Cultures as Knowledge Systems/Taxonomy of Knowledge Systems – From Stephen Marglin’s Towards the Decolonization of the Mind

4 February, 2018 - Thesis

Can this taxonomic scheme (techne, episteme, and technai) apply to the interactions between Western-mode agronomists and Oaxaca’s indigenous population?

What does it mean that Marglin’s essay employs the attitude and technique of episteme in order to make these claims?

“But what is culture? We are all accustomed to thinking of culture as a set of rules, largely tacit and unconscious, that structure our social interaction and at another level the values that underlie those rules and give them — and our actions — meaning. We have no reason to deny this conception of culture. But we have every reason to go beyond it.// In our view culture is not only rules and values, but ways of knowing. A culture is composed of many systems of knowledge. In Chapter 7, a knowledge system is defined in terms of four characteristics: epistemology, transmission, innovation, and power. Each system has its own theory of knowledge (or epistemology), its own rules for sharing knowledge, its own distinctive ways for changing the content of what counts as knowledge, and finally, its own political rules for governing relationships both among insiders to any particular knowledge system and between insiders and outsiders.

All the chapters in this volume utilize the notion of knowledge systems, although all do not use it the same way. Banuri conceptualizes different knowledge systems in terms of the axis of personal versus impersonal relationships. In this view the distinguishing and pathological feature of Western knowledge systems is the subordination of the personal to the impersonal. The characterization in Chapter 7 includes the personal-impersonal dimension but only as one of many oppositions that characterize distinctive knowledge systems. In the West, the knowledge system of management, particularly ‘scientific management’, is characterized not only by impersonality, by its insistence on logical deduction from self-evident axioms, as the only basis for knowledge, but also by its emphasis on analysis, its claim that knowledge must be articulate in order to exist, its pretence to universality, its cerebral nature, its orientation to theory and empirical verification of theory, and its odd mixture of egalitarianism within the knowledge community and hierarchical superiority vis-a-vis outsiders. This system is called episteme in Chapter 7.

By contrast, labour’s knowledge — called techne — is not only personal, it differs from episteme in other fundamental ways. The sources of knowledge of a techne range from intuition to authority; it defies the analytic decomposability of episteme; it is often implicity rather than articulate; recognizing the limits of context, it makes no claim to universality; it is tactile and emotional where episteme is cerebral; it is practical rather than theoretical, and geared to discovery rather than to verification; finally, techne reverse the power relations of episteme: it is hierarchical internally but pluralistic externally.

In my view, the accommodation of labour to capital owes much to the systematic subordination of techne to episteme in Western culture. The problem is that workers, sharing the dominant values of their culture, also share the devaluation of their own knowledge.”

“The other chapters in this volume are principally concerned with the encounter between the dominant knowledge system of the West, episteme, with the traditional knowledge systems — the technai — of India. For Banuri, for Apffel Marglin, and for Nandy and Visvanathan, the central problem of the encounter is the imperialistic pretension to universality made on behalf of Western episteme and the total inability of its adherents to regard competing systems with anything but contempt, the inability indeed even to contemplate the existence of competing systems. Other systems of knowledge, particularly when they are embedded in myth and ritual, become superstition, the very antithesis of knowledge. The encounter is often fatal for indigenous systems because the supreme confidence of Westerners or Westernized elites in their knowledge is coupled to the superior means of political and economic force at their disposal.”

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