The knowledge of the hands


Nothing more familiar, more concrete or more symbolic, than your hands. Metonymously they are a workforce, symbolically they are power, scientifically they are tools both of destruction and creation; but in philosophy they are the prime representation of the battle over knowledge. If you can doubt your own hands, they feel, you can doubt anything. I cannot bring myself to doubt my hands, but I can empathise with those for  whom hands show us a way of a humble questioning of knowledge.

Below I'll show you two philosophies which used hands as a metaphor of knowledge, albeit in slightly different ways.

  The first school of philosophy is that of the Stoics. Stoicism was founded by a philosopher in Athens named Zeno of Citium. Like many of his time, he claimed inspiration from Socrates - and taught, like him, on the streets. Also, like Socrates, he appealed to us to use the rational part of us to find guidance in ethical issues. Connecting rationality to morality meant that finding out one what really could know became incredibly important. Knowledge of knowledge, and especially logic, was the admission ticket to a good and moral life. But, knowledge was  a difficult subject. According to Zeno, there was several levels of knowledge, which he used to teach with a metaphor of the hand.

Zeno, would say, and I paraphrase; "The open hand is passively observing of the world, grasping with one finger is ascent or descent; close your hand to a fist, and you have belief." Then he wrapped his left hand over his right. "This is knowledge, but only the perfect sage can have this." - the implication being, of course, that there is no perfect sage, and no perfect knowledge.

For him, a critical stance was only the first step to knowledge. To come closer one had to have thought about a problem, and come to understand it in some more fundamental, technical way. Compare this to the art lover, and the artist. An artlover can approach a drawing, and say with confidence; "I like this", or "this isn't as good as that other person's work." He would know something of that work, but nearly nothing in comparison with the artists, who has the technical skill to produce it. This is the difference between holding something with two fingers, and grasping it firmly.

    What this parable does for us, is to equate knowing with the intuitive notion of "grasping." Tentative knowledge can be "lost," firm knowledge does not slip away from our conscious grasp. Of course, both the words of conscious and "graspable" has to do with actually taking something. The neuroscientist and philosopher Thomas Metzinger, says that the "hand" is represented in the language center of the brain. Grasping after a word, for us, is more than a metaphor - it is part of our basic approach to knowing.

There is a second metaphorical mode for the hand, and that is of letting go. Letting go is more emotional, more fundamental I would say.

Now imagine yourself in feudal japan, sometime in the 1200s, sitting cross legged in front of an old wrinkly man in orange robes - a buddhist, and perhaps even a buddha. An enlightened one. He is not the perfect sage, but he is closer than any living human you know. Then he stretches out his arm, holding his hand in a fist. "The knowledge of buddha, is to be found within my palm". You are not sure, but there seems to be a golden shimmer emanating from his closed fist. Slowly, he opens it. There is nothing there. 

    This simple image is incredibly powerful. If you can, through this, understand that "there is no hidden truth",  at the very same time as you understand that this "no truth" is more like the truth of "no", then you are on your way to understanding the way. If not, hang on a little longer.

The zen buddhists thought that language could not show us the truth about how reality was put together. One of the reasons for this was that, there are really no true distinctions in reality. All difference, like you and me, bad and evil, up and down, are the result of our perceiving that there is a difference. To get closer to the nature of reality then, is to understand intuitively the idea of "no", of "no distinction." If you can just sit, just perceive, and open your mind to creation, then you yourself fall away, and become one with everything.

This is difficult stuff, but it's worth paying attention to. I think one of the ideas is, that if you identify with everything, then your empathy will also reach out to everyone. You will see that there is really no difference between your enemy and yourself, and you will understand him, and love him. At least, such is the ancient interpretation of buddha's words as they have come down to us in the tripitaka.

    There is a hidden likeness between the open palm of the stoics and the open palm of the buddhists. In both cases you are naively letting the world pass by your senses, only being "aware" of it. The distinction is that, for the stoics, this is the beginning of inquiry, but for the buddhists it is the end of inquiry. The stoics sought to "grasp" the world with logic,  the buddhists sought to "let go" of himself to unify themselves with the world. I actually think that both have something going for them.

    Even the buddhists thought that knowledge counted for something. Knowledge of the fourfold path, was after all a positive doctrine on how to relinquish pain from your life. Knowledge, or wisdom, is a crucial part in the step to attaining enlightenment.

    The stoics, on the other hand, saw logic as the entry gate to more perfect knowledge. But this logic was only a tool, which was to be used in attaining ataraxia, or freedom from sorrow by releasing oneself from the worries of man. For both stoicism and buddhism, then, the endpoint of sagehood is one who has freed himself from the evils of the world, from sorrow, and become a man apart from the perturbances of the ocean of reality. To say it with Yoda. Knowledge leads to freedom, freedom leads to contentment.

    Equally, for both, attaining this end state is close to or downright impossible. It is rather an ideal towards which we may strive, but can never be sure of attaining. There must be an emphasis then, on praxis itself, if these dogma are to have any value for us mere mortals. It is a comfort to me then, that so much of what they believed can be described in the metaphorical language of the hands.

Are you in the habit of meditating? Perhaps the next time to slip into the lotus position, you will have one hand open, and the other closed.