‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ says the White Queen to Alice. ― Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
It never occurred to me to ask why I think the way I do, how I acquired knowledge.
Most people probably don’t – after all it’s equivalent to a fish stopping to ask what water is.
It just is – it’s all around you and its the way it always has been.
But, is that really the case?
I must be a product of my community, of a way of thinking that has been passed along through generations.
Attitudes and behaviors and stories – how we were at home, what we valued and what I was told by grandparents – all contributed to developing a world-view and set of values.
And then I grew up and entered a different kind of culture – schools and curricula, shaped by vested interests and politics.
How do you start to make sense of all that – what kind of approach would you take to understand the bewildering mass of information that you find in front of you.
This was the challenge faced by the 8th Century Indian philosopher Adi Shankara.
I don’t know much about Adi Shankara – but my culture and community is inextricably linked with him and his work.
Adi Shankara was born in a time where the Hindu faith was splintered, with many schools of thought and competing approaches.
In his short life he brought together a number of strands of thought and established a philosophy, traveling across India, founding monasteries and spreading his ideas.
The community I come from is relatively non-materialistic – an ascetic approach, perhaps even monastic, is viewed as an ideal way to be.
It values knowledge for the sake of knowledge – learning is prized as an activity.
That, I suppose, is how culture works – ideas created more than a millennium ago affect the way whole communities think and act now.
I have been literally bathed in that culture – going through an initiation ceremony at Kaladi when I was around eight, the purported birthplace of Adi Shankara and the site of one of his monasteries.
But I have spent my life in a predominantly Western culture, at least intellectually.
What I received from that experience was first a positivist education.
Positivism essentially says that knowledge is derived from your senses and logical reasoning.
In other words, the truth is out there and you have to go and find it.
Later, I was introduced to an interpretevist philosophy – which says that people are complex and see things differently.
In other words, people construct their own truth and you have to try and understand what they see from the point of view of how they see it.
Now, if you are interested in this kind of thing – how do you help yourself make sense of it all.
Or, for that matter, make sense of anything big and complicated, with many strands of thought and competing, compelling arguments?
What did Adi Shankara do?
One of the things he developed was an epistemology, a means to gain knowledge.
And part of that was an idea that if you want to understand something – in his case a treatise – you need to understand six characteristics.
Let’s say you’re reading a paper.
The first thing you want to do is look at the introduction and conclusion – what’s the common idea in those two parts?
Second, look at the original message, see it as it’s written.
Third, look for what’s unique about it, what’s the novel concept in there?
Fourth, what’s the result, the fruit of that idea?
Fifth, what’s important about that point, about the concept?
And finally, sixth, can you verify this yourself – does it make sense to you and align with your reasoning?
These six concepts seem simple but they helped me make sense of some of the mistakes I was making as I tried to collect knowledge and make sense of it.
Take the idea of a copy of the original.
We are swimming in information now – you can find pretty much everything on the Internet somewhere.
If you tried to save it all it would be impossible – you just haven’t got the space.
You simply have to accept that everything you could possibly know is out there somewhere.
When you come across something worthwhile how are you going to keep hold of it?
One way is to make a copy and one of the oldest ways to do that is to keep a commonplace book.
Copy out the idea into your own book – perhaps by hand.
Now, that sounds a little crazed – why would you do that when you could just save the content?
Well, the increased effort will force you to filter, to keep only those things that you actually need to keep.
You can find anything you need later when you need it – but the point is to start keeping only what you want to study further.
Now, just storing it isn’t enough – you need to process that information and start to make sense of it.
That’s where sense-making tools come in, from diagrams and models that help you explore the concepts you’re learning to systems based on the Zettelkasten, a box of notes that help you to order and move ideas around until they fit together well.
In Adi Shankara’s time, one way of doing this was to create sutras, knowledge compressed into verses that could be memorized and passed on.
You had to unpack a sutra to understand it but the core of the idea was in there.
Then there’s the stuff you find yourself, through direct experience or reflection – which you can put into fieldnotes, a record of the stuff in your head, as jotted notes, short pieces or as longer, thought through articles.
The material you read and the material you generate are effectively secondary and primary research – and the first purpose of your external memory system is to help you collect them.
Then, the purpose of the other tools you have is to help you reflect and make sense of what’s in that stuff you’ve collected.
For me, what these ideas bring together is a system of working with knowledge that works for me.
I have a way of collecting relevant primary and secondary information – using fieldnotes and a commonplace book.
I make sense of that information with diagrams, models, and slips of paper – try to codify and compress it into forms that make it easy to remember later.
And, in doing so, I have the tools I need to generate knowledge and an empathetic understanding – supporting positivist or interpretevist approaches, depending on which one fits the situation best.
With this toolbox I am, hopefully, ready to listen and learn.