The Quest For Knowledge In An Indifferent World

"The modern-minded man, although he believes profoundly in the wisdom of his period, must be presumed to be very modest about his personal powers. His highest hope is to think first what is about to be thought, to say what is about to be said, and to feel what is about to be felt; he has no wish to think better thoughts than his neighbors, to say things showing more insight, or to have emotions which are not those of some fashionable group, but only to be slightly ahead of others in point of time. Quite deliberately he suppresses what is individual in himself for the sake of the admiration of the herd."

-- Bertrand Russell, "On Being Modern-Minded," Unpopular Essays

The other day I rummaged through my library hoping to pull something from the shelf that would fit my mood. I reached for a slender work by Douglas Wilson titled Jefferson's Books, which I bought some years ago when I visited Monticello. I leafed through the pages hastily and was struck first by the reading regimen Jefferson recommended to friends:

Before eight: Physical Studies, Ethics, Religion, Natural Law.

Eight to twelve: Law.

Twelve to one: Politics.

In the afternoon: History.

From dark to bedtime: Belles-lettres, Criticism, Rhetoric, Oratory.

This sequence was preferable, Jefferson thought, because "a great inequality is observable in the vigor of the mind at different periods of the day. It's [sic] powers at these periods should therefore be attended to in marshalling the business of the day."

"Books may be classed from the Faculties of the mind," he wrote, "which being I. Memory II. Reason III. Imagination are applied respectively to I. History II. Philosophy III. Fine Arts." Each of the subjects is divided many times in Jefferson's library, and the classification scheme closely mirrors that propounded by Francis Bacon and the French intellectual Jean Lerond D'Alembert. History, for instance, is broken down into ancient, foreign, British, American, ecclesiastical, natural philosophy, agriculture, chemistry, surgery, medicine, anatomy, zoology, botany, mineralogy, and technical arts. Philosophy is divided into moral and mathematical subjects: ethics, natural law, religion, common law, foreign law, politics, commerce, arithmetic, geometry, mechanics, statics, pneumatics, phonics, optics, astronomy, and geography. The fine arts are divided into gardening, architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, oratory, and criticism.

Admiring this meticulous ordering of knowledge, I remembered at once that Jefferson and his Enlightenment contemporaries defined the vitam bonum as an odyssey of endless study and learning. Books weren't ornaments that sat on shelves to impress houseguests. They existed to be devoured. The mind was good not because it might prove useful in commerce, but because it might become enlightened and serve as a valuable searchlight for one's progeny. Knowing something was as important as having something, and one's time was not exhausted by the everyday shuffle of interests and duties.

Reading an overview like Wilson's also invites unpleasant comparisons to our own age. Whatever might be said on behalf of the swift progress of science and the sophistication of our ever-evolving technologies, ours is not an age that prizes learning for its own sake. One goes to school and studies hard to get a good job, and later on, to seek a place at court. We live in a time in which the titular head of the country can be nearly illiterate; in which actors and wrestlers and widows can become leaders of the political class; in which eligibility for a life of privilege depends only on figuring out the tides of the marketplace, not on knowing who Aristotle and Alexander the Great were; in which image and self-obsession are prerequisites of commercial success; in which knowing the futures market or knowing a corporate executive is more conducive to an auspicious life than knowing a millennium's worth of literature and poetry.

I can hear the objections of the sceptical reader who would remind me that Jefferson is an exceptional example, and that surely there were hordes of ignoramuses in the New World just as there are today, but at least today we have what is known as "universal education."

I would ask the dissenter to take the brightest and best in any field today and compare the person's acumen and proclivities to Jefferson's or, for that matter, to Franklin's or Madison's or Hamilton's or David Rittenhouse's or Benjamin Rush's. The exemplary intellectual or scholar today doesn't likely know half a dozen languages; doesn't know as much about Homer and Aeschylus as he does about architecture and farming; cannot translate the Bible into attic Greek and make a timely invention or discovery in one lifetime; cannot write an imperishable constitution and single-handedly create a university within the span of a few years.

It is true that various factors today militate against a renaissance mentality, not least of which is the imperative of specialization in the academy and the interplay between specific research and the needs of the private sector. Nevertheless, there is a very profound difference in vision and emotional disposition between the life of yesteryear and the life of today. Today the quest for knowledge must be undertaken in a world that is indifferent to contemplation and suspicious of any idea or thought that cannot be spun into a product or service. It must unfold with the clear understanding that very few people quite care anymore, that solemnity and rumination are intruders in the chateau of narcissism and pragmatism.

What ever happened to the Enlightenment view that knowledge is the highest good? What bents of mind and changes in social practice undermined the ideal and relegated worldly success to the first rank? And what happened to the Greek-inspired view that knowledge should be pursued for its own sake, and that human perfectibility is inconceivable without it?

A seasoned historian or cultural anthropologist would rightly admonish us against any easy explanation. I think, nevertheless, that certain phases and developments can be identified that have contributed to the eclipse of knowledge in the public hierarchy of values. Below is a sampling of them:

 

I. The Birth Of The Notion Of "Utility"

While men like Jefferson and Franklin looked upon edification as an end in itself, they clearly saw that deep learning could lead to a number of impressive discoveries and a range of tools that could facilitate everyday living. A fledgling society would naturally evolve technologically. The steam engine, the cotton gin, the numerous applications of electricity, the internal-combustion engine were merely a few of the natural outgrowths of budding science, and many more such things would emerge as knowledge unfolded.

When Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society in 1743, he noted that the goal was to pursue "all philosophical Experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter, and multiply the conveniences or Pleasures of life." Note that the last two aims are essentially utilitarian: something practical can be obtained by studying intensely and conducting experiments. The aim of the Society, in other words, wasn't simply to contemplate ideal things and attain enlightenment but to produce something useful to the larger society.

The very notion of knowledge as a deliverer of a better life and of things was thus already in place.

II. Pragmatism: The Official American Philosophy

Every age must have its own unique philosophy. The Asiatic cultures had monism and pantheism. The ancient Greeks had naturalism and transcendentalism. The British have had empiricism. The Germans have had romanticism. The young American nation needed a philosophy, too, and in the pragmatic creed it had something that could please both the professor in the university and the businessman out in the world.

While Charles Sanders Peirce is widely regarded as the father of American pragmatism, it was William James who most influentially distilled the new philosophy. Here are a few illustrations of the ignis fatuus, culled from James' much-respected essay, "What Pragmatism Means":

"The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one." {Cf. this view with that taken by Socrates and Plato, who believed that Truth in all matters was quite independent of anyone's particular interests and yearnings.}

"A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns toward concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power." {Translation: Contemplation and reason's flights of fancy are bad while theory in the service of power and everyday action is good.}

"No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, 'categories,' supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts." (italics in original.) {Translation: The concrete is preferable to the abstract; action is preferable to reflection; the seen world is more important than an unseen world. Philosophy should be less exalted, more practical, more matter-of-fact, more concerned with the ephemera of daily existence.}

A new philosophy is one thing. A new attitude suffused throughout the land is something else. After Peirce and James made their mark, it was customary in America to evaluate an education and a philosophy by how practical it was, by how much fruit it bore. Consider the following lines from Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University (1869-1909), who was quite perturbed that one shining philosophical star, George Santayana, didn't follow in the footsteps of his mentor James, but instead preferred the via contemplativa of Socrates and Plato; Eliot pondered long and hard the question of whether Santayana should be promoted to the rank of assistant professor in 1897:

"The withdrawn, contemplative man who takes no part in the everyday work of the institution, or of the world, seems to me a person of very uncertain value. He does not dig ditches, or lay bricks, or write schoolbooks, his product is not of the ordinary, useful, though humble kind. What will it be? It may be something of the highest utility; but, on the other hand, it may be something futile, or even harmful because unnatural and untimely."

Note all the important words: "ordinary," "useful," and even in the conjectural praise of the contemplative man, the word "utility." Note also the snarl and purr words to depict an intellectual who refuses to lose himself in practical affairs or be of service to the nation's ruling class: "futile," "harmful," "unnatural." Imagine, too, how much poorer (if you'll excuse the word) the world would be without Santayana's distinguished prose, his telling observations and sparkling metaphors. Santayana did achieve the rank of full professor, but amid ongoing difficulties with Eliot and others. Very gladly did he leave Harvard (despite various supplications to stay) and head for London and Rome.

III. The Solipsistic Preference: Nihilism And Post-Modernism

While pragmatism spread rapidly across America, the nihilist philosophy received its most eloquent, if loudest and unruly, expression in Nietzsche. Truth, we're told by this Teutonic egotist, is neither out in the world nor up in the sky; it is simply a fiction. All there is is interpretation, and the world has been made miserable by thousands of years of Platonism and Christianity and numberless other "isms". There is no truth or meaning or reason or purpose in life. The best life is one that is egoistic, artistic, exceptional, censorious, strong -- a life that incorporates the best mix of apollonian and dionysian qualities.

Nietzsche profoundly affected generations of scholars and thinkers, Heidegger and Foucault and Derrida among them. 

What is unimpressively called "post-modernism" today is simply the bastard child of Nietzsche's thinking. The same disgruntlement, the same posturing, the same self-righteousness and swagger is all there, only it is transmitted with far less eloquence and originality and turned out in print under "publish-or-perish" duress.

For the last four decades, many of those best positioned to vouchsafe the Enlightenment philosophy and buoy on eager students -- namely, the docents in the colleges and universities -- have instead recycled the shopworn ideas of Nietzsche and his followers and perpetuated a cynical and pessimistic mindset among the young. Why should a novitiate look ingenuously to books and ideas and history to become "enlightened" when the regnant creed is that truth is a hoax, that traditional morality is a subterfuge created by the weak to shackle the wonderful talents of the strong, that knowledge is always elusive and that the only vibrant reality in all life is one's will? What incentive exists to discipline the mind and look humbly upon such endeavors as philosophy and literature, when the sound that is repeatedly echoed is that the solitary ego is the work of art, that the creative will is the only inspirational and beatific force in the world?

It is possible to overstate the influence of Nietzsche and his imitators on whole societies. The life of academics, after all, tends notoriously to be segregated from that of everyone else. The seeds still continue to be planted, however, and the influence is quite real even if relatively marginal.

IV. The Advent Of New Media (Radio, TV, Satellite, the Internet)

The natural reaction to any new medium is one of wonderment and awe. People stand over the new creation and make high guesses about its potential. The very thing we behold, McLuhan says in Understanding Media, in time beholds us; the tools we shape in time shape us.

Consider the printed word and television. When James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wanted every state to sign onto the idea of a federal constitution, they wrote numerous articles for a New York newspaper. With much care they laid out their case. They organized their thoughts in order, arguing from point A to point B; they alluded frequently to the history of states; they expatiated upon such subjects as taxation and revenue, security and liberty, elections and treaties. They utilized the written word and habits of linear thought to convince every doubter that a national constitution would be in each state's interest.

Today, when the political class wishes to win support for an idea, whether the North American Free Trade Agreement or war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it doesn't turn out nuanced essays or rely on its staggering command of historical fact to secure the consent of constituencies. It takes to the airwaves and disseminates shibboleths and slogans. It realizes its aim through press briefings, political commercials, evening news broadcasts. When President Bush gave the order to bomb Afghanistan, no one naturally expected him to write a 50,000-word essay defending the idea. It was judged a miracle that he could look into a teleprompter, read something banal that his aids wrote, look wan and wrought, and come off appearing "strong and in control." Nothing else was required of him, and approval for his plan of action soared into the 90 percent range.

Other than the printed word, there was no other mediating influence on the reader of the Federalist Papers. To understand what Madison and Hamilton and Jay were communicating, readers had to follow an introduction, a thesis, and a summary; the narrative proceeded along the lines of cause and effect, of linear order, of a logical sequence of evidence and ideas. As we know, the experience of television is dramatically different. The tube appeals to our emotions, not to our reason; a smile, a wink, a laugh, a clearing of the throat, standing erect and tall are to a good television performance (I mean political performance) what a thousand references to Cicero and Polybius once were under the reign of the written word. Television is non-linear, disjunctive, spastic, and image- and sound-centered.

But television, like any other medium, is something else, namely, a producer of new norms. A sitcom isn't merely another harmless show, a means to escape the routine of one's day: it is also an example of a suggested norm, a way that other people, albeit fictional, interact with one another and experience reality. Their skit is an advertisement for what's normal "out in the land." A discussion about U.S. foreign policy on cable subconsciously communicates boundaries and limits. "This is how a normal discussion unfolds, and these assembled guests are examples of responsible participants in such a discussion" -- this message is ever subtly conveyed to the average passive viewer.

Needless to say, after tens of thousands of hours of viewing, the public becomes inured to the television format. Three-minute discussions followed by three minutes of commercials supersede the experience of sitting still for a few hours and carefully following a narrative. Personalities and demeanors trump content and evidence. Distinctions, complexities, and depth are ousted by gestures and tones of voice, by cute one-liners, by any gimmick or personality that can insipidly be said to be agreeable or disagreeable, likeable or unlikeable.

V. The Influence Of "Pop Culture" On Identity

It is difficult to see how anyone can seriously seek knowledge -- to read, to study, to ponder, to travel, to ferret out and weigh uncongenial ideologies, to nourish curiosity and wrestle with challenging ideas -- while having to live and breathe in a society that privileges aloofness of manner, sameness of personality, giddiness about the wonders of a market economy, and untutored political points of view.

A really intelligent person doesn't seem to fit in so easily. He questions something before he accepts it. He asks unpleasant and disturbing questions. He doesn't give a whit about consensus and trends. His first loyalty is knowing something, not pleasing anybody.

But such a person must naturally be seen as an odd fit in a world informed by advertising and movies and television. This world succeeded long ago in establishing the "cool man and cool woman." The key to being cool is to be odd and eccentric and "rebellious" in all the things that don't count (e.g., the way one wears one's hair, the part of the body designated for piercings, use of certain exotic colors in the casual wardrobe) while seeking the same thing everyone else is seeking, namely, group affection and acceptance. The cool man doesn't talk much, is confidently taciturn, stoic and unemotional, very handsome or very rich. The cool woman is preferably very cute or very beautiful, naturally "strong" (meaning she has opinions and she can articulate them in a grammatically correct way, has a college education), has "attitude" (i.e., looks undaunted, wears leather boots or five-inch heels), knows what suitor is worthy of her (a rich guy, of course), can flash a smile or turn out a laugh when the occasion clearly calls for it (e.g., at an important cocktail party).

There is every disharmony in the world between the imposture of "coolness" and the sincere effort to know more and learn more and see more -- between a fashionable and "cool" personality and a stubborn, probing, insatiable mind. Were Bertrand Russell in our midst, he might say that the cool man and cool woman only wish to have the emotions of some fashionable group, that it is they who suppress the individual in themselves for the sake of the herd's admiration. Were Marshall McLuhan in our midst, he might remind us that the electronic medium is primarily responsible for breeding this new type of man and woman.

This essay is already rather long (whether it is long by modern valuations of the attention span or by older essay standards, I'm not sure), so I would close by repeating a familiar refrain. Each one of us can decide not to model our self after prevailing images. We can ignore the television set or get rid of it. We can pass over a season of movies. We can decide to forego weekly magazines and Sunday newspapers and immerse ourselves in great literature. We can choose a career that will allow us to explore the best mysteries of existence. We can become, as Emerson put it, the "imitable thing," and we can trade in the gods of lucre for the gods of ideas.

(Tim Ruggiero, November 29, 2001)

Suggested Reading:

The Monticello Monograph Series, published by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. Call 434-984-9840 to order any titles of interest.

William James, Pragmatism: A New Name For Some Old Ways Of Thinking.

George Santayana, The Genteel Tradition (a book of excellent essays) and Character And Opinion In The United States (his thoughts on William James, on pragmatism, and many other turns of thought in the young nation.)

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