Editors' Note: Ananda Wood writes about Indian philosophy, particularly on the themes of language, knowledge and consciousness. The following essay is taken from a collection titled 'Questioning Back In' available on the internet. We include it here because it opens up the question of how we understand perceptions of the world, as well as selfhood in that world, in a direct and intriguing manner. As educators, some of these questions are at the heart of our work.

Two ways of knowing

In the course of our lives, we seem to know things in two, rather different ways.

  • At first it seems that we know things in pictures, which are made up from smaller pieces of perception. The problem here is that our senses and minds are partial. They see things only in bits and pieces. Our pictures put these bits and pieces together, so as to represent what has been seen.
  • However, our pictures can be misleading. What they show us is sometimes proved wrong. Then it becomes evident that our pictures are not real knowledge, but only a superficial show. So we look for a second way of knowing things, beneath the show.

Of these two ways of knowledge, the first is habitual. It is our way of knowing as we get on with things and get ahead with our lives. For then we use our pictures of the world to show us how to get the things we want. These pictures get built up in the course of long habit, as we go after our various limited objectives. So the pictures get limited and biased, by the limitations and the bias of our chosen objectives.

While attention is turned towards getting on and getting ahead, we take for granted our underlying beliefs and assumptions. But it is on the basis of these beliefs and assumptions that our objectives are chosen and our pictures are built. In the course of long habit, our beliefs and assumptions get more and more ingrained; so we become more and more ignorant of the hidden role they play in our pictures. We come to ignore the fact that our pictures are only a superficial show, built up for purposes of outward display, upon the basis of make-believe.

We thus confuse our surface pictures with real knowledge. The result of this confusion is the first, apparent way of knowing. The ancient Greek philosopher, Parmenides, called it the 'way of belief'. The original Greek word for 'belief' is 'doxa'. From it come English words like 'doctrine', 'dogma', 'orthodox' and 'paradox'. As this derivation suggests, the first, apparent way of knowing includes all forms of constructed knowledge founded upon assumptions and beliefs. That would include all myth and ritual, all religion, art and science.

The second way of knowing requires an about-turn: from building up to coming down. It is not concerned with getting on or getting ahead or with getting things done. Instead, it is what we seek when we try getting to the bottom of things.

Then we turn our attention back to a thorough questioning of our beliefs and assumptions. And here we look for what is plainly and simply true, beneath all the complications that we build from makebelieve. We are looking for a ground of pure knowledge, which does not depend upon any seeming picture or any assumed belief.

This second approach to knowing is reflective. It reflects back from surface appearances, towards the underlying ground. Parmenides called it the 'way of truth'. All forms of constructed knowledge depend on it, whenever they question their foundations and come up with new pictures and ideas. And it is the essence of philosophical investigation, which questions all pictures and ideas.

Making holes

Our knowledge of the world is like a building with many floors. The top of the building is our superficial picture of the world. It is the apparent surface, where our usual life and our usual activities appear.

As we seem to live in this superficial picture, it obscures the building and the ground below. At the top of the building, as we look around us, we seem surrounded by the picture, and the appearances that it shows. So our perception is incomplete. We do not see what lies beneath the picture. We cannot tell what the picture is founded on, and we do not know quite what it means.

How can we look down, into the foundations of our constructed picture? Our usual way of trying this is to construct a little further. We build some further form of constructed knowledge, some further branch of religion or mysticism or art or science, which functions as an apparatus for digging or drilling down. And then we use this apparatus to make holes in the building of our constructed knowledge, so that we can look down into the lower floors and bring things up from below.

But making holes is a very limited way of examining the foundations of our picture. As we peep down through such holes, we see very little of what lies beneath. As we look deeper, the darker things seem. However deep we look, there seem to be deeper foundations, lost in obscurity. We can of course use our digging or drilling apparatus to bring things up; but how much can we bring to the surface? As we bring up more and more from below, the picture on top gets more and more complicated, and more and more confused. There seems no end to the complication, as long as the foundations of knowledge are investigated in this way. It thus seems that philosophy is an impossibly difficult subject, and that the foundations of knowledge must always remain shrouded in darkness and mystery.

But such darkness and mystery are only apparent problems, which make a show at the surface. They only appear when one remains at the surface, while trying to investigate what is below. When one makes holes but doesn't go down oneself, then all one can do is to bring things up from below. Looking down from above can do nothing more than bringing up some bits and pieces of previously hidden information. And all bringing up only changes the surface. It is only a reconstruction, while the foundations remain below. As long as one doesn't go down oneself, the foundations must seem dark and mysterious.

Asking down

How does one go down oneself, beneath one's picture of the world? For this to happen, one's own self-image must come into question, along with the rest of the apparent world. If this self-image is left out of the investigation, then one stays at the surface of the picture, and what one sees is only superficial. As part of anyone's picture of the world, there is an image of the self that knows the picture. It is through this self-image that the pictured world is seen. For we do not see the world directly. We see it only through what we think we are, through the images we have of ourselves. When the picture is in question, so too are our self-images, which are contained in it. Through such questioning, we go down beneath our self-images and see beneath the picture. As we go down, we are returning towards our home ground, from which our self-images have been built up. It is only thus, by returning homewards, that we see what underlies our pictures of the world.

As one thus returns, towards home ground, there is no need to change one's picture of the world. The picture is simply left behind, at the surface, while deeper pictures appear and disappear, on the way down. Finally, at the ground itself, there is no picture at all, for all construction has been left above.

It is only our pictures that change from moment to moment, and vary from person to person. They change because they keep being built and rebuilt, in everyone's experience. They vary because they are differently constructed, in different cultures and in the differing experiences of different people. But, beneath all this change and variation in our pictures of the world, the underlying ground is always the same: anywhere, any time, and for everyone. It is our home ground, the real self beneath all our differing self-images.

And it is all that's ever known—the ground of all reality, beneath all pictures and appearances.