Knowledge and the Human Intellect

Munich, 16 September 2012

History has always relied on philosophical concepts to make a connection or link between past events being reported—that could have happened in the immediate past or at a time that is substantially removed—and the present as well as to understand the impact these events could have in the future development of the human race. Conceptual understanding of past events is necessary to be able to project the present in such a way as to view the future with some clarity. It is, therefore, important to understand that history is incomplete without this connection being made. Extrapolating this element on a broad basis leads one to believe that history is a record of changes that take place on a continual basis and that the events of the past always have an effect on what is happening now and subsequently also impact occurrences well into the future. In other words, history can only be understood if it can be demonstrated to have a tangible linear progression from the events of the past to the present and into the future.
Until about early 19th century, history was primarily reported as the activities of a ‘Great’ person of the particular period being considered; a sort of Great Man story, of explanations of the events that took place and the biographical impact of that central individual on those events, even if the cause of the event was something or someone far removed from the central individual. Until the advent of democracy and the decline and fall of hereditary kingdoms, these central figures were normally the ones that dominated the society through political and military leadership—essentially the king and his courtiers. These central individuals certainly brought about change, either good or bad, that affected the future of their kingdoms, and perhaps even more than a democratically elected leader is capable of doing in the contemporary circumstances. Even in contemporary recordings of history, the Great Man story style can be perceived when the rule of an elected leader is termed as ‘so and so’s era’.  The reporting of history as a record of the deeds of a central individual changed about two centuries ago when the events perpetrated by social groups, religious organisations and professional associations also gained sufficient importance for them to be considered worth recording for posterity. Gradually events started to be interpreted either as the follow-on of the rulers’ actions or as the result of the activities of a group or as a combination of the two. Combining the impact of the activities of societal and/or religious groups and those of the leadership gave a completely different interpretational nuance to the analysis of an event, as opposed to focusing only on one of the elements. 
The changes that take place in the progress—here the term ‘progress’ is used purely to indicate movement in any direction and does not imply positive development—of the human race can be related at the fundamental level to the accumulation of human knowledge since all events of consequence like wars, revolutions, and diplomatic interactions are the products of the human intellect. The growth of knowledge creates constant and continuous, but minor, changes to human activities that in turn become historical changes that are clearly discernible through cumulative accretion. This knowledge augmentation also facilitates the development of technology that has been a critical element in ensuring human development. This situation brings forth a loaded question—what is human progress, as in positive development? From a historical perspective, the evolution of human beings from being hunter-gatherers to becoming pastoralists, then domesticating plants and converting to turn into farmers and creating an agrarian society that evolved into the contemporary industrialised world is a journey facilitated largely by technology, a by-product of knowledge. Therefore, the foundation of knowledge amplification and reinforcement is a collective understanding of the environment followed by its exploitation for the betterment of the human kind. This is a self-perpetuating cycle, understanding the environment creates knowledge growth and the same understanding is facilitated by the accumulation of knowledge and the ability to apply it, ad infinitum.
History is the record and interpretation of events and evolving changes. These changes are normally predominant in the ideological, societal, and material spheres. Further, the changes in these spheres, either individually or in combination, create developments that are either good or bad in the political sphere. The changes in the political sphere could include diplomatic exchanges, wars, and conflicts of interest; cultural developments; religious awakenings and associated convulsions; and the inexorable movement of technology. The ideological sphere is fundamental and perhaps foundational in this aspect, since this is the area where ideas develop and new ideas have always been the drivers of all major changes in the recorded by history of the world. The second area of change incubation is the societal sphere and fundamental to its impact is its openness or otherwise of the society that permits or suppresses the spread of these new ideas. The society and its accepted behavioural and religious norms of the time thereby play the role of catalysts that invigorate the spread of the idea or that of smothering agents that prevent the debate and discussion so important to the development and flowering of ideas to benefit the human race. The third area is the material sphere, which is direct connection to technology and the conduit for its influence on the other spheres. The material sphere, facilitated by technology, determines how people live and therefore, governs how they react to new ideas. An optimum combination of the three spheres is necessary for the ‘development’ of a people and this can only be achieved through the accumulation of knowledge and the nurturing of the intellect.
The definitions of intellect—the power or faculty of the mind by which one knows or understands; capacity for thinking and acquiring knowledge; and knowledge—acquaintance with facts, truths, and/or principles, as from study or investigation; clearly show the intimate connection between the two. The quest for knowledge therefore depends primarily on the collective intellect of a people and thereafter on the needs and desires of the society that are in turn influenced by a number of disparate elements. The needs and desires of the society also establish the rate of development of that particular society. One of the critical elements that govern this development is the interaction of that society with the environment. Depending on the collective intellect and the knowledge level of the society, this interaction can either be positive or negative. In other words, the capacity to learn, which is an efficient combination of intellect and inherent knowledge, and the need felt within the society to develop becomes the driving force in the progress of human beings. The recording of this progress, therefore, becomes a multifarious activity wherein the collective intellect, accumulated knowledge and the needs and desires of the society are the three crucial elements to be assessed and analysed. In such an analysis it will be noted that the rate of progress invariably varies from one historical period to the next in a random manner. In an indirect manner, the rate of change is also indicative of the increase or otherwise of the quantum of knowledge resident within the society that is being analysed. It is clearly noticeable in an overarching manner that in situations where the inherent knowledge accretion is deficient, the rate of progress is also slower than in cases where the levels of knowledge are greater and the pace of its accumulation is also high.
There are two kinds of knowledge on which the human race relies to ensure progress. First is the collective knowledge of a group of people that is the result of accumulated experience and observation. The experience is again a collective function that involves the chronicling of the experiences of the group from its earliest memories, passed down through generations by way of both oral and written traditions. This knowledge, that is imbibed into the sub-conscious (here the definition of sun-conscious is not as rigid as it would be when behavioural scientists mention the term, but a more broad interpretation as separate from the active, conscious part of the brain; existing or operating in the mind beneath or beyond consciousness) directly influences the reaction of the group, and individuals within it, to an unfolding event as well as the follow-on behaviour pattern. The second kind of knowledge is the one that is acquired through logical reasoning i.e. using the intellect, and then propagated to the community, directly producing what is termed as progress or development. This knowledge is fundamentally derived from the attempts to understand nature through study, observation and analysis with the aim to either adapt it or adapt to it in order to maintain the necessary balance to co-exist. The ability to adapt nature to one’s requirements is perhaps a unique quality of human beings, the rest of the animal kingdom almost always adapts to changes in nature. However, this constant investigation into nature is the product of an instinctive curiosity of the human race to explore and understand nature as it is perceived. This curiosity is the creation of the human intellect.
Changes in knowledge levels therefore, are always the result of the basic human intellect—of the ability of human beings to learn, remember and nurture their inherent curiosity through innovative analysis and experimentation. This is equally true of the advancements in science and technology as it is in the developments in philosophy and the fine arts. These developments ultimately lead to changes in society, whether for its betterment or as a detriment to its positive progress. In a roundabout manner it can then be seen that social institutions are the elements that form the underlying continuity in a society that is essential to the understanding of history as an overarching and critical factor in comprehending the progress of human beings. However, one must also be cognisant of the fact that social institutions also evolve with changes that take place in the ideological, societal and material spheres. When these dots are connected, what comes out as an undeniable fact is that there is continuous change in all aspects of human development. As a corollary, it therefore becomes vital to record, analyse and interpret past events to ensure the progress of the human race. 
If it is accepted that history is the retelling of past events with an intimate and contextual understanding as well as their possible impact on later day events, then the fundamental question of whether or not these events have always led to progress, as in development, needs to be addressed. In other words, is history a record of human progress? If one accepts that knowledge accumulation, however gradual, is a continuous process, then it can be surmised that each successive generation is smarter and more accomplished than the previous. Similarly each emerging civilisation will be an improved version of the previous one that it eclipsed. However, this presumption does not address the question—whether or not knowledge and its accumulation always lead to improvement in the basic quality of the human being itself. This requires further study regarding what can be termed as the ‘quality’ of a human being and also the distinction between good and bad qualities. In these circumstances it is felt that the presumption of each succeeding civilisation being an improvement on the previous cannot be readily accepted. Fundamentally, the question then emerges, what is progress? In the case of humans is progress to be measured in material or spiritual terms? Is there an element called spiritual progress of the human being? Does the term ‘humanity’ form part of this spiritual progress, if at all it exists in some form? These questions require in-depth study and analysis and even then may not produce any satisfactory and assured answers. However, anyone venturing into history should be aware of these time honoured questions that face all persons who try to decipher the history of human beings.
At the very least, anyone who reads history and ponders on historical events must attempt to bring history and contemporary affairs together. This interaction is not a one-way street and the flow has to be equal in both ways—historical events impacting contemporary situations and contemporary decisions and activities influencing the understanding of history and its interpretation. The connection is indelible. John Savage, a US Congressman in the early 1800s said, “History is made by those who say no.” If the concept of what he said is expanded, it only means that history is made by people who refused to accept anything without finding the logical reason why this should be so. They were using their intellect. This is where knowledge begins and history gets to be recorded.
[This concludes the four-part series on the ‘Theory of History’]  

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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