Western Science and Traditional Knowledge: Despite Their Variations, Different Forms of Knowledge Can Learn From Each Other [pt 3]
Contemporary hermeneutics—a branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of existential understanding and interpretation of texts—and, to a certain extent, complex thinking can offer useful approaches to compare different forms of knowledge and rationality. Complex thinking has provided new insights, and has contributed to a renewed interpretation of the concept of nature, and a new paradigm of science and epistemology. This new approach has brought a greater awareness of the shortcomings of simple explanations in comprehending reality. It aims to overcome the limits of both reductionism and holism by integrating them into a wider perspective, which investigates the complex structure of interconnections and retroactive relationships in the real world.
According to the classic epistemological approach, the creation of knowledge is a process of qualitative refinement and quantitative accumulation. Its goal is to disclose the ultimate foundation—the ‘meta’ point of view from where we can see the ontological order and the objective truth—and to provide a neutral and universal language to explain natural phenomena (Ceruti, 1986).
Complex thinking has strongly questioned this notion of a meta point of view along with its heuristic value as a principle for the creation of knowledge. Instead, it seeks and analyses the web of relationships among different perspectives. This is continually redefined in a dynamic process involving multiple points of observation and explanation. These places are fundamentally incommensurable, yet they can complement each other and be part of a constructive network. What matters, in fact, is the possibility of including multiple viewpoints that are vicarious in building a cognitive universe and can disclose a more complete picture of reality.
In this context, the hermeneutical notion of a ‘horizon’ as expressed by the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer seems to be highly relevant: “Horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point” (Gadamer, 1960). Rationality intrinsically works from this point, which starts the process of comprehension through which we can interact with other and different horizons, and ultimately expand our own knowledge horizon.
The encounter between different cultures and knowledge systems can then be regarded as an encounter between different macrohorizons; such systems come from different traditions, and each has its own way of understanding phenomena and its own ‘logic’ that allows the observed phenomena to be placed within an overall vision. Nevertheless, all representations of reality are expressions of the same cognitive features that are inherent in human nature.
…all representations of reality are expressions of the same cognitive features that are inherent in human nature
Traditional environmental knowledge is an important part of humankind’s cultural heritage—the result of countless civilizations and traditions that have emerged over human history. This cultural diversity is as important for our future as is biodiversity. It is a potential source of creativity and enrichment embodied in several social and cultural identities, each of which expresses its uniqueness (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2002). However, European colonization has eroded and destroyed much of this traditional knowledge by replacing it with Western educational and cultural systems. The trend towards a global culture might even worsen this situation and enhance a process of cultural homogenization.
Scientific knowledge has long held a central role and attained a dominant position in our developed societies, but we cannot ignore the fact that other valid knowledge systems exist. The imposition of Western scientific ideas and methods not only causes disruption to existing social and economic relationships, but also might spoil the local knowledge. Allowing science to be the final arbiter of the validity of knowledge, and to establish the threshold beyond which knowledge is not worthy of its name, would create the conditions whereby an astonishing cultural heritage is transformed into a monolithic structure. Instead, we would be better advised to recognize the value of this heritage, and to devise strategies for its preservation for the benefit of present and future generations.