Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The History of Knowledge

If you've seen the film Quiz Show, you may remember Ralph Fiennes' portrayal of Charles Van Doren. The fixing of Twenty-One resulted in the resignation of Van Doren from his professorship at Columbia. Unfortunately, many first learned of Van Doren through the movie, but my first knowledge came after stumbling upon his book, A History of Knowledge in the early 1990s.

Ever since reading Van Doren, the history of knowedge has been an area of personal interest for me. In the process of researching this post, I saw Amazon recommendations for other books in my library, books such as S.E. Frost's The Basic Teachings of the Great Philosophers and Will Durant's The Greatest Minds of All Time (on the subject of Durant, I would also include his The Story of Philosophy).

The history of knowlege is an object of personal fascination for a number of reasons. I find it fascinating to think of the times when everyone knew the world was flat, when everyone knew for certain the solar system was geocentric, when life was the result of spontaneous generation, or when it was widely assumed that space and time were absolutes.

What was it like to live in such times? Who and what did it take to move human knowledge beyond such obstacles and on to the next level? Where are we now? What's the next great scientific revolution over the horizon, and who will discover it? (Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.)

I once read an author (I forget who) claiming the burning of the library at Alexandria set human knowledge back 1000 years. Who's to say if it's true, but it's a horrifying thought--if you can imagine being propelled back another thousand years and left to live in the year 1006. If the claim is accurate, we're where the people in 1006 should have been, and heaven knows where humankind might be now (hopefully not back to "sticks and stones.") Who's to say? It's all speculation, but the broader point brings us to the pondering of such questions.

In the process of googling my way around the Net this evening, I stumbled upon an interesting set of online lecture materials related to the history of knowledge compiled by Piero Scaruffi at Berkeley: Paradigm Shifts: The Ideas that Changed the Way We See the World (A brief history of knowledge). Unfortunately, the PowerPoint and Acrobat slides don't seem to work, but you may find the HTML outlines and timelines worthy of perusal, especially the summary here.

If you find the subject interesting too, I recommend picking up a copy of Van Doren's A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, Future, the book that sparked my interest in the subject.


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