What is Knowledge Good For?

I seek to read and learn widely, building an understanding across a wide range of areas in order to understand the world I live in. If you’re willing to trawl the internet widely enough to find this blog, then that probably applies to you as well. But what good does all this knowledge do us? Does understanding the dynamics of society improve our lives if we lack the power to change them? Is the ignorant worker-drone who spends his leisure time with mindless entertainment more at peace and happier than one who understands his problems yet cannot solve them?


Knowledge isn’t a worthwhile investment towards gainful employment, the de facto centrepiece of our society. Credentials may assist, but in the current market you cannot be considered for any job which is not identical to one you have previously performed. An investment in networking and trust in nepotism is a much better idea than knowledge if you are aiming for particular employment. Indeed, skills in self-promotion are far more important than knowledge, especially that self-directed knowledge across a range of areas which will inevitably be immediately dismissed as irrelevant.


Knowledge doesn’t aid in your social relations. Having interest and knowledge in esoteric areas only serves to narrow the range of people with whom you can have a worthwhile conversation. Certainly, having knowledge does not prohibit you from discussing idle trivitialities, but these are unlikely to be fulfilling if you are familiar with higher concerns. If you can find companions who share similar proclivities towards knowledge then great friendships can be formed, but there will necessarily be less possibilities than would otherwise be available.


Knowledge comes with an understanding of your own powerlessness in the face of societal structures. Being able to diagnose the problems does not imply you can actually solve those problems. Yet understanding that these impediments exist serves to heighten your own alienation and thus make you unhappier. The alternative version of you falsely believes our society is just, meritocratic, nondiscriminatory and democratic but is blissful in his ignorance, not seeing or being saddened by the real problems.


From a purely utilitarian perspective, it would seem that the frisson of excitement in the moment of learning a new thing is cancelled out by the negative impacts of that knowledge, and is certainly less than the happiness gained by spending one’s leisure time on mindless entertainment. But utilitarian ethics are just the bastard child of economics. There is more to the human condition than maximising happiness.


Knowledge is valuable in and of itself, for it increases the range of possibilities. Building your knowledge of the world enables you to think beyond the simple pleasures and diversions to develop radical new ideas and things. Knowledge allows us to diagnose our own alienation and despair, which helps to diffuse the unhappiness caused by these conditions. Knowledge also allows us to visualise alternatives, not just to simple problems but even to those societal structures which haunt us so.


Staying ignorant may be a viable shield against understanding the ills present within society, but it doesn’t preclude other diagnoses. Without the kind of critical thinking which is characterised by wide reading and depth of knowledge, you can readily fall prey to conspiracy theory. I can’t imagine that the alienation of believing the UN is using climate change to bring about one world government is qualitatively different to that caused by our worship of markets.


While choosing knowledge as one’s project may result in less happiness, it also comes with the radical potential to create new ideas and maybe even a better world, which I believe is more important than mere ignorant bliss.


So I’m going to get off the internet and read that book.