Some theses about the Reformation of knowledge


László Ropolyi


Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Eötvös University

1518 Budapest, Pf. 32.


Phone: +36-1-372 2949



Presented at:

Internet Research 1.0: The State of the Interdiscipline. First Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers
Lawrence, KS, USA, September 14-17, 2000


A close analogy between the situation of the citizens of the 15-16th century and that of the netizens of our age can be presented.

In the late Middle Ages the crisis of (religious) belief, now the crisis of (scientific) knowledge can be observed. The earlier crisis with the support of the movements of reformation produced a new era with the emergence of human knowledge and now - five hundred years after - the modern knowledge has arrived at a crisis situation. Now the question is: How can we emancipate ourselves from the rule of decontextualized, abstract reason? Based on the possibilities of the Internet reformatories of knowledge try to reconstruct the whole human culture. During this process the power of the experts of abstract reason, and the scientific institution systems (universities, academies, libraries, publishers) lose their significance, and a new, direct and personal relation between man and knowledge becomes possible.

The role of Internet in this reformation process can remind us of the role of the printed Bible played in the Reformation of the Catholic Church. The Reformation of knowledge will essentially restructure the personality including its basic characteristics, its systems of value and its thinking. Now we can observe the birth of a new, re-emancipated person, who wants to throw off the yoke of abstract feeling and of abstract reason, as well.



1. Introduction

    There is a close analogy between the situation of the citizens of the 15-16th Century and that of the netizens of our age. In the late Middle Ages the crisis of belief, now the crisis of knowledge can be diagnosed.

    During the centuries of Middle Ages the organization of human societies was fundamentally influenced by the unquestionable dominance of an abstract feeling, the religious belief. For the late Middle Ages this type of social organization lost its stability and social and cultural movements emerged to re-build the value system. Reorganization of the relation of man to God was the most important purpose of the Reformation: one wanted to eliminate the entire church-institution system from this intimate relation. The goal was the individual freedom in matters of belief. Faith was conceived of as a personal and direct relation to God, without the interpretations of the experts of faith. For this direct relation to the Word of God the printing press ensured the necessary "technical" background. 

    That old crisis produced a new era with the emergence of human knowledge. Instead of belief, knowledge became the most important organizing principle of society, in this way the whole culture of modern age became a knowledge-centered organization. But now the modern society, and the modern knowledge arrived at a crisis situation. Now the question is the following: How could we emancipate ourselves from the rule of the decontextualized, uncontrollable, abstract reason? 

    Now the reformators of knowledge have to eliminate the power of experts of the abstract reason and the scientific-institution systems (universities, academies, publishers, libraries, etc.) and they have to build up a new, direct and personal relation between man and knowledge. Fortunately, modernity produced the networks of computers as proper "technical" tools for this task. [McGeady, 1966] This is the time of the Reformation of human knowledge, five hundred years after the Reformation of belief.

    In this paper some aspects of this reformation process will be considered. First we would like to depict some fundamental features of modernity. On this basis computers will be characterized as the very modern instruments. In the second part of the paper the crisis of modernity and the postmodern attitude will be shortly considered and it will be emphasized that computer networks and their use embody postmodern values. The adequate use of Internet ensures the possibility of the postmodern Reformation of knowledge, moreover, the Internet is the most important instrument of this process. Finally, some possible cultural and social consequences will be mentioned.


2. Modern instruments - universal knowledge and computers

    The human beings of the Middle Ages lived in a very restricted, hierarchical and static society. This was a safety, well-known and familiar social environment for them, but in this framework the strict, practically absolute limits prevented the development of the individual. The change of the historical conditions later on made possible the starting of the process of individualization. The emergence of the new, individual ideology, first of all appeared in the Renaissance world view and in religious form, in the movement of the Reformation of the Catholic Church.

    However, the individual so developed found himself soon in an alien world, which was full of danger, including the aspirations of the other individuals, and with nobody to defend from these actions. The fundamental experience of the borning individual is the radical lack of safety, his dominant feeling is anxiety. The essential character-structure of the modern individual was determined by these historical conditions, and the process resulted in a selfish individual existing in an alienated world. [Fromm, 1964; Szilágyi, 1992] Besides the modern individuals all other productions of the emerging Modern Ages was produced under the influence of these circumstances, so they embody and express somehow the modern interests and values. The human knowledge, this new organizing power of culture, was also in a similar position and as a result the practical and the theoretical knowledge imbued with the values of the modern individuals. They were constructed by a selfish methodology which ensures that they have a selfish character. [Ropolyi, 1999a]

    Selfishness is essentially a stated controlling that can be reached by disregarding. Any human construction can show this characteristic if it is created by a method which is under the influence of selfishness. The most important aspect of selfish methodology is: the disregarding and elimination of any relevant aspects, elements or parts of the objects of the world. The will to absolute power, the selection, construction and control of our world is expressed and embodied in disregarding. The selfish methodology is a creative one, and it elevates the selfish person to a divine position. From this position, a selfish person constructs for him/herself the type of world in which he/she is the absolute ruler. This is the typical position of the modern man. The irresistible temptation of the modern man to become the absolute ruler of his/her world is rooted in his/her above mentioned anxiety of the unknown, unfamiliar, or hostile in the world. A methodology of selfishness was elaborated by the philosophers and scientists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is very natural, that the selfish methodology appears and plays a very important role in the formation of modern science.

    Applying this methodology both theoretical and practical instruments can be constructed. The most important role of these instruments is: to ensure the ruler position of the modern individual over her/his own world. Scientific theories represent the eminent theoretical versions, and different kind of automata (clockworks and machines) represent the perfect practical versions of these equipment's. Their imagination based on the possibility of the universal and abstract knowledge. Knowledge is power, because the knowledge has a universal and abstract validity.

    We have no room to go into the details, so in the case of scientific theories we simply refer to our above cited paper, but in the case of automaton we try to summary shortly the most relevant aspects of our another analysis. [Ropolyi 1999b]

    The clockwork metaphor expresses one of the most important relations of the XVII-XVIII centuries. A clockwork is a kind of automaton. Everything can be considered as a clockwork: the living organisms, the human body, the soul and even the world as a whole. The first ideas of computing automata (computers) were born in this time, suggested by Pascal and Leibniz. These ideas about early computers were basically governed by a mechanistic paradigm: these machines were discussed as a special kind of clockwork. Generations of computers were produced by this way of thinking, just until nowadays. It can be demonstrated that most if not all the important characteristics of the modern computers are determined by these ideas, by the mechanistic philosophy, by the ideology of modernity. The computers are mechanistic constructions, independently from the microelectronical production and electronic working of their components. Moreover, it can be stated that the computer is the best realization of the idea of perfect machine imaged in the XVIII. Century. The computer becomes a part of the huge clockwork of power of the modern society and at the same time it is a construction of power, a power-machine, that is, the most important characteristics of the modernist power structure are built in and expressed in it. It can be shown that the organizing of the subsystems of computers and modern political and economic systems apply practically the same principles. [Ropolyi, 1999b]

    Selfishness appears also in a very direct form in the typical realization of the human-computer relation: the human has the ruler role, she/he declares her/his commands and the computer executes them. Applying different software's the user defines the actual work of the computer and in a certain sense the human being can determine the actual nature of the computer. However, within this special nature the very fundamental nature of all kinds of computers is expressed: being the perfect slave. In a way the programming is a kind of creative exercise, the programmer exists in the position of the creator, which is a special version of the selfish, divine position. 


3. Postmodern instruments - particular knowledge and Internet

    Now it is clear that the uncritical following of the selfish methodology, the Will to Power resulted in contradictionary success: modern man was not plainly deliberated from the rule of necessities, but at the same time, in some respects, became a victim of his own aspirations and becomes not the lord, but the slave of his/her technical environment. There are some important conditions of interchanging the roles in the power-situation: these are the mechanization of the human nature, and endowing the computers with human characteristics.

    Moreover, experiencing the horrible developments of modern history the fidelity to the values of modernity decreased radically. The whole body of the modern knowledge and its most important product, the modern individuals are disintegrating and decomposing in sight of us. The power of the pure, abstract reason became dark or even dangerous for the mankind. [Adorno and Horkheimer, 1974]

    The most consciousness reflections to this crisis situation can be found at the postmodern thinkers. It is not so easy to characterize the postmodern ideology because of its very basic - pluralism-loving - nature. The traditional descriptions consist of some parallelisms between the preferences of modernity and those of postmodernity. [Lyotard, 1991] Regarding this comparison the most important statement is that postmodernism is not separated from modernism as the successor of it, but postmodernism includes modernism as an aspect of itself. On the other hand, while modernism follows the tradition of Enlightenment, postmodernism rejects this tradition. Postmodernism includes different, often opposing aspirations, values and goals, and rejects all kinds of absoluteness of them.

    The postmodern knowledge has not any universal and abstract characteristics. It is rather a situated, contextualized, concretized, personal, individual and particular knowledge. It has no well-distinguishable theoretical and practical aspects or parts. The postmodern theory and praxis overlap each other. Instead of the above mentioned traditional modernist scientific theories and technical machines we have special kind of hybrids of them. In our view the Internet is the most significant "hybrid". From this perspective the Internet represents an instrumental knowledge and, at the same time, a knowledge-instrument.

    Our thesis is that the fundamental ideas of postmodernity are built up into the Internet. This is probably not a very surprising statement: there are many studies about the different details of this relation. [Agre, 1999] Here we would underline only a few aspects of this relation.

    It is important that the emergence of postmodern thinking and that of Internet have been running at the same time, in a parallel process, starting in the mid-sixties.

    It is very clear that in the networks a lot of typical modernist activities can occur, which are functioning in a more convenient, quicker and effective way. However, certain ways of using the networks have broken these frames down and at this moment they seem to be the authentic ways of using of the Net: some years ago creating and searching gopher sites; nowadays creating and visiting personal, institutional and/or thematic web pages, representing and investigating of all products of human culture on the network, including the oral, the textual and visual pieces of it, the official and the very personal versions, the very significant and the absolutely negligible parts of it. During the very extended internetworking activities including the hypertext and multimedia usage every user can contact directly and actively the sources of the entire human culture. From this position this culture seems to be fragmented, chaotic, virtual and plural one. In the process of networking the whole context-structure of the culture is continuously destroying and rebuilding.

    Earlier we demonstrated that such important features of postmodern ideology appear in the praxis of networking as plurality, fragmentality, virtuality, individuality, included modernity, and the basic anarchist political ideas. [Ropolyi, 1999b]


4. Conclusion: postmodern Reformation of knowledge

    The progressive movements of the Middle Ages criticized the restrictive, conservative, impersonal, highly abstract, and alienated elements of the religious world view. The reformators of belief wanted to liberate the man from the universal rule of the conservative religious institution-system and to create rooms for the concrete, real, and individual life. Finally, they restricted the absolute power of the abstract feeling - the faith - over the individual and determined the role of the concrete, personal faith in a more free and responsible personal life. As it is well known, the invention of printing played a fundamental role in this process. [Eisenstein, 1979] The printed books, especially the Bible, served as a special kind of "hardware" of the intellectual processes of Reformation.

    Some of the most relevant purposes of the Reformation were inherited to the later centuries and in the program of the Enlightenment they were reformulated and developed further. Because of the strong aspiration to the personal independence, freedom and equality most of the tasks of faith were substituted with those of the reason. This was the program of a brave new world. But after a few hundred years it became clear, that the knowledge produced by the universal, decontextualized, abstract reason is restrictive, conservative, impersonal, highly abstract and alienated. 

    Now if we want to regain the rights of a concrete, real, and individual life, we will face with the universal power of the conservative institution system of the knowledge. How could the postmodern reformators of knowledge restrict the power of the abstract reason and define the role of particular knowledge in our free and responsible personal life? Can we use only some printed books again? The handy answer is: no. The printed books played fundamental role earlier, but their basic characteristics have a modernist attitude. Actually, the book is a modern "hybrid", which means that the usual printed book represents the modern theory and automaton, and imbued with their modernist values. Of course, for the postmodern Reformation we need a postmodern kind of "hardware". Because of its postmodern characteristics the Internet is a good candidate for this purpose.

    Being the intellectual "hardware" is a common aspect of the printing and the Internet, but their dissimilarities are also significant. A book has an almost linear conceptual structure, but the structure of Internet is much more complicated, it is closer to the structure of a picture than a linear text. Despite the books in the Internet it is very easy to realize such postmodern characteristics as concreteness, temporality, unstability, etc.

    In this way the postmodern Reformation of knowledge would make possible the emancipation of man under the rule of the abstract feeling and the abstract reason, as well. Switch on our computers and let's go to the Internet to create and/or study our brave new future.

    However, surfing on the network we are in an uncertain epistemological situation. In the networking activity the scientific institutions lose their interpretative and ruler positions and everybody has to relate to the pieces of the knowledge directly and personally, without any mediating and interpreting by the official experts of that piece of knowledge. This freedom to reach all the human knowledge seems to be a constraint, we are thrown into the freedom and nobody can save us. On the Internet we are alone in the whole universe of knowledge, in an alien world. Can the alienation become stronger, does this new anxiety produce a new type of selfishness? A new type of personality is emerging. This is the time of the reformation of human knowledge, five hundred years after the reformation of belief.



Working on this paper I enjoyed the hospitality of the Department of Philosophy of the SUNY at Stony Brook, USA, with the financial support of a COBASE grant and with the intellectual support of Professor Don Ihde. I would like to thank their kind and generous support.



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