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"Observations on the Pursuit of Knowledge by Leonardo da Vinci"

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Who is a knower?

1. A knower is someone who is able to understand the logic of development. In this way, s/he is able to make predictions, at least about the nearest future. One example of knowledge is Einstein's theory of relativity, as it made predictions, which were confirmed afterwards.

2. An important aspect of a knower's task is systematic observations, reflections, and interactions with that which s/he is studying. It is only through systematic observations that we're able to get flashes of the facts, and hence observe a single phenomenon in motion. Through reflection, we're able to understand how one fact is related to the next, and then invent a system, which is able to take all the known facts and explain their development and interrelationships. Interaction with the phenomena is what is also known as an experiment, or an actual living experience. It is important to use the knowledge we've obtained through observation and reflection in order to actively influence the development of our subject. If our thinking is correct, our experiment will be a success, and it will yield new facts, which can be used to further extend our theory. If the results of an experiment are negative, then there must be something wrong with our interpretation of facts. Most of the experiments fall into the intermediate group, i.e. partially confirm an existing theory, and partially challenge it.

Systematic observation together with systematic reflections, culminating in an action - these are the three basic steps to obtaining systematic knowledge.

How can we extend Marxism?

1. Marx writes that the anatomy of the civil society must be sought in the political economy. But the progress of the political economy framework is itself determined by the progress of the means of production. The principal means of production, in the second half of XX century (from the period of WWII), emerges to be knowledge - both pure (as science) and applied (as education and technology).

Marxism traditionally does not treat knowledge. And when it does, it treats it as part of the "superstructure" (for example, "ideology", etc). However, knowledge turns out to be both a part of the "superstructure" of a society, as well as its very basis.

2. Moreover, within the category of principal means of production Marxism does not generally include humans, but without this essential element no production of machines would have been possible. Hence, humanity is an essential element of the concept of "means of production". But the way in which humans reproduce and educate themselves, so as to continue the progress of knowledge, has never really been touched by Marxism. An impulse in that direction has been given by Engels' work "On the Origin of the Family, State, and Private Property". However, this work does not really consider the implications for the future reproductive relations of humanity, which result from primitive people living in what we may call "conjugal multiplicity", or "polyamory". Engels remains on the ground of preserving the family and the so-called "fidelity" of one partner to another. Also, Engels does not talk about education and its prospects for the future. Meanwhile, as is evident from the works of the ancient writers, for example Herodotus writing on the education of the Persians, their education of the young was much more honest and wholesome than the drag which passes for the process of education today. A proper view of the education process is as essential for the formation of the future society. If we can use the image borrowed from Hegel's "Phenomenology", education is the ladder for knowledge, and upon failing to provide that ladder we can not lay any claim to knowledge. 

Hence, to extend Marxism into the modern era, we need to:

  • treat knowledge as the central category
  • respect humans as central element in the concept of the means of production
  • develop our concept of reproduction and education of humanity for the future society, in sync with the concept of communism

Thinking about knowledge

1. Thinking about knowledge can be divided into two broad areas: 1) thinking about the process in which we actually obtain knowledge, 2) history of the doctrines of knowledge.

2. Inevitably, every doctrine winds up, first, as an exposition of the original author's position, and second, as an essay in the history of the doctrine. An example in the ancient times would be Aristotle's "Metaphysics", where in the first book he gives a history of the attempts to define that out of which everything is made. In the later books, he states his own thinking on the issue.

3. History of a subject matter, understanding what others have written before, must necessarily precede a formulation of your own views, or at least go in parallel with evolution of an original doctrine. Thus, even though Marx relegates "History of the doctrines of the surplus-value" to the fourth volume of "Capital", in reality this study has preceded his own formulation of the concept.

4. From what has been said in the previous paragraphs about the importance of knowledge, it follows that an interesting task would be to undertake a study of the development of knowledge. However, what we have in mind is not another history of epistemology, such as an examination of Kant's doctrine, etc. This approach is unsatisfactory because it deals not with actual attempts at knowing, but with understanding how others thought about knowing. As an example of how a person attempted actually to know, I give the following exposition of Leonardo da Vinci.

The really important question is "how to pursue knowledge?"

Observations on Leonardo

Knowledge foundations
1. Each successive revolution builds on different "knowledge" foundation.

Thus, observe that the Italian bourgeoisie of Renaissance, had "art" as the basic form of knowledge in its time. The French bourgeoisie had had "philosophy" as its basic form of knowlege, in the epoch of Enlightenment. The Russian bourgeoisie, living in the epoch of the Industrial revolution, in the beginning embraced Marxism, but later refused any association with it. 

IMG 20160105 131437

Giuliano de Medici, 1446-1510, by Sandro Botticelli. Work done around 1478-1480.

2. The epitome of the Italian moneychangers were the Medicis. It was they who patronized such artists as Michelangelo and Botticelli. Now, we should not think that in that epoch there were no philosophers and social critics. We all know about Vico, who wrote about history and new sciences, and we know about Machiavelli, who wrote about the way political power really functions. Still, the dominant form of knowledge of the period was art. And hence we dare to look upon Leonardo as the epitome of that period. His is like the center of the spectrum, which stretches from the semi-religious poetry of Dante (XIII century), to early communist thinking of Tomasso Campanella (XVII century).


Caesar Borgia

3. First, we should note how Leonardo made money. This was chiefly through offering his engineering knowledge and inventions to various power-hungry and feuding princes, such as Caesar Borgia. In his "resume", Leonardo stressed that he knew how to build light bridges, which could be used to catch up with an enemy, or to hasten one's own retreat. Leonardo also stressed that he knew how to make fortifications and how to manage their destruction, for example how to channel away the water from the row around the fortress. His architectural and artistic capacities Leonardo put in the back. And he never mentioned his careful probing into such concepts as a flying apparatus or a vessel for an underwater warfare. Leonardo did not reveal his scientific basic concerns, and rather showed only that part of his knowledge which could gain him a position from which he could practice what he wished. The key is that Leonardo did not become a pizza delivery man, or something like that. He used a small part of his knowledge, the very tip of the iceberg, to obtain that freedom which, in his own words, "is the most precious gift of nature".

4. Whenever Leonardo mentioned "fine art", we should understand that by that term he meant investigation of reality in general. The technique of drawing (and later painting) objects is used to focus one's attention on the first aspect of any true knowing, which is a thorough observation. An eye observes, and must tell the hand to draw what it sees. A common mistake of beginners in art is to draw (or say) what they think is out there, and not what they actually see (or actually hear).

5. Art, in general, allows for an early perception of a form that is still distant, or rather of which just a shape appears. This is similar to a traveler who approaches a distant land from the sea, and straining his eyes to the outmost, all s/he can perceive are the shapes of the distant landscape. Even if there are houses, these can not be perceived in detail, but rather colors and little shapes. The same process takes place in music. A composer goes through a day and hears a melody, or a rhythm. That is the actual tempo of the society surrounding that person. This helps to explain why we prefer the more modern music to the one we call "classical". The classical appears to us as covered with dust and is a bastion of conservatism. Even the instruments which are used to play the modern music have qualitatively changed. Instead of the classical piano or grand piano, which we may suppose were invented around the XVII century, modern music makes an extensive use of electronic synthesizers and electronic guitars. This is in rhythm with how the society works in general. It has switched from the mechanical tools of production to electronic.

6. By the way of anticipation, we should observe that even though knowledge, or rather a thirst for it, starts with a feeling of the form, rhythm to which everything vibrates, it "ends" by desiring to understand the form, which is the science of logic. Logic which views forms stationary is mistakenly called "mathematical" logic. And this is because mathematics has been applied to the forms of logic first developed by Aristotle, but a conception of the logic of development has been so difficult to grasp that to this day it remains in the qualitative, and for that matter outdated form. Dialectical logic must imbibe in itself all the achievements of other branches of learning and on the basis of the most modern picture of the Universe present a theory of the universal uniformities thus perceived.

7. Leonardo sees art as tending towards science. Before the time of Leonardo, we see almost only scholasticism (with the notable exception of Roger Bacon in the XIII century England). Scientific attitude, meaning use of mathematics and reliance on experience for obtaining knowledge (rather than on books), came to Europe from the Arabs, which in the Middle Ages were a more advanced culture. Leonardo picked up the rejection of book learning, legacy left to him by Roger Bacon.

8. By "science" Leonardo understands a reasonable argument, which starts from indisputable assumptions and proceeds towards some well-defined goal. The key elements here are: 1) a set of 

Development of science

indisputable assumptions, 2) a reasonable argument, meaning one which exhibits a logic, 3) a goal. There is a continuous interaction between the goal and the assumptions. As Regis Debray wrote about Che's expedition to Bolivia  in 1966-7, "It is right to fight. It is right to discover the reasons for one's defeat. It is right to fight again, on the basis of the lessons gained from previous experience. And so on, indefinitely, indefatigably, to victory" ("Che's Guerrilla War"). We thus see that a quest for realization of a particular goal modifies initial assumptions and the logic of the enquiry.

9. A question thus comes up: what are the "indisputable assumptions"? These assumptions must have their origin in experience, if we are not to adopt Kant's doctrine of "a priori" knowledge. These assumptions must be so obvious as not to be questioned by anyone. However, this is where the key is hidden. Some of the assumptions which have been made by "everyone" turn out to be false. One example is the assumption made by Che Guevara, in "The guerilla warfare", 1960, that peasantry is a revolutionary class throughout the Latin America. This assumption turned out to be false. Most important upheavals of our ideas occur exactly when someone seriously starts to question heretofore widely accepted assumptions.

10. With regard to the assumptions, and the whole scientific method, we should understand that we're dealing with a cyclical process, rather than something which develops in a straight line. This process is similar to the origin of the rivers in the mountains, or from the underground sources. These several sources combine to form rivers which then flow into the sea, which altogether form the oceans. Similarly with assumptions: we come back to them time and time again in order to swear out allegiance to them, or to question and eventually drop them. It is this cyclical process which may be called "a revolution".


A drawing of helicopter, by Leonardo.


A study of anatomy, by Leonardo.

11. In the above paragraphs we tried to give a conception of a science as it is developing out of art. There are four more important aspects to be stressed in reference with Leonardo's pursuit of knowledge. First, the giants who marked the beginning of the bourgeois era were all developing as universal men, homo universale. Leonardo said that you can be a pretty dumb and still do something well if that is the only thing you do in your lifetime. For example, one man may be good at painting faces, while the other one at painting the sea. The challenge is to do both, and much more.

We should note that the desire to learn about everything was common to other prominent men who stood on the juncture of the old and the new eras. For example, Descartes, writing in the time of decline of the feudal system, in "Rules for the Direction of the Mind" states:

Frans Hals René Descartes

Franz Halls, a portrait of Descartes

"The end of study should be to direct the mind towards the enunciation of sound and correct judgements on all matters that come before it. There is nothing more prone to turn us aside from the correct way of seeking out the truth than this directing of our inquiries not towards their general end, but towards special investigations ... We must believe that all the sciences are so inter-connected, that it is much easier to study them all together than to isolate one from all the others. If, therefore, anyone wishes to search out the truth of things in serious earnest, he ought not to select one special science; for all the sciences are conjoined with each other and interdependent: he ought rather to think how to increase the natural light of reason, not for the purpose of resolving this or that difficulty of scholastic type, but in order that his understanding may light up his will to its proper choice in all the contingencies of life. In a short time he will see that he has made much more progress than those who are eager about particular ends".

Faust is a collective image of such Renaissance men as Leonardo and Descartes. Both in the dramas of Marlowe and Goethe we learn that Faust was an expert in all the main branches of learning which were taught in the mediaeval universities. These included theology, medicine, jurisprudence, and mathematics. But besides these, they also studied "black magic" and sorcery, which were not taught in schools. And because of all this learning, they have gained what appears to ordinary people as supernatural powers over the elements of nature and fellow human beings. The mediaeval crowd accused them of intercourse with the devil. And, as the Church moral goes, these Faust characters repent. If both authors - Marlowe in late XVI century England, and Goethe in late XVIII century Germany - dared to go beyond the limited mediaeval perspective, they would have shown their characters as victorious, as a kind of Prometheus.

So, the first point is "be a universal man", like Leonardo and Dr. Faustus. 

12. The second point is that when we're entering the new era, we can not rely on books, or sources of information created and interpreted in the previous epoch. Leonardo writes, in many different variations, that experience is the mother of all true knowledge, and learning from the works of others, such as copying drawings of others, can only be seen as a beginning of a correct learning process. If continued indefinitely, this will only pollute our brain. And Descartes, "remarked to a visitor who wished to see his library, 'These are my books', pointing to the animals he had dissected" (from an "Introduction" by Ralph M. Eeaton).

So, the second point is "learn from experience". 

13. The third point about Leonardo's way to knowledge is solitude. No friends or persons of the opposite sex should distract us from the distant goal we're pursuing. Leonardo puts it in the following words:

"an artist should be a loner and especially when he desires to delve into thinking … if you are alone, you will belong to yourself. And if you are in a company of a single friend, only half of you will belong to yourself, and even less, if his behavior is impolite; and if you will be with several others, you will be an object to an even greater discomfort … you won't be able to ignore their babble. You can not serve two masters at the same time. You will be a poor comrade, and still worse will be the result of your thinking about art".

Similar thinking is found, again, in Descartes:

"although it is true that every man is obliged to promote the good of others, so far as it is in him to do so, and that to be no use to anyone is really to be worthless, it is none the less true also that our solicitude ought to extend beyond the present time, and that it is good to omit doing things which might perhaps bring some profit to those who are living, when one aims to do other things which will be of greater benefit to posterity".

However, from what is said it doesn't follow that Leonardo recommended ti shun the human company completely. In fact, I can tell you that there are things to be learned from constant interaction with people (students, for example) which can not be learned in any other way. Knowledge is to be obtained from all kinds of experience. Even Leonardo says that it is better to draw in a company than by oneself, as the competition from others stimulates you first not to fall beyond, and then to be even better then them.

So, the third point is "carefully regulate your interaction with others", it's better to be a loner than a babbler. 

14. The fourth point: Leonardo advises the students to view their works in a mirror, so as to be able to judge better one's own mistakes. This can be an actual mirror, or it can be a comrade at the other end of the globe writing to you via the Internet. Also, it is useful to walk away, occasionally, from one's activity, so as to be able to view it from a distance. In this way, details disappear and you see the whole. Moreover, controlled distraction is what is necessary to increase productivity, to stay "hungry", to think better about the central thing which one is doing.

Descartes says a similar thing. He advises students to make a review of their work as often as possible, so as not to forget anything.

And so, the fourth point is: view your work from some distance, be it in space or in time. 

My picture

My picture.

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