The value of knowledge – the anti-intellectualism problem versus the philosophers’ problem

I need to complain about my fellow philosophers.  But maybe I’m confused.  Maybe some philosophers out there can set me straight, somehow.

In recent years, as my interests have turned away from encyclopedia-building and toward education, I have become increasingly interested in the whole social phenomenon of people appearing to devalue academic knowledge.  This is unfortunate enough in students, but it is disturbing among adults who shape the attitudes of children, and positively alarming among educators–precisely the people responsible for imparting knowledge.  This trend is part and parcel of anti-intellectualism–and, by the way, it has recently gotten a fresh shot in the arm from the rise of the Internet.  Let’s call this the problem of anti-intellectualism.

Concern about this problem has led me to read, among other things, Susan Jacoby’s pretty interesting book The Age of American Unreason.  I’ve been thinking of writing an essay on the topic, and making a defense of knowledge as such, and in particular, why it ought to be the centerpiece of our goal statements of education.  Education is, first and foremost, about the getting of knowledge, or improving our understanding.  Toying with this idea, I decided to look into what some of my fellow philosophers have said about it.  Philosophers frequently say that knowledge is an intrinsic good, something sought for its own sake.  But, of course, there is far more that can be said about the value of knowledge than that, even if it is an intrinsic good.

I was not too surprised to learn that a currently trendy topic in epistemology is now the value of knowledge.  But when one looks at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the subject, attractively titled “The Value of Knowledge,” one discovers that there is very little indeed on the problem above-described.  Instead, it is all about the relatively technical problem of why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief.  I decided to search the page for the words “anti-intellectual” and “anti-intellectualism.”  They do not occur in the article.  In fact, there is no significant discussion of “anti-intellectual” or “anti-intellectualism” anywhere in in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Well, I can’t say I’m surprised.  This is how all too many philosophers water down what could be truly fascinating questions: they identify some vaguely related technical issue connected to the interesting question, and then compare technical theories on the technical issue.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I studied with many analytical philosophers and I strongly prefer analytical philosophy to Continental philosophy.  Moreover, the philosophers’ “problem of value” is actually interesting to me.  But, sadly, the “relevance” critique does have some purchase.

Here by the way is my own current view, the view I might want to expand in an essay.  Knowledge–or more precisely, amassing a large body of knowledge, and coming to understand many different aspects of our world, personal, social, and natural, abstract and applied, theoretical and practical, historical and current, mathematical and verbal–is valuable because it improves us.  Having good writing and speaking skills makes our communication more efficient and effective.  Being able to read texts accurately makes it possible to understand instructions, evaluate arguments, and make sense of explanations.  Acquaintance with literature and psychology makes us more worldly, or able to relate smoothly to a wider variety of personalities.  History and politics make us better citizens.  Math ability has not just obvious practical consumer uses, but also allows us to make sense of the more abstract aspects of the world, which are sometimes the only way to come to an accurate, nuanced understanding of why things are as they are.  Or in other words, science.  Science, especially at the more advanced levels in which we understand not just observable facts but begin to grasp the deeper reasons for things, ultimately forms the basis for engineering marvels as well as technocrats’ policy decisions, which, in massive bureaucratic states such as we have now, are widespread.  Philosophy and logic can (or should) greatly improve the clarity with which we think about the world.  Mastering all of these subjects generally improves one’s ability to understand and make oneself clear on various other subjects.  Education makes it possible for us to get stuff done in a complex world.  I could go on and on, of course.  I’m pretty sure that with more thought (or research) I will be able to pull together these various disparate advantages into a few general themes.  I’m sure eventually I’ll sound themes of liberal education, that education in general broadens the mind, liberates us, and so forth.

The multi-faceted ways in which knowledge quite obviously improves us are precisely why schools were invented in the first place, and why people have continued to support the institution of education vigorously.  Indeed, I submit that without reference to the virtues imparted specifically by knowledge, one cannot begin to make sense of education as an institution.  This is why I say that the purpose or goal of education is, first and foremost–regardless of whatever other goals it might have–to cause students to have knowledge, or to improve their understanding.  This is the most basic, ur-explanation of the existence of education and hence schools.

Well, I’ll leave it at that for now.  I’m not ready to write the essay just yet, if I ever will be.







Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

8 responses to “The value of knowledge – the anti-intellectualism problem versus the philosophers’ problem”

  1. Alrenous

    Having good communication skills isn’t ‘education,’ it is just training in writing and speaking skills. (And hearing.)

    Being able to read texts accurately, especially instruction texts, is basic literacy. If you can’t (distinct from ‘won’t’) program a VCR from the instructions, you can’t read the language.

    If you want to relate to a wide variety of personalities, deliberate practice in trying is a more efficient method than reading literature. If nothing else, literature is written by people who value writing about stuff. If you need to learn how a more normal person thinks, you have to talk to them, because they won’t write it down. In theory you could also read someone who does write and did talk to them, (specialization of labour) but in practice I haven’t seen anyone do so.

    I agree with your point about math, though I think you could say it a lot clearer. Namely: when I studied math, I found it an efficient way to learn about certain ways concepts can relate to one another, such as the idea of orthogonality. Also critical, a habit of realizing that ‘more than zero,’ x > 0, doesn’t mean ‘somewhere around 3 or 5’ but rather ‘anything greater than zero.’
    You need to defend, however, what purpose a more nuanced view serves.

    If education is a thing that allows complex things to be done, then cool; we have a clear definition of education. Problem: there are alternative methods. (Further problem: I have a contradictory definition.) With your definition, if we find a thing that allows complexity with less effort, then we should abandon education.

    I don’t see any reason I can’t say knowledge is intrinsically valuable to me, without making it necessarily intrinsically valuable to everyone. Or: a sophisticated mind is indeed useful. But, I’ve never seen a method capable of showing that developing sophistication is cost-efficient for any particular skeptic.

  2. ASDF

    I think the philosopher’s problem is directly related to the problem you identify. To illustrate, consider what so-called virtue epistemologists say about the value of knowledge. Virtue epistemologists say that what distinguishes true belief from knowledge is the possession and use of certain intellectual virtues. So, knowers, unlike mere true believers, are characterized by intellectual virtues like open-mindedness, charity, reliability, and so on.

    The virtue epistemologist’s explanation for what distinguishes knowledge from true belief applies to the value of academic knowledge in general. If knowledge is marked by intellectual virtue, then academia is useful for cultivating and instilling these intellectual virtues. Virtue doesn’t come without discipline and a good university disciplines the minds of students.

    Now, of course, this isn’t to say that one can’t be sufficiently disciplined in a way that cultivates virtue outside of a university. But, universities do seem to be effective discipliners. The things that a liberal arts education requires like reading difficult texts, memorizing, etc, clearly discipline, and such disciplining requirements are rarely self-imposed. So, for most people, the easiest way to discipline the mind is to attend a university.

    So, what then is the value of intellectual virtues? If you don’t want to give some Aristotelian or Theistic explanation about the function of human beings, then you can still appeal to the practical import of intellectual virtues. The world is a better place when people are open-minded, charitable to one another’s ideas, and reliable testifiers.

  3. ASDF–very interesting. I’m not at all surprised if virtue epistemologists, in explaining why knowledge is more valuable than true belief, thereby explain why knowledge is more valuable than ignorance. They are related problems, but they are also definitely distinguishable problems, because true belief is very different from ignorance. It does not logically follow that, if you have an explanation of why knowledge is better than true belief, you also have an explanation of why knowledge is better than ignorance. Or am I wrong?

    Most uneducated dolts don’t have true but unjustified beliefs, and the reason they need education is not to give them the epistemic virtue needed to convert their true beliefs into knowledge. Rather, uneducated dolts haven’t ever become aware of many of the propositions that someone like E.D. Hirsch would consider to be essential to being properly educated.

    There’s another reason why the philosophers’ problem is not sufficient to grapple with the more timely and relevant problem I’ve (sort of) identified. It is that one might well concede that knowing is more valuable than having a true belief, or being ignorant; but one might turn around and say that knowing is not so much more valuable that it justifies the enormous amount of time, money, and energy (and associated opportunity costs) spent in pursuing knowledge. And this is certainly true for everyone, at some point. I mean, it would probably be a bad decision for me (in my present circumstances) to go and get a degree in veterinary science, or stay in school all my life long, for that matter–even though I would become more knowledgeable (and epistemically virtuous), probably, by doing this.

  4. […] Notes: [1] I really like Larry Sanger’s piece titled “The value of knowledge – the anti-intellectualism problem versus the philosophers’ problem“. […]

  5. Thanks for the interesting article. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about anti-intellectualism and have written a few blog posts about it.

    I don’t think you’re going to get very far in parsing the problem unless you make a clear distinction between knowledge and education. When you write, “I have become increasingly interested in the whole social phenomenon of people appearing to devalue academic knowledge” (and other similar remarks), you appear to conflate the two.

    A person might conceivably devalue academic knowledge while being in no sense anti-intellectual and being willing to offer a robust defense of knowledge simpliciter.

    On the other and, education itself can be anti-intellectual. Education is institutionalized knowledge, and it shades over into indoctrination at its extreme edges. Indoctrination, in turn, can be aggressively anti-intellectual as it seeks to control the intellectual life of the indoctrinated.

    Knowledge in an absolute sense (knowledge in itself, as it were) is non-institutionalized, and today one must make an extra effort to disentangle knowledge from its institutional context. This is only becoming more difficult over time as the industrial revolution has been transforming education into an industry that is no longer in touch with the humanistic ideals of knowledge for its own sake.

    The value of institutionalized knowledge is that it gives you a credential that you can parlay into a good job and a good income. The value of non-institutionalized knowledge is in understanding for its own sake, intellectual edification, and what Bertrand Russell called self-enlargement.

  6. rideforever

    “Knowledge–or more precisely, amassing a large body of knowledge, and coming to understand many different aspects of our world”

    Here you are making an assumption that is the root of the difficulty concluding this ‘debate’. You assume that you come to understand something by amassing knowledge.

    ‘What ?’ you say !!

    Just because you have a thought in your head (what you call knowledge), doesn’t make it true. Doesn’t make it real. Doesn’t make it valuable for man.

    A philosopher might spend a day thinking on some big philosophical issue, read some famous theories, and come home only to have an argument with this wife. – So what is happening here, are you spending your life thinking in some separate dreamworld divorced from reality (and your wife ?)

    Philosophy is an empty castle, a beautiful castle – but empty. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Did any philosopher ever conclude his work ? Did any philosopher die at peace, all questions answered. No. Not even close.

    In philosophy every answer just produces 10 more questions. Branching out everymore, and you hunt after the next question like a rat on a wheel, forever going round and round … do you not get the impression someone is playing a game with you ?? Can you not see the whole history of ‘thought’ and see that someone is playing a game with you ?

    Mankind’s haste is his ignorance. He is in a hurry to get out there and start thinking, or start doing, without taking stock of where he is or who he is. And this is your problem.

    Thoughts. Do you know what a thought is ? Surely you need to find that out before you start spending your whole life thinking. Doesn’t that make sense ?

    You spend your life wrapped up in thoughts – do you know actually what a thought is ?

    The meditators of the east had more pause then you. They understood this fact; they said let’s understand where we are before we go chasing around for answers. They tried to understand their thoughts – what is a thought, where does it come from, is it meaningful.

    When they answered this question … they stopped. They had concluded their work. And they died at peace.

    Not like the ‘philosophers’ chasing their tails through the ages, forever creating new problems, never answering anything, and not noticing that a great game is being played with them. The empty castle they create is a payoff for the failure to reach any goal, destination or conclusion.

    1. Um…huh?

      This looks like a sophomoric, ill-informed attack on philosophy as a discipline, which is so silly as not to merit a response. Besides, I don’t know what it has to do with my post.

    2. GPC

      Philosophy is an empty castle? Thanks to great thinkers we have democracy, human rights, liberty, capitalism, laws, etc.

      As for knowledge, wasn’t that a requirement to program the computer you use, build the home you live in, design the car you drive and so on. Knowledge is far more than a random thought in someone’s head. It was the passing on and adding to knowledge over many thousands of years that has allowed us to have the advanced societies we have today.

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