Every two years, the Institute on the Formation of Knowledge announces a new research theme designed as a flexible guide to work undertaken at the Institute during that period. The  2016 -18 research theme is Comparing Practices of Knowledge.

We have selected this as our topic because the intensity of contemporary cultural contact is providing dramatic illustration of the potential for confluence between frameworks for knowledge—Scientific?  Indigenous?  Non-western?  Religious? Universalizing? Local?  Doing research at the meeting point of these different frameworks means delineating each framework’s particular approach to the legitimization of knowledge and explaining the impact of different knowledge-assumptions.

A long-standing problem arises from the tales that practitioners of one form of knowledge tell about themselves.  These not only justify their asserted facts, but their very ways of acquiring and verifying knowledge:  knowledge not simply as lists of propositions, but knowledge as practice.  These dynamics raise the question of whether any one form of knowledge can easily account for, let alone make room for, any other?

Such situations bring the institutions we know well (fact-finding, archiving, critical assessment, experiment) in contact with institutions that apply different criteria to legitimate knowledge claims. Is it a matter of the majority culture making room for the exception, of confluence between different streams (as if a common denominator could be found), or of such far-reaching incompatibility that only words like alternative can describe the relation among the fields of knowledge?

The notion of rationality and its connection to science may serve as a case in point.  According to a common view, rational activity consists in the derivation of abstract principles from observations or experiments that have been conducted methodically and applied to an extended range of objects or events in order to understand their behavior or predict their dispositions.  This description would fit many different kinds of knowledge systems, which might thus be considered rational. Knowledge systems the world over might therefore be studied as rational or, indeed, claim rationality for themselves.  Many knowledge systems, including those of Plato, medieval Christianity and the post-Cartesian West, claim to have discovered their principles, and not just their facts, out there in the world, or to have received them from some source beyond the human.  They arrogate to themselves a universality and necessity, which sanctions them to judge other claims to knowledge that might look rather different.

Such rationalities also press us to ask what purpose they might serve if not the scientific one of providing predictability about the natural world and improving life quality through the adaptation of technology.  This invites us to ask what exactly those scientific practices are (e.g. experiment, quantification, peer review); how they stand in relationship to other modes of acquiring knowledge; and what claims might be unique to this form of knowledge alone.

Anonymous - Camille Flammarion, L'Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888), pp. 163