[lit-ideas] Re: What, then, is wanting to know?

  • From: Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 26 Feb 2007 19:26:54 -0800

I wrote

Why do you want to know things, in general? is a strange question. Why
do you want to know how to change a light bulb, or what the
conjugation of 'savoir' [is] won't ordinarily be puzzling. Why do you want
to know anything at all? seems hopeless.

John wrote

It's a strange question, but not a bad one.  I take on board Professor
Paul's comment that the answer will often be specific. When knowledge
has an instrumental value, failure to know may imply the inability to
perform the task at hand. And Walter is right that, logically
speaking, the answers suggested have nothing to do with the epistemic
quality of knowledge.

Next come the hedgehog and the fox, I suppose, along with those who
are neither but seem related to one or the other; one whose specialty
is a rare butterfly species; a would-be jeopardy contestant. Perhaps
more interesting is the autistic mathematical savant, Daniel Tammet,
who recently recited the values of Pi to the 22,514th place from
memory; who knows seven natural languages and has 'invented' a language
of his own. In reading about him one has the sense that he somehow cannot
help knowing things (all the while delighting in what he knows).

'Tammet is softly spoken, and shy about making eye contact, which makes him
seem younger than he is. He lives on the Kent coast, but never goes near the beach--there are too many pebbles to count. The thought of a mathematical problem with no solution makes him feel uncomfortable. Trips to the supermarket are always a chore. "There's too much mental stimulus. I have to look at every shape and texture. Every price, and every arrangement of fruit and vegetables. So instead of thinking,'What cheese do I want this week?', I'm just really uncomfortable."


It may be that Hammett is Super Fox, in that he needs to know everything (and hence very many things). But I've intentionally digressed.

I said that 'Why do you want to know things in general?' was a strange question. John replied that it was not a bad one. No, it isn't; except that I have really no idea what would count as an answer to it. Beyond knowing things that are of practical importance, why should I want to know anything at all? Alas, I just do, in that I find these things (Hume's thoughts on the uniformity of nature; why many French words have a circumflex over their first vowel) interesting. 'Interesting'! 'What kind of a deep answer is that?!!' For thousands of years people who have wanted to inquire into things 'of no practical importance' have been ridiculed for that very thing. And, having noted this, I'm no further along in answering this strange question.

They may yet have some pedagogical value [says John]. How does one answer a student who asks, "Why do I have to know that?" Or a legislator or
funding agency that asks, "Why should this be taught or researched?"

Luckily, I've never ever had a student ask that, and I don't deal with legislatures or funding agencies. Could I though honestly say to the sceptical student that knowing it will make her somehow a better person? I'd hesitate to; yet this answer is as justified as the scepticism behind the question. As for legislatures, the growing demand that schools speak of their students as 'consumers' and testify as to what having taken such and such a course in such and such a department will yield by way of quantifiable 'results,' is spreading. It is pernicious and silly but it is spreading, nonetheless.

In the end, all knowledge is either knowledge of..., or knowledge that..., although these are shifty categories. So, I cannot 'just know' (without knowing something) any more than I can just 'create' without making something, no matter how insignificant. The 'strange question' is strange for just that reason: it appears to assume that there is something like 'just knowing.' I'm sure I haven't understood it.

Finally: the trouble with commentators on Foucault who look to Aristotle for support is that too often theirs is a fictional Aristotle.

Robert Paul
The Reed Institute

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