Knowledge as a Kind of Friendship
Everyone knows what knowledge is, but knowledge itself can be difficult to think about. What does it mean for a person to be knowledgeable? If someone knows a lot about one thing, but very little about anything else, can they still be considered a knowledgeable person? What is the difference between knowledge and intelligence?
Questions about knowledge are unending. New perspectives on knowledge are always welcome, even if they are sometimes hard to decipher. In a recent spell of intellectual sadomasochism I read What is Philosophy by Gilles Deluze and Felix Guattari. It was not an easy read. Perhaps it is better in its native French, but I found the whole thing to be obtuse and redundant. The authors are (or I suppose were) obviously brilliant philosophers, but maybe not the greatest teachers. Teachers should be easy to understand. Deluze and Guattari are certainly not.
But perhaps I don’t give them enough credit. Teachers are also supposed to present new ways of thinking. A passage early on in What is Philosophy inspired me to think about knowledge in a way I had never thought before.
Knowledge is often seen as a kind of mastery. For example, a student can demonstrate knowledge of multiplication through mastery of the times tables. But do you really know your times tables the way you know stuff you care about? I know my times tables, but not the same way I know the Star Wars canon. I know about Star Wars because I care about Star Wars in a way that is almost reminiscent of the way I care about my friends and family. Maybe, instead of simple mastery, knowledge can be seen as a kind of friendship.
From What Is Philosophy:
“We will see that concepts need conceptual personae that play a part in their definition. Friend is one such persona that is even said to reveal the Greek origin of philo-sophy: other civilizations had sages, but the Greeks introduce these “friends” who are more than modest sages. The Greeks seem to have confirmed the death of the sage and to have replaced him with philosophers- the friends of wisdom who seek wisdom but do not formally possess it…
Wisdom has changed a great deal. It is even more difficult to know what friend signifies, even and especially among the Greeks. Does it designate a type of competent intimacy, a sort of material taste and potentiality, like that of the joiner with wood – is the potential of wood latent in the good joiner; is he the friend of wood?”
That is a great brainful of words, and I admit I’m not completely sure what they mean, but I think they are presenting the following idea: To really know something is to be friends with it. Thus, the carpenter is the friend of wood. The doctor is the friend of medicine. Or, maybe, the doctor is the friend of health, and the insurance man is the friend of over-priced medicine. Even if that is not what Deluze and Guattari are saying, I still think its a cool idea.
The champion is the friend of victory. The loser is the friend of defeat . The zoologist is the friend of animals and the taxonomist is the friend of classification. The astronomer is the friend of the stars, while the astrologist is the friend of the mystical cosmos.
So, then, is the war historian the friend of war? Maybe, but I think not. The soldier is the true friend of war. The war historian is the friend of history, and probably the enemy of war, for war does a lot of bad stuff it doesn’t want people to remember.
Just like with your friends, it is best to not jealously guard your knowledge from others. Just like with your friends, it is best not to be envious of the knowledge of others.
Is knowledge really like friendship, though? Can you really know sub-Saharan history, or particle physics, the way you know your best friend? And if knowledge is indeed a kind of friendship, then is the philosopher the friend of knowledge itself, or is the philosopher the friend of Truth instead?