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‘Love of Wisdom’: An attempt at a normative epistemology

by on June 20, 2011

What is intelligence? What does it mean if someone says that you are smart? I use to think it just meant that you knew a lot of stuff- memorized dates, knew a foreign language, or even memorized pi to 30 digits. However, I now find that concepts of ‘smart’ or ‘stupid’ are mere relative; comparable concepts used to simply differentiate certain levels of knowledge usually based off of society’s priorities.

Here’s one example: Let’s say that I have memorized all of the Beatles albums in order while you have memorized all the battles of the Civil War- who’s smarter? Allow me to further demonstrate the ambiguity of terms such as ‘smart’ by adding that the number of Beatles albums I list in chronological order is the same number of battles in the Civil War chronologically. This type of learning seems to be quantitative without a doubt. It’s similar to when, as a kid, you memorized all the US state capitals (which I did thanks to a placemat and my dad’s quizzes during dinner).

On the other side of quantitative knowledge, there is also qualitative knowledge. To use the above example in this context, you can tell me gobs of information on the Civil War itself- but not before it, after it, or even similarities to other civil wars, the history of civil wars, etc. In other words, there is lacking a certain historical/global context to frame this in. This form of knowledge is qualitative because you can go in-depth into this single topic, apart from just listing dates, names, battles, weaponry, etc.

Let’s not forget that throughout school (I know I’m not the only one), many of us would study the assigned chapters, take the test and by the end of the week, most if not all that information would be lost. We would see homework, reports, and other assignments as a mere means to that wonderful ‘A’ result. By seeing the assignments and test as mere means replaces any intrinsic meaning to the assignment with the desire to finish it to get a good grade, graduate, etc, thus making the assignments more/less meaningless.  This type of learning seems to be utility-oriented in that it merely is performed to attain something else. You go to work not because you LOVE your job- but you need the paycheck to pay bills, buy food, and buy the latest book on Nietzsche. If you had an endless supply of the aforementioned commodities- why the hell would you go to work? How many of you would do your job for free?

This last question, as absurd as it sounds, is my normative epistemology. It has taken me some time to realize this but since then the acquisition of knowledge has become all the more fulfilling. To treat knowledge as a good-in-itself is what I am arguing for. Jacques Lacan, the ignored French psychoanalyst after Freud, integrated knowledge from several disciplines to supply examples, justifications, anticipate counter-arguments, and to merely elucidate his theories; this he called lateral thinking. For example, Lacan used Saussurean linguistics, Husserlian phenomenology, Hegelian dialectics, Marx’s labor theory of value, and even James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ in his work. As I argue here, I consider all knowledge to be connected- thus enabling lateral thinking.

If one were to start with say (as painful as it is to use such an example) a Harry Potter book and didn’t see the book as a mere means to an end (chatting with friends about it, to be able to compare to the movie, etc.); one could then read other fantasy novels, study literary theory and criticism- do you know how many disciplines that would lead into? You would eventually be reading 20th century philosopher Michel Foucault’s notion of the ‘death of the author,’ and Plato’s dialogues in which his utopia would kick out the poets and artists, along with Umberto Eco’s work on semiotics and literature and on and on.

You must ask yourself if having a college degree makes you intelligent, if so, then not having one must make you quite unintelligent. Does reading four chapters and then answering thirty questions solely based on those chapters correctly make you smart? Or does it mean you can memorize information well? Does memorization imply intelligence? If I memorized all the battles of the Civil War yet know nothing past that- that knowledge dies right there- it is useless, without context, lacking a broader understanding of military history, political history, economic history, etc.

I am not bashing memorizing of course, it is what is then done with what is memorized that I am concerned with. Simple regurgitation of numbers, figures, and dates does absolutely nothing but get you that ‘A’. I am calling for acquiring knowledge that serves no purpose other than a launching pad to more knowledge and so on. Philosophy, translated in the Greek breaks down into ‘love of wisdom’- this epitomizes my normative epistemology.

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