Knowledge vs Knowingness

Lead and Gold excerpted a very interesting article by Michael Kelly, the Atlantic editor who was killed during the early days of the Iraq war. In the article, published in February of 2002, Kelly draws a distinction between knowledge and knowingness;:

Knowingness, of course, is not knowledge—indeed, is the rebuttal of knowledge. Knowledge was what squares had, or thought they had, and they thought that it was the secret of life. Knowingness is a celebration of the conceit that what the squares knew, or thought they knew, was worthless.

(go read the entire excerpt)

It strikes me that many trends in today’s society–especially in academia but by no means limited to it–are at least partly about enabling the attitude of knowingness.

As I wrote in my post The Dictatorship of Theory:

Why is theory (which would often more accurately be called meta-theory) so attractive to so many denizens of university humanities departments? To some extent, the explanation lies in simple intellectual fad-following. But I think there is a deeper reason. Becoming an acolyte of some all-encompassing theory can spare you from the effort of learning about anything else. For example: if everything is about (for example) power relationships–all literature, all history, all science, even all mathematics–you don’t need to actually learn much about medieval poetry, or about the Second Law of thermodynamics, or about isolationism in the 1930s. You can look smugly down on those poor drudges who do study such things, while enjoying “that intellectual sweep of comprehension known only to adolescents, psychopaths and college professors” (the phrase is from Andrew Klavan’s unusual novel True Crime.)

It seems to me that the attitude of knowingness is closely related to the attitude of flippancy. As C S Lewis pointed out somewhere, among flippant people, it is unnecessary to actually make a joke–the joke is always assumed to have already been made. Similarly, among people possessed by knowingness, it is unnecessary to actually go to the trouble of acquiring any knowledge, since the unimportance–or even maliciousness–of any particular piece of actual knowledge is already assumed to have been demonstrated.

4 thoughts on “Knowledge vs Knowingness”

  1. I think it important to view information processing in liberal-arts as a profoundly social process instead of an intellectual one. Their entire intellectual lives have become about self-elevation of themselves and their ego-identity groups. They don’t try to solve problems, instead they try to create an unending series of marketing campaigns for themselves. Meta-theories certainly help with this social goal. They create the illusion of knowledge.

    One can’t help but draw parallels between modern academia and ancient priest class who maintained their social standing with elaborate mythologies. The priest claimed great knowledge about the nature of life and universe because only they knew the sacred stories. Yet the elaborate stories where actually just baroque nonsense.

  2. I think your post touches on some of the same issues as does James McCormick in this recent post. The pose of “knowingness” is characteristic of members of identity-politics subcultures who seek to distance themselves from the mainstream. One sees it as much in some devotees of particular sports as in political or intellectual subcultures. Its characteristic manifestation is the inside joke. Its characteristic emotion is the sneer. It isn’t always destructive, but in extreme cases it seems to be associated with lack of perspective of the kind that James discussed (e.g., admiration for mountain climbers but not for soldiers).

  3. Richard Rorty writes about “knowingness” in “The Inspirational Value of Great Works.” He characterizes it as “a state of soul which prevents shudders of awe,” that substitutes “theorization for awe.” Mark Edmondson’s Why Read? offers similar observations.

    I found your interesting post via Inside Higher Ed.

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