Ramesh's false knowledge
February 25, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
ALTHOUGH the President/UNC impasse has abated, it is necessary to acknowledge, for the historical record, that Ramesh Maharaj's assault against the President is an outstanding example of the dissemination of "bad knowledge."
One can only understand Maharaj's recourse to false knowledge if one digs deeply into his mode of thinking and his mis-cognisance of the limits of language. His presentation of responses from celebrated "authorities" to the President's thoughtful speech is a classic example of how not to marshal language (writings) to undercut the truth. Before he celebrates victory, he should be aware of the difference between mythos (myths) and logos (the word), lest he is deluded by the latter. He should remember: "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." Necessarily, the implications of his so-called victory are yet to be comprehended fully.
In Phaedrus, Plato used an episode from Egyptian mythology (which he discovered when he studied in Egypt) to differentiate between the power of myth and the deceptiveness of the logos. The story goes that King Thamus, the Egyptian king, declined the offer of writing from the god Thoth (believed to be the inventor of geometry, mathematics, astronomy and writing) because he felt his people were better off without it. He believed that writing was a dangerous gift because "it substitutes mere inscriptions – alien, arbitrary, lifeless signs – for the authentic living presence of spoken language" and breaks the peculiar ties that ensure the passage of authentic truth from one generation to another. He acknowledged: "It is only by respecting the authority vested in the teacher, an authority achieved through mature self-knowledge and not just acquired by reading other men's books, that the pupil can arrive at genuine wisdom on his own accord."
When the President advised the nation of UNC's excesses, he did so without recourse to written texts except to quote Bradley whom he used to support the wisdom he acquired over 45 years. This recourse to scholarly traces may have contaminated the wellsprings of his wisdom and truth. Yet, in listening to the President, I was reminded of my mother's wisdom: "Commonsense make before book," an acknowledgement that speech and/or commonsense is a good kind of writing (wisdom) inscribed within the soul.
Because bad writing (or false wisdom) is concerned merely with observing scholarly traces, it does not always achieve real knowledge. Lloyd Best makes this point when he insists that the written – all the frequent scripts we quote – does not always allows us to understand the truth of our experiences. King Thamus puts it differently. He feared that with the possession of writing, scholars "would be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. Because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society."
Such observations bring us back to Maharaj. He feels he has won the day because he has scanned the English world with all its traces of colonial and neo-colonial knowledge and offered them, uncritically, to our people. Presumably, sufficient colonial traces can always overwhelm a society's treasury of spoken wisdom. Richard Rorty reminds us: "Every kind of knowledge must ultimately appeal to the validating context of cultural assumptions from which it takes rise and within which its truth-claims are judged." Thus, we need not agree with an English jurist who determines that the Preamble to our Constitution cannot be understood as the central principle that organizes our thinking about our political life.
In T&T, we must insist that our self-knowledge is superior to any spurious interpretation that someone from India, Ghana or England presents. During slavery and colonialism we accepted the writerly authority of colonial fathers merely because they were foreign and posed as our "intellectual" masters. Today, we explore our words and our world to understand their implications for our governance. In such an exploration, the National Association for the Empowerment of African People's (NAEAP's) two-page opinion about our constitutional impasse (unpublished) is as important as a 20-page document from a foreign scholar.
Maharaj repeats without knowing. The texts he offers deconstruct their assumptions since their relevance to our situation is questionable. His repetition of what a European person says is not sufficient to convince us about the truth of our condition. Socrates affirms: "Truth emerges from the direct action of one mind on another, when both are kindled by the inspiration of love. . . It is written on the soul of the hearer to enable him to learn about the right, the beautiful, and the good." Such discourses are a fundamental prerequisite for arriving at a nation's truth.
Socrates, a wise man, said to Phaedrus: "The man who has devoted his time to twisting words this way and that, pasting them together and pulling them apart, may fairly be called a poet or a speech-writer or a maker of laws." He cannot be called a lover of wisdom. Truth has little to do with writerly tomes or grandiose legal opinions. It has to do with "an inward unveiling, vouchsafed to the soul through an exercise of reason." It is an epiphany that comes through human dialogue.
One day Maharaj will remove himself from behind the veil of other people's writing and reveal his self-knowledge and his truth. He may even appreciate the life-giving force of genuine dialogue and indigenous wisdom. Only then he will appreciate the wisdom of St. Paul's entreaty: "Be not wise in your own conceits."
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