A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge

In relation to my last post on indoctrination and education, I thought I’d share this quote, taken from the 18th century philosopher George Berkeley’s ‘A treatise concerning the principles of human knowledge’. [tweetmeme source=”victoria_plumb” only_single=false]

Every learner hath a deference more or less to authority, especially the young learners, few of that kind caring to dwell long upon principles, but inclining to take them upon trust: And things early admitted by repetition become familiar: And this familiarity at length passeth for evidence.

George Berkeley (1685-1783): from the principles of human knowledge.

It is, in my view, this familiarity that Berkeley describes, the reason why we put so much faith into techno-fixes.
Where big problems are concerned, whether it is creating food security or preventing catastrophic climate change, or even now, dealing with the rise of anti-biotic resistance, this loads the dice in favour of reductive enquiry and against whole system appreciation. For example, it tends to lead to the question, how do we generate more electricity quickly and centrally, rather than how do we live differently in order to need less, it focuses on how to increase crop yields at a large scale, rather than how to ensure access to food at the local level.

In short, the idea of the magic bullet leaves us always looking for the easy way out, rather than the best way forward.

2 Responses to “A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge”
  1. Stefan Thiesen says:

    Familiarity – yes. But in a superficial way. Two decades ago Freeman Dyson pointed out that we need more integrative thinking. I read that as more systems thinking. And everyone familiar with complex systems learns about unpredictable surprises and unintended consequences, and I dare say common sense demands the most obvious thing: precaution. It is not as if we don’t know… see for example the rather enlightening EU report “Late Lessons from Early Warnings”: http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/environmental_issue_report_2001_22. There have been many dire early warnings about the unsustainable nature of our economic system… some warnings against the pure focus on money date back Millenia.

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  • July 2011
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