“Cogito ergo sum.” These famous words from the philosopher René Descartes summarize his view, or maybe his thought experiment, on how we know. For Descartes, knowledge is knowledge if it originates in the thinker. Any knowledge that originates outside of the thinker must be doubted, questioned, examined, and reasoned by the thinker so as to make it knowledge that could have originated within the thinker. Until the knowledge originates in the thinker, it cannot be considered actual knowledge.
This view of knowledge is reflective of the approach modern humans take to knowledge and experience today. There is distrust, even disdain, of knowledge that is received as a cultural inheritance. I cannot know that anything is a certain thing if I’ve simply received it from others.
Social media is proliferated with examples of this madness.
One video shows a scientific study where a young lady sits in a waiting room with paid actors who stand up every time they hear a ding over the waiting room speakers. By the third ding, the young lady begins standing with them. Once the actors have all left the room, she continues to stand for the ding, doing so even after new people come into the room. The new people are, like her, not paid actors who also begin standing at the sound of the ding. The original group stood for the ding because they were paid to, the lady and the new group stand for the ding because that is what everyone else did.
Another meme tells the story of a woman who cut the ends off of her roast every time she cooked it. She eventually asked her mother why she did it, and she responded because grandma did. They asked grandma why she did it only to find out that the reason she did it was because the whole roast wouldn’t fit in her oven.
Each of these stories are intended to exemplify the madness of believing or doing something simply because someone before us did, simply because we received it as part of our cultural inheritance. It is not knowledge that originated in us, and it is therefore not knowledge.
The first example is, of course, ridiculous precisely because it is manipulated. The woman in the waiting room is not receiving a cultural inheritance; paid actors are manipulating her. That is not the same thing as accepting a legitimate cultural inheritance. The second example is not an example of people foolishly accepting inherited knowledge. The knowledge they received from grandma is legitimate knowledge, a legitimate practice, if you are using her oven. The foolishness of it is that they took the inherited knowledge and applied it to all circumstances.
This is Descartes’ error. Descartes became the ultimate individual and thereby became an animal.
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan describes how humans know what is edible and what is not and how that distinguishes them from animals. He explains that rats do not pass on a cultural inheritance, learning what foods are edible and which are poisonous. In fact, each rat must learn this lesson on its own. Rats have a well-developed digestive system, and an olfactory system as well, no doubt, that helps them through this process.
Humans, on the other hand, have learned the lesson by trial and error and have worked out a system for communicating that knowledge onto successive generations. Go into any bookstore, and you will certainly find books on how to identify edible berries from inedible berries and good mushrooms from poisonous mushrooms. Mothers and fathers communicate the same information verbally to their children. The knowledge gained from parents and books is no less knowledge for the children and the readers. It is, in fact, knowledge that may save their lives.
Education that cultivates wisdom and virtue is education that passes on the time-tested and time-honored wisdom of the ages, helping us to navigate the murky waters of justice, temperance, virtue, truth, goodness, beauty, grace, mercy, faith, and love. These are not lessons one can learn or be expected to learn independently for the first time every time. To do so would be to become like animals, like rats, but without the advanced digestive and olfactory systems to aid us.
Human beings are not only communal creatures, but we are also remembering creatures. And that is Descartes’ ultimate error. By making his knowledge so utterly dependent on his own individuality, he gave up his own humanity: community and remembering. Descartes forgot to remember.