Many human beings have considered the powers and the limits of human knowledge, but few have wondered about the power that the idea of knowledge has over us. The Madness of Knowledge: On Wisdom, Ignorance and Fantasies of Knowing (Reaktion Books) is the first book to investigate this emotional inner life of knowledge – the lusts, fantasies, dreams and fears that the idea of knowing provokes. We asked Steven Connor, Director of CRASSH and the author of this new monograph, to tell us more.
Q. Professor Connor, what is your monograph The Madness of Knowledge about? What drew you to the subject?
Most ideas I have for things that might repay being written about are brewed from reverie rather than reasoning. This may not be a surprise for some of my readers. I cannot easily say what drew me to the subject of the madness of knowledge. Indeed, I’m not sure that it yet qualifies as a subject. Time will tell or, just as likely, won’t. Probably, rather than being drawn to the subject of the kinds of craziness to which the desire for knowledge can lead, I have been inched into it by the simple inkling that it might be made into one. I do however remember being struck mightily many years ago by a remark made by a New Zealand colleague that there might be such as a thing as ‘addiction to thinking’, and I think I might have been paraconsciously ruminating on what kind of thing that might be. And writing The Madness of Knowledge has made it clear to me, with my own surname signifying a studier or compulsive crammer, that at least my last 10 books have been concerned with some aspect or other of magical thinking, glossed by Freud as ‘omnipotence of thoughts’, which means both the belief in magic, and the magical belief in the power of thinking. No tribe of humans, the species that so serenely styles itself sapiens, is more susceptible to this folie de grandeur than scholars. So The Madness of Knowledge aims to be a psychopathology of the intellectual life, drawn, needless to say, from a lifetime of observer-participation.
Q. In your view, wherein lies the book's main contribution to our understanding of human knowledge?
The first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is ‘All men by nature desire to know'. But, while continuing to be impelled by that desire, philosophy, and the pursuit of knowledge more generally, has cared to know little of that care to know. My book aims to offer some ways of thinking about how and why we care for knowledge, and some of the rather delinquent feelings we have about it, through the vehicle of what I call epistemopathy.
Q. Could you please explain what you mean by epistemopathy, as the term seems central to your investigation?
In contrast to epistemology, which names the effort to gain knowledge about knowledge – what kinds of thing we can know, and how we can know them – epistemopathy, in my usage, tries to get a fix on what we feel about knowledge. I am interested in particular in the force of fantasy, by which I do not mean fictions only and false hair, but rather the power of wanting that always seems to be at work in knowing. This means that something can easily be both true and a fantasy, as evidenced by the wild glint that can come into people's eyes when they use words like 'objective' or 'theory'. Epistemopathy overlaps with the term epistemophilia, that Freud (or, rather, his English translator, James Strachey) uses to refer to the often incontinent love of knowledge. But it aims to go beyond it too, to encompass the whole range of emotional investments with which knowledge may be freighted: longing, dread, narcissism, fascination, awe, ambition, joy, excitement, envy, reverence, pride, infatuation, greed, rage, suspicion, boredom, to name, for the time being, only these.
I mean to permit and profit from a certain swivel in the word epistemopathy, resembling what happened in the late nineteenth century to the word psychopath, which originally meant one who treats or investigates psychological illness (on the model of osteopath), but now refers to the kind of person they may tend or attend to. In a similar way, I use epistemopathy to refer both to the various kinds of obsession or mania provoked by the idea of knowledge and also to the process of their investigation. It would be neat if these two meanings could be quarantined from one another, but the latter is by no means immune from mutating into the former. Indeed, you can be fairly sure that anyone who thinks he is in on the madness of knowledge is probably up to his neck in it.
Q. Around which themes did you decide to structure your research?
I have tried to have things to say about some of the principal areas and modes in which epistemic passions are concentrated, the idea however being to inaugurate rather than to exhaust the subject. I begin with discussions of what Schopenhauer and Nietzsche saw as the ‘will-to-knowledge’, as embodied in particular in the Faust myth, as well as of the status of curiosity and knowledge in psychoanalysis. (Freud saw the desire for knowledge as a disguised form of sexual desire. I think it is the other way round.) Psychoanalysis, of which I am emphatically not an adherent, has the remarkable quality both of offering resources for the explication of the libidinal drive to knowledge and of epically exemplifying it in action, and therefore shows both sides of epistemopathy. I have also considered the savage, though, for academics, calmly quotidian, association of the desire for knowledge with struggle and violence, which continues to manifest itself in the adversary rhetorics of aggression, defence, triumph and humiliation in learned discourse and behaviour, and in a more vernacular form in the fascination with the quiz, in which I see a comically debased version of the medieval disputation. Other chapters deal with the excitements that swirl around secrecy and scandal, the strange charisma of the charlatan, and the historical mixture of disdain and adoration for the idiot and the nincompoop. Later chapters consider the theatrics of knowledge in the physical architecture of academic institutions, and the contrasting investments of fantasy in the imaginary architectures of ‘exopistemology’, or knowledge without a knower, currently in the form of AI.
My final chapter looks forward rather glumly to the horrors of the coming epistemocracy, in which we can expect power to continue to ebb away from the rich, the male, the white and possibly at a pinch even the beautiful (always the last unearned advantage to attract any scrutiny) and to accrue steadily and in spades to the bearers and beneficiaries of knowledge. It is especially hard for academics to tolerate the apprehension that, rather than being outlaws audaciously speaking truth to power, they may be (somewhat craven) members of the ruling class. I think that the incurious kowtowing to knowhow in an epistemocracy is going to make it harder than ever to appreciate how long the list is of things that are worse than ignorance, and how considerable and precious too the roster of human graces and virtues that need have no necessary relation to intelligence.
Q. Where might one find a copy of the book?
We are saving up to buy a copy on the dark web for the seminar room in CRASSH, where it may be viewed by appointment and under supervision.
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The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.