21.135, message 43


Date: Sun, 20 Apr 1997 12:17:40 +0200
Subject: M-I: Knowledge vs experience


In a discussion central to our concerns, Rakesh takes up a distinction
between experience and knowledge, quoting the following approvingly:

>... but one cannot EXPLAIN that
>oppression in terms of EXPERIENCE.  One has to know the conditions of
>possibility of that EXPERIENCE--which are always historical and material.
>It is therefore not a question of negating BUT attempting to know
>EXPERIENCE.  An affect is not knowledge and all analyses require
>knowledge. . . and knowledge is historical. . . not personal


But this to me looks like "common sense" argument -- something vilified
earlier in the post Rakesh quotes.

Very few people would make the claim that emotions can replace knowledge as
*explanations* of anything. Neither, thankfully, would most people want to
negate experience. And most of us in one way or another attempt during our
lives to know experience and understand just what the hell it is that's
happening to us.

But the point that's missed here is the fact that for human beings
experience and emotion are primary. We've been walking bundles of emotions
and experience since before we became human. As Gunnar Ekel=F6f (one of my
favourite Swedish poets) puts it:

	Jag reser mig ur min aska --
	ett t=E4nkande k=E4nsloliv --

	[I rise from my ashes --
	a life of thinking emotions --]

Being precedes thought, and our being is feelings and experience. But human
beings, as bundles of feelings and experience, are nevertheless quite
incapable of escaping from the processes of thinking about what's happening
to them, inside and outside. It's hardwired into us. Everything we say or
reflect in our minds has gone through a long chain of processes abstracting
>from the immediate sense perceptions that orient us in the here and now --
and even these are pretty abstract. So we're back to Hegel -- everything
human is a dialectically fused expression of both reality and thought. The
question is how are the two linked and articulated. So it's pointless to
claim that anyone is ever just expressing an "experience".

I think the sting of the quote is in the tail. A distinction is made
between knowledge as "historical" and "personal". This is idealistic trash.
All knowledge is *both* historical and personal. Like language. You can't
get away from the personal bearer of knowledge any more than you can get
away from the personal bearer of language.

A truer distinction would be between knowledge as "social" rather than
"individual". An individual completely deprived of society from birth would
develop a very primitive form of knowledge and no language -- if indeed it
he or she were able to survive at all. This primitive knowledge would
nonetheless still be personal.

The thing is that knowledge as we know it (in the common sense way!)
already presupposes the social framework. And this in itself is of course
historical.

It's just that as Marxists we have to choose between the range of socially
available knowledges and decide which will help us most in our objective of
realizing our social will. And the acid test of these knowledges is in our
experience of their usefulness in the social struggles we engage in against
our social enemies, who have very different social goals. The broader our
understanding of the historical component of our own experience, the better
our understanding of how we come to be where we are, what problems we are
facing and how we can best overcome them in joint action with those who
share our situation and our social will.

And in deciding on the usefulness or not of any kind of knowledge, our
experience of oppression and of the ways in which it is increased or
decreased as a result of applying this knowledge is the ultimate test.

This explains the ups and downs and never-ending development of the
historical process very well, too. Because what appears to be the ultimate
solution in one situation becomes inadequate in the next. People act
socially and change their social setting for reasons that may appear very
flimsy to later generations -- but they do it. The choice in historical
hindsight is between a worse and a better, not between a bad and a good,
although for the purposes of action, the choice is binary -- *no* to one
alternative (this forces it towards "bad") and *yes* to the other (this
forces it towards "good").

Decisions for action focus all knowledge most intensely, and subject it to
its greatest test. That is why the democratic centralist model of
organization is so adequate to the task facing revolutionaries in our
epoch. Democratic discussion within the party raises the level of the
available knowledge as high as possible so that when the time comes for a
decision for action, the focus will be as sharp and concentrated as
possible. The better the members of the party have been trained to
understand the relationship between the unfinished, historical development
of knowledge on the one hand, and the absolute binary demands of a course
of action on the other, the better they will be able to deal with the task
of drawing up a balance sheet and improving their understanding of what
they've done and what they have to do next.

Thanks to Rakesh for putting his finger on a central point in this discussion.

Cheers,

Hugh










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