Introductory Speech

by Jürgen Renn

Anthropocene Campus, ©Sera Cakal


Dear friends and inhabitants of the Anthropocene,

What is knowledge? There are clearly many different concepts of knowledge an in the Anthropocene we do need a plurality of knowledge forms. But we also need to connect to each other as inhabitants of the Anthropocene. While this does not entail that we have to agree on one concept of knowledge, we have to be able to connect our concepts of knowledge to each other. I will therefore make an attempt to contribute to such connectivity.

Our starting point is experience, including our experience of being in this one world. Knowledge is encoded experience. Knowledge therefore has structure and that structure, or rather those structures are not necessarily the same as the structures of the world. Knowledge is constructed. Knowledge belongs to living beings, some knowledge belongs to humans. Knowledge is an important part of our action potential. My knowledge may help me to survive. Our knowledge may help us to survive. These are not necessarily the same kinds of knowledge.

Knowledge is in constant flux because our experiences change and because, as I have said, knowledge is encoded experience. The structures of knowledge may therefore also change. But some experiences are almost the same for all of us. There is a layer of knowledge that is almost universal: there are solid, fluid, and air-like bodies, there is warm and cold, there is light, heavy things fall down if they are not prevented from doing, some things like fire tend to go up. Grain Vapor Ray. So much of the religions, the philosophies and the scientific theories of this world make this intuitive knowledge accessible, drawing a part of their persuasive power from it.

Knowledge is in constant flux, as I have said, because our experiences change and they also change because we are acting in this world. Reflecting on our actions is an important source of knowledge. Such knowledge is no longer universal. It may be practical knowledge tied to our instruments and the purposes for which we use them or theoretical knowledge tied to means that are being explored for their own sake.

Knowledge has structures that are being filled by our experiences. But reflecting on our actions may also change the structures into which we fill our experiences. From ordering things, we may learn how to count them, from counting things, we may learn how to add them, from adding things we may learn how to multiply them, and, at some point, our knowledge comprises abstract numbers, separated from the things to count, as well as elaborate mathematical schemes allowing us to quantify our experiences or to image a Platonic world of pure ideas. But where did this capacity come from? From a reflection on our actions in this world.

Actions are not functions. They are also not just intentions. They have a counter part in the world on which they act that resists them, and they often use means, material means. These means may be very different. They may be a hammer or a telescope. They may be an image or a tune, or a feather or an IPhone. The history of actions is the history of the traces they leave in the world but also the history of the means they employ. They constitute the technosphere. There are also the actions that have created it. They may have been forgotten or become subordinated to an ever more powerful and ever more autonomous technosphere. But remember: knowledge is an action potential, knowledge may emerge from a reflection on the actions we perform. Knowledge co-exists, co-evolves with the technosphere. We are not at the mercy of the technosphere. We have our knowledge.

But where is our knowledge? In our souls, in our brains, in our nerves, in our hands, in our fingers, in our bodies. Maybe, but not only. Knowledge can be represented, externally represented. In our gestures, in our language, in our environments, in symbols, in images, in writings, in data. All embodiments have a right to be! Knowledge is never, never, never tacit knowledge. The one who is tacit speaks loudly.

Representing knowledge is an action on which we can reflect. Reflections on actions may generate knowledge or transform knowledge structures. Articulating knowledge thus becomes an act of creating new knowledge. Representing knowledge makes it possible to communicate. Represented knowledge can be co-produced and shared. Learning is the appropriation of knowledge. The appropriation of knowledge is mediated by its external representations, a toy, a word, a book. The appropriation of knowledge transforms it. The individual knowledge structures resulting from it are never quite the same as the shared structures of knowledge. Shared knowledge is thus in constant flux.

Knowledge has spiritual and cognitive structures, living in our souls, brains, nerves, or hands. Knowledge also has material structures, such as the environments and niches, including our own body, into which it is embedded, as well as external representations such as language or writing. Knowledge has also social structures, such as the families, the workplaces or the schools in which it is being produced, transmitted, and appropriated. These aspects, spiritual or cognitive, material, and social, should not to be reduced to each other but considered as independent dimensions of the human ecology.

But there is also a knowledge economy: Knowledge is being produced, transmitted and appropriated. Who owns knowledge? What cognitive, material, and social structures are best suited to produce and make accessible the knowledge we need as inhabitants of the Anthropocene? These are important questions for a political epistemology?

Knowledge evolves. Every process of knowledge transmission is also a process of knowledge transformation. This is because individual acts of appropriation always connect shared experiences with new individual experiences. In this sense knowledge always emerges as local knowledge. To which extent local knowledge becomes global knowledge depends on the prevailing knowledge economy. The knowledge economy is not independent from the economy at large, it just a societal subsystem, but it has its own dynamics and is not simply subordinated to the dominant economic and political processes. There is always an epistemic surplus in the knowledge economy.

Whether it is large enough to save us from the failures of the Anthropocene is an open question. Maybe we have to change society in order to build a more suitable knowledge economy that will give us the knowledge we need. But in order to do so we have to rely on the existing knowledge economy. Will it suffice as the basis for building new knowledge economies for the Anthropocene?

We have to understand the evolution of knowledge. Knowledge is always in flux. Science, art and culture are domains in which we can explore knowledge not bound to specific purposes, where we can explore knowledge for its own sake, but with an awareness of the world. That awareness is important because knowledge evolves when confronted with new experiences and in particular with challenges, questioning its existing structures. The knowledge economy of the traditional sciences is organized around the disciplines, but most problems cannot be fitted into them. They are borderline problems challenging the existing knowledge economy. In the past, the great revolutions in science have taken their lead from such borderline problems. The clash between mechanics and optics, for instance has given rise to Einstein`s theory of relativity.

Today`s borderline problems may trigger similarly profound transformations of knowledge. We do not know yet. But we have to create the epistemic niches in which they can be explored. The Anthropocene campus, here at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt is such an epistemic niche. Thanks to all who have helped to create it!

The Introduction to Forum I was held by Jürgen Renn. (Audio)