George Walford: Universal Knowledge

Each epoch has its mental cliches; they hinder action and frequently turn out to have been false. One from which we suffer is the assumption that knowledge has become too extensive for any single mind to grasp. This encourages the growth of special interests, tends to produce a society made up of separate groups each following its own course, and leaves us more exposed than we need be to unforeseen upheavals.

In one sense, of course, this assumption is valid. Nobody can know, in full detail, everything everybody else knows. But then nobody ever could, and there is no point in anybody trying to do so. In another sense, universal knowledge is not only possible but inescapable. The statement, “one mind cannot know everything,” proves that the mind making that statement does, in some sense, know everything. What we don’t know we cannot speak of, not even to say we can’t know it.

Knowledge does not come only as unrelated facts; much of it is “chunked,” what appears as a large number of details on one level of organisation becoming a small number of generalisations on the next and a still smaller number of broader ones on the next again. The “laws” of science are instances of high-order generalisation. If I know the Law of Gravitation I know something about the behaviour of every physical object, even the ones I have never encountered.

In the ascent to higher levels of organisation knowledge becomes more comprehensive, but as this happens so direct reference to the immediate facts is progressively lost. If I want to know whether the telephone in front of me is likely to fall the Law of Gravitation is not much help. So long as the table remains in place it won’t, but if the table gets pulled away it will, and the Law cannot say whether this is likely to happen or not. As knowledge becomes more comprehensive so it becomes more theoretical and less immediately practical. The ascent through the levels of organisation entails loss as well as gain, and only in a diagram are those who choose to operate on the “higher” levels superior to those on the “lower.” For a society functioning at its fullest capacity both approaches are equally necessary, and the charge of hubris, against those who seek an overall understanding of the different groups which constitute it, does not arise.

from Ideological Commentary 26, March 1987.