Desacralization of knowledge

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In philosophy of religion, desacralization of knowledge or secularization of knowledge[note 1][note 2] is the process of separation of knowledge from its divine source. The process marks a paradigmatic shift in understanding of the concept of knowledge in the modern period. It has rejected the notion knowledge has spiritual and metaphysical foundations and is therefore related to the sacred. Although it is a recurrent theme among the writers of the Traditionalist school[note 3] that began with René Guénon, a French mystic and intellectual who earlier spoke of "the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order",[note 4] the process of desacralization of knowledge was most notably surveyed, chronicled and conceptualized by Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr in his 1981 Gifford Lectures that were later published as Knowledge and the Sacred.


In Nasr's assessment, desacralization of knowledge is one of the most significant aspects of secularism, which he defines as "everything whose origin is merely human and therefore non-divine and whose metaphysical basis lies in [its] ontological hiatus between man and God".[5] According to Nasr, secularism is an evil force that has caused science and knowledge to become desacralized. In this process, science and knowledge became separated and lost their homogenous character in the form of traditional knowledge.[6] The core idea of desacralization of knowledge is that modern civilization has lost the transcendent roots of knowledge by restricting knowledge to the empirical domain alone.[7]

Dictionary of Literary Biography states:

[Nasr's] central thesis is that true knowledge is profoundly and by its very essence related to the sacred. This idea, he argues, underlies the basic teachings of every traditional religion whether Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam or Christianity. Only in the Modern world, which he dates from the Renaissance, has the connection between knowledge and the sacred been lost.[8]

In Nasr's exposition, the words "to know" and "knowledge" forfeit their unidimensional character. In his view, knowledge proceeds in a hierarchical order from empirical and rational modes of knowing to the Supreme form of knowledge, that is, the "unitive knowledge" or "al-ma’rifah". Similarly, "to know" begins with ratiocination, which eventually culminates in intellection.[9] According to Nasr, by nature, knowledge is inseparable from being and therefore related to the sacred. To be human is to know, which ultimately means knowing the Supreme Self, who is the source of all knowledge and consciousness.[10] It is the post-medieval process of secularization and a humanism that has ultimately forced the severance of knowledge from being and intelligence from the Sacred.[11]

Stefano Bigliardi of Al Akhawayn University states:

Knowledge of the Absolute means knowledge of the existence of superior spiritual levels, of the interrelatedness of the phenomena of nature, of the interrelatedness of their respective elements, and most importantly, of the derivation of everything from the Absolute itself. However, the awareness (and therefore the usage) of Intellect according to Nasr has been lost, together with the awareness of the Absolute itself. In Nasr’s reconstruction such oblivion characterizes the whole course of human thought that, in its dominant manifestations, can be described as a continuous desacralization of knowledge.[12]

Nasr says modern science has reduced multiple domains of reality to a psycho-physical one. According to him, without a sacred vision, science became concerned with the changes in the material world alone. Because modern science has abandoned the notion of hierarchy of being, scientific theories and discoveries can no longer appreciate the truths that belong to a higher order of reality. Nasr says modern science is therefore an "incomplete" or "superficial science" that is only concerned with certain parts of reality while invalidating others.[13] It is based on the distinction between the knowing subject and the known object. Nasr says modern science has lost its symbolic spirit and the dimension of transcendence because it has repudiated the role of intellect in pursuing knowledge and truth by adopting a purely quantitative method.[14][15] According to Nasr, the structure of reality is unchanging but the vision and perception of humans about that reality does change. Modern Western philosophy, with no sense of permanence, has reduced reality to a temporal process. According to Jane I. Smith, this phenomenon is what Nasr identifies as the desacralization of knowledge and the loss of the sense of the sacred.[16] This loss of the sacred quality of knowledge necessitates a choice between a form of knowledge that tends to focus on change, multiplicity, and outwardness, and “one that integrates change within the eternal, multiplicity within unity, and outward facts within inward principles.”[17]

Historical development[edit]

In saying "I think, therefore I am," Nasr contends, Descartes was not alluding to the "divine I" who proclaimed "I am the Truth" (ana’l-Haqq) through the mouth of Mansur al-Hallaj seven centuries before Descartes, the Divine Self which alone has the authority to proclaim I.[18][19]

The process of desacralization of knowledge began with the ancient Greeks.[20] According to Nasr, the rationalists and skeptics of ancient Greek philosophical traditions played a major role in the process of desacralization by reducing knowledge either to ratiocination or to cognitive exercise.[21] In substituting reason for intellect and sensuous knowledge for inner illumination, the Greeks pioneered the process of desacralization of knowledge.[22] Other major stages in the process of desacralization include the formation of Renaissance philosophical systems that had developed a concept of nature, which is independent and self-creative.[23] The process, however, reached its climax in the thought of René Descartes,[24] "the father of modern Western philosophy," who "made thinking of the individual ego the center of reality and criterion of all knowledge".[25] Thereafter, knowledge eventually became rooted in the cogito.[26]

According to the Dictionary of Literary Biography:

Nasr analyzes the modern desacralization of knowledge and the consequent eclipse of human intelligence ... ]The roots of the crisis, he says, go back as far as the rationalists and skeptics of ancient Greece, but more immediate and grave in effect was the humanism of the Renaissance which shifted the focus of knowledge from God to human beings and from the sacred cosmos to the secular order, and the full blown rationalism of the Enlightenment which reduced human knowledge to reason alone. Nasr contends that epistemology since Descartes has taken an increasingly reductionist trajectory in which the traditional doctrine of knowledge rooted in intellection and revelation was replaced by an idolatry of reason. Rationalism gave way to empiricism, with its tendency to reject metaphysics altogether; and empiricism has been followed by various forms of irrationalism, including existentialism and deconstructionism. The general course of modern history has been one of desacralization and decay, robbing humanity of intelligence and stripping the cosmos of beauty and meaning.[27]

Hegel is said to have taken a decisive step in the process of desacralization, turning the whole process of knowledge into a dialectic inseparable from change and becoming.[28][29]

Liu Shu-hsien, a Neo-Confucian philosopher, writes:

Nasr's critique of modem European philosophy has also presented a very interesting perspective. He pointed out that Descartes's individual was not referring to Atman or the divine I, but rather the "illusory" self, which was placing its experience and consciousness of thinking as the foundation of all epistemology and ontology and the source of certitude. After the Humean doubt, Kant taught an agnosticism which in a characteristically subjective fashion denied to the intellect the possibility of knowing the essence of things. This situation further deteriorated into the Hegelian and Marxist dialectics, as they denied that there is anything immutable behind the appearance, and this loss of the sense of permanence was characteristic of mainstream thought of modern Western philosophy. In the analytic philosophy and irrational philosophies that followed, the sacred quality of knowledge was completely destroyed.[30]

One "powerful instrument" of desacralization in history includes the theory of evolution,[31] which according to Nasr "is a desperate attempt to substitute a set of horizontal, material causes in a unidimensional world to explain effects whose causes belong to other levels of reality, to the vertical dimensions of existence".[32] He says the theory of evolution, and its use by modernists and liberal theologians including Aurobindo Ghose and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has been a "major force" in the process of desacralization of knowledge.[33] According to David Burrell, the "roots of the betrayal" may be found "on the other side of Descartes", in the high scholasticism that includes the thought of Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and Duns Scotus. According to Nasr, their syntheses "tended to become over-rationalistic in imprisoning intuitions of a metaphysical order in syllogistic categories which were to hide, rather than reveal, their properly speaking intellectual rather than purely rational character".[34]


For Nasr, the adoption of the rationalist branch of ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle, led to a shift away from sacred knowledge in the West.[35]

Externalization and desacralization of knowledge has led to the belief all that can be understood is science in terms of information, quantification, analysis and their subsequent technological implications. The questions of religion, God, eternal life and the nature of the soul are all outside the realm of scientific knowledge and thus are only matters of faith.[36] The desacralized knowledge has affected all areas of culture, including art, science and religion, and has also had an impact on human nature.[37] The effect of desacralized, profane knowledge is felt within the value system, thought processes and structure of feelings.[38] Nasr says the desacralized knowledge and science affects the use of technology and has resulted in ecological catastrophes. It results in highly compartmentalized science whose ignorance of the divine destroys the outward and inward spiritual ambience of humans.[39][40]


According to Liu Shu-hsien, the process of desacralization of knowledge is not as bad as Nasr has anticipated. Shu-hsien says there is an overwhelming necessity for desacralization of knowledge within the domain of empirical science because the quest of certainty is no longer a viable objective.[41] According to David Harvey, the Enlightenment thought sought demystification and desacralization of knowledge, and social organization to free humans from their bonds.[42] Svend Brinkmann says of the need for desacralization of knowledge; "if knowing is a human activity, it is always already situated somewhere – in some cultural, historical and social situation".[43] David Burrell says in an explicitly postmodern world, scholars are more at ease with Nasr's criticism of "enlightenment philosophical paradigm" than ever before. Those who would argue "if knowledge cannot be secured in Descartes’s fashion, it cannot be secured at all" might have modern presumptions.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Adnan Aslan, for example, comments that “The secularization process first began when a line was drawn between the realm of the sacred and the realm of the profane.” Humans asserted their freedom from God in a rebellion against Heaven. As a result, “the sacred qualities of the human faculty of knowledge were ignored, thereby initiating the process of secularization of knowledge.”[1]
  2. ^ In his review of Knowledge and the Sacred, Gerald Largo states that Nasr analyzes “the causes of the intellectual and spiritual chaos of modern times, namely, the eclipse of the sapiential dimension and the secularization of knowledge.”[2]
  3. ^ According to Aalia Sohail Khan, the traditionalists condemned “profane philosophy” and scientism “as the only legitimate manner of knowing the different levels of reality.” She says traditionalists critiqued modern science for “its reductionism and its imperial conceit and pretensions in claiming to be the only mode of knowing.” In contrast to postmodern critiques, which focus solely on the social and political repercussions of modernity, their main criticism of modern science was that it lacked metaphysical principles and was disconnected from Transcendental order and spiritual perspective. Their large body of work is founded on the “primacy of transcendence, sacred knowledge, value, truth and meaning created through intuition and revelation."[3]
  4. ^ In his 1927 book The Crisis of the Modern World, Rene Guenon criticizes “profane philosophy” and “profane science” or stated differently “the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order.” According to Guenon, this concerns “the empirical and analytical study of facts divorced from principles, a dispersion in an indefinite multitude of insignificant details, and the accumulation of unfounded and mutually destructive hypotheses and of fragmentary views.”[4]


  1. ^ Aslan 1998, p. 119.
  2. ^ Largo 1982, p. 219.
  3. ^ Khan 2017, p. 75.
  4. ^ Guenon 1927, p. 16.
  5. ^ Zebiri 1998, p. 53.
  6. ^ Stenberg 1996, p. 278.
  7. ^ Danner 1982, p. 247.
  8. ^ Allen 2003, p. 195.
  9. ^ Alkatiri 2016, p. 210.
  10. ^ Stone, Jr 2005, p. 1801.
  11. ^ Eaton 1983, p. 3.
  12. ^ Bigliardi 2014a, p. 120.
  13. ^ Widiyanto 2017, pp. 251, 252.
  14. ^ Widiyanto 2017, p. 252.
  15. ^ Bigliardi 2014, p. 169.
  16. ^ Smith 1991, p. 83.
  17. ^ Jawad 2005, p. 58, 59.
  18. ^ Nasr 1989, p. 34
  19. ^ Aslan 1998, p. 120
  20. ^ Alatas 1995, p. 97.
  21. ^ Bigliardi 2014a, p. 120.
  22. ^ Eaton 1983, p. 4
  23. ^ Bigliardi 2014a, p. 120
  24. ^ Eaton 1983, p. 4.
  25. ^ Heer 1993, p. 145.
  26. ^ Heer 1993, p. 145
  27. ^ Allen 2003, p. 195.
  28. ^ Nasr 1989, p. 38
  29. ^ Aslan 1998, p. 121
  30. ^ Shu-hsien 2000, p. 258.
  31. ^ Bigliardi 2014a, p. 120
  32. ^ Nasr 1989, p. 151.
  33. ^ Saltzman 2000, p. 595.
  34. ^ Burrel 2000, p. 642.
  35. ^ Howard 2011, p. 107
  36. ^ Saltzman 2000, p. 589.
  37. ^ Aslan 1998, p. 119.
  38. ^ Khan 2017, p. 80.
  39. ^ Bigliardi 2014a, p. 121
  40. ^ Bigliardi 2014, p. 169
  41. ^ Shu-hsien 2000, p. 264.
  42. ^ Harvey 1991, p. 13.
  43. ^ Brinkmann 2012, p. 32.
  44. ^ Burrel 2000, p. 642.


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