Right now, I have several hundred, if not over a thousand tabs open on my iPhone. A random sample of them: the Wikipedia article on Paul Feyerabend; another is the PDF of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism; a lot of tabs on Buddhism; one with a Jonestown image of Fla-Vor-Aid (so the saying might be “don’t drink the Fla-Vor-Aid,” instead of “don’t drink the Kool-Aid”); and some music, art, and news tabs. Clearly, knowledge is incredibly accessible, so that someone can spend their days memorizing academic facts, or interrupt a conversation by making Siri produce trivia; someone can google a college course’s syllabus, and order used textbooks online. Any individual can become a catalogue of facts. Anyone, with the time, can regurgitate an encyclopedia if they wanted to, although a total and complete knowledge will always be out of reach. And, really, anyone can become that existentialist quoting Nietzsche in the kitchen during a party. Knowledge is a currency inflated. So, I want to reflect here on learning, and ask “why know?” and maybe estimate a map of evaluating knowledge, from my own experience and place the academic stuff aside for a moment.
First, the most personal reason that I learned stuff was to outsmart the Christians I knew, because they had used theology harmfully against me (e.g. anti-gay theology). There is a reactive sense to knowledge, that I can tell someone they are harmful, and especially that they are harmful because they are wrong. In an environment where people can defer responsibility to an abstract knowledge system, establishing their actions as just because the adherents believe that their beliefs are true, it is important to be able to grapple with the “truth;” to say, “no, these beliefs might not exactly be true.” This is the reactionary reason for knowledge, and so, once the community to react against becomes less important, the reason to know does too (maybe, in reality, this never happens, for there is always a community to react against).
When the reactionary stuff burns up, maybe you sit there in silence with no books for a week, with no google searches except for the Seabirds kitchen menu, with a full bookcase asking, “what do I get from more knowledge?” From here, knowledge becomes entertaining, or it satisfies a mysterious curiosity. Content is easy to consume; we all watch Netflix and read articles and listen to endless podcasts. Academic knowledge is just a fancier form of this stuff, with more (sometimes less!) thinking, so it fulfills an entertaining purpose—it exists as content, just because content, in some abstract, undefined, arbitrary way is important. Apparently the more thinking you have to do, the more meaningful it might be, so the academic database search becomes another form of an Instagram feed (maybe that is just me).
The problem with the feed of knowledge is that it might only be entertainment. It is catalogue-building entertainment. It might be knowledge known just because it is what the community is supposed to know (a church might host a study on fourth-century theology, or a sermon that people forget abruptly), or because it is the way things are (spend some time reading about ontology, maybe); it is a description of what the world is about. But this, too, runs into trouble on two fronts: if the world is a certain way, what benefit is it to know about it?; and what does the knowledge have to do with this self who knows? (This might be the same question: who cares?)
Maybe entertainment is a sufficient answer to those questions: I think the Fla-Vor-Aid knowledge is entertaining, and the knowledge extends to the fact that I share it to entertain others. More broadly, knowledge becomes a medium for connection, it becomes a facilitator for sociality, which is cool. But in that case, a limited knowledge can do wonders, and there might not be incentive to learn stuff outside the community’s discourse, and a deep and critical understanding of phenomena is less important than the fact that something is discussed.
And so, finally, I’ll skip to a tentative answer: knowledge is a way of self-reflecting, of establishing my relationship to the world, beyond just a particular cluster of communities. This creates a self-reflective component that I like. For I can read poetry and self-reflect on how Rilke’s language for God dives into an ambiguity that I can claim for my own life. I can also read the philosophy of science and reflect more critically. And maybe, knowledge develops into an embodied understanding, (this should not happen too quickly), where I enjoy my knowledge about the Puritans because I can understand their propensity to otherize Anne Hutchinson (even if I try to reject that propensity, after studying); I can enjoy the fact of my knowledge of Feyerabend’s philosophy of science because it alludes to something human outside of scientific knowledge. In short, knowledge serves something like a humanizing force, an ability to reflect something deeply subjective in myself. It serves to articulate a relationship between that which is deeply human inside of me (I study religion, so, also the divine inside me) to the world I encounter (also: the divine outside me). Which, I dunno, might be meaningless language, but it seems pretty cool to me.
So, some knowledge does not fit into this kind of humanizing (humanistic?) approach. Of course, there can be completely awful people who know a lot; a lot of geniuses, apparently (I heard this somewhere once and am not googling anything to verify this while writing), were bad people. Heidegger might be one example, enough to show that knowledge, even when he was writing about this reflective capacity, might just be a legitimation to pretend like you’re an okay person, a fictive narrative that does not actually correspond to the “real” way of things. So I am not certain on my hasty conclusion that knowledge humanizes. Maybe more caution is needed (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle talks of a slower, less technical form of knowledge), maybe knowledge as entertainment is our best bet. Or maybe knowledge is only as good as its use. I do not know, but I’ll take the risk and try to develop a propensity for a deeper understanding.