Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Knowing it all

Zena Hitz

I knew in mid-February that we might be quarantined, and so I stocked up on essentials that became rare later. I knew in early March that economic catastrophe was imminent. My foreknowledge didn’t surprise me; I bet in early 2016 that Donald Trump would win the presidency, to the mockery of my friends from whom I later gathered my winnings. I knew that the stock market wasn’t stable either–much of my retirement is in an old-fashioned lock-box account. In fact, I’m very often right–you really should listen to me.

I’ve been a know-it-all my whole life. So are both my parents, my older brother, and most of my aunts. Knowing it all is genetic, or so well-programmed that it might as well be. The pleasure of knowing things that others do not is sweet as nectar, and addictive–a single taste breeds a taste for more. Schoolyard bullies punch and bite; we prefer to rule by words. A victory in knowledge requires neither bandage nor stich, and it evades objective criteria. My prevalence is gained in my mind alone; the victim need not even know that I have routed him.

What’s the relation between the pleasure of knowing it all and a loftier commitment to learning? Is striving after knowledge at its root a zero-sum competition for status? Lucretius wrote of the pleasure of resting in superior philosophical understanding while watching others suffer from a distance. As a graduate student, I was delighted to discover these words of Lucretius carved in stone on a central building at Princeton University. The university had made a Freudian slip–it had said more than it meant. I knew this, of course, and the stone engravers (I suspected) did not.

During a major crisis such as ours, imbalances of knowledge provoke rage rather than pleasure. A few scientists and journalists cried Cassandra early on, only to be ignored. Why didn’t the government act? They knew what was coming–or should have known. It takes discipline to notice that the governments who have decisively controlled the virus are few to none. Failure it may be, but its roots do not lie in the individual characters of our leaders, however evident their flaws.

The disease of knowing it all rests on a mistake about how knowledge works. Knowledge is at bottom individual. It comes to be for a person in time, based on evidence, and the salience of evidence varies widely from person to person. Variation would persist even if we were all equally good at absorbing and processing information. Its deepest root is in the variety of our experiences, the variety built into different walks of life, different habits of mind, and crucially, different interests.

The Pythagorean theorem was proved more than two thousand years ago. Its truth is well-established. But an individual only knows it by working through a proof such as the famous demonstration in the first book of Euclid. I have read Euclid with students and it is a marvel to see a formulaic “knowledge” resting on authority replaced with understanding of why the theorem is true. I can pressure someone to memorize a formula, but understanding cannot be forced. It happens student by student, person by person, in the time that it takes.

We live under a delusion about knowledge, such that it ought to be immediately sovereign over the minds of others. Such a vision of knowledge is tacitly a vision of tyranny. We forget that knowledge doesn’t have a life of its own; it lives and breathes in human beings. To call for knowledge to rule us amounts to a demand that some particular people rule us. Whatever else might go wrong in that arrangement, there are no humans whose capacity for knowledge is sufficiently superior to justify it.

We teachers know that our students learn when they learn. Likewise, those of us with ageing parents know that they will see their incapacity to live alone when they see it for themselves. We may attempt persuasion, but our point of view is one input among others. Living with other people in whatever capacity demands that we accept the way their minds work.

It might also be wise to accept our own cognitive limitations. How did I know the things I knew before everyone else? I’ll tell you: “knowledge” of that kind is the outcome of a constant unconscious striving for cognitive superiority, crowned by blessed chance. A chance tweet passed in my feed; a happenstance article hit the rhetorical notes that won my conviction. After all, I know nothing about pandemics, supply chains, elections or global finance. I pulled the lever on the slot-machine–out popped the theory of relativity, so I could pretend to be Einstein.

In families, we learn to live with the limitations of what our children, our parents, or our spouses know and understand. So too they learn to live with us. We are less accustomed to recognize the cognitive limitations of our governments, including our vast institutional bulwark of formal expertise. These limitations have grave consequences for our lives and our ways of life. Persuasion within our means once attempted, our only recourse is to remember the human condition.

An invisible contagion ravages us in ways we cannot foresee. We travel in time, which uncovers things slowly. Formal expertise can obscure as well as reveal, organizing our knowledge in ways that blunt the perception of things subtle or new. We are passive beings, subject to what we see through the eyes and hear through the ears. Our desires and interests, worthy and unworthy, definitively shape our perceptions.

Our lives and livelihoods depend on others, but the others are all roughly equal to us. No philosopher-kings see all from their lofty perch. No magic incantations make the truth and the truth alone sink into our minds or the minds of others. We must wait for the shared understanding that our lives depend on with determination, patience, and … dare I say it? Humility.

Chapter 6: Degenerate regimes in Plato’s Republic by Zena Hitz

About The Author

Zena Hitz

Zena Hitz is a Tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. Her book, Lost In Thought (newly available from Princeton University Press) offers a full-throated defense of ...

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