Symbiosis International University Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts

Knowledge: Contested, Contextualized, Confirmed

 Brief Overview 

In the contemporary world, contradictory claims about what kind of knowledge is reliable and valuable (Science or religion? What’s the “use” of art?), and about what methods of knowledge are appropriate, have left some of us with certainties which are too hastily arrived at, others with seemingly irresolvable confusions. We often hear people appeal to “facts” or to “rationality” during arguments, accusing each other of being subjective, irrational—or of being coldly rational, of not using imagination or emotions. Some people resort to relativism (“It depends. . .”) in resolving issues; others make dogmatic assertions. Modern societies often claim to have progressed in knowledge (about nature, the world, etc.). Yet they have the worst record of violence to nature and to human beings. We can ask with the poet T.S. Eliot, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” 


This course is designed to help us reflect systematically and with greater self-awareness on the origins (historical, cultural) of these epistemological contestations by framing our discussions within a series of shifts in knowledge paradigms/models. These shifts occurred with the birth and growth of modernity, displacing individuals and societies from religion-centred, traditional knowledge paradigms that had sustained their worldviews and ways of life, ushering in what is called a scientific worldview.

(Note: The distinction between the traditional and modern models will be held as a rough one, for purposes of understanding the phenomenon. Even if the “modern” model has been dominant, other models have often thrived throughout the history of modernity, especially in the arts.)
The course will explore the major methodological components of this change across different areas of knowledge. By doing so, it aims to help students

  1. gain greater awareness of the way in which “knowledge” is socially/historically/culturally constructed
  2. at the same time, explore the possibility of going beyond sociocultural relativism by drawing on the resources of multiple paradigms that are available through this very comparison
  3. understand that the knowledge claims we make and the methods we apply have serious consequences for ourselves, other people, and nature.
  4. explore the possibility of alternative models in which diverse knowledge approaches and disciplines might be complementary—Can we envision a model of wisdom by which to prioritize and use knowledge and information sustainably in different contexts?

The course will be structured around clearly identified components of the two major paradigms (in the form of binaries e.g. quantitative/qualitative, atomistic/holistic). We shall examine how the ways of knowing (e.g. reason, language, imagination, emotions) are deployed in both. We shall do this through case studies in different areas/disciplines of knowledge (e.g. classical vs. Gandhian economics, modern vs. traditional medicine).

 Course Objectives 

To acquire theoretical and conceptual frameworks through which to reflect on major debates concerning knowledge, and thus to critically evaluate rival perspectives and methodological claims.
To identify social, cultural, and ethical orientations underlying different models of knowledge.
To acquire conceptual/theoretical frameworks for making interdisciplinary connections with some degree of precision.
To gain awareness of the consequences on the world, of knowledge methods and of knowledge claims, and thus to become more responsible knowers.
To become more self-aware and self-critical as knowers in both academic and non-academic contexts, and to evolve approaches that are adequate to the complexity of the world and of the knowing process—this should ideally involve developing various kinds of intelligence.
To move towards the possibility of reliable knowledge even while being sceptical of faulty claims.
To appreciate the role and function of different approaches to knowledge across cultures and disciplines, without losing sight of limitations and possible negative implications.
To relate these abstract issues to their own life and the world around them.
To gain skills in writing and speaking about these issues in a relatively more theoretical manner, through clear argumentation with adequate supporting evidence.

 Teaching Methodology 

Within the structure delineated in the course description above,

  1. We will read excerpts from the writings of proponents and practitioners of each set of models, on the one hand, and from major critical, theoretical and philosophical thinkers on the central issues
  2. Concepts and theories will be presented through lectures.
  3. Issues will be examined and debated through class discussions of case studies illustrating methodological components of the paradigm shifts (from across disciplines). Students will be encouraged to formulate relevant questions.
  4. Students will bring examples (e.g. from mass media or personal experience) to make them more actively self-aware and to help them appreciate the serious implications of approaches to knowledge.
  5. Students will do a variety of writing assignments: journal entries, short responses and analysis, short-answer tests on definitions and applications of concepts, and a longer test and essay as final assessment.