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The Madness of Knowledge: On Wisdom, Ignorance and Fantasies of Knowing

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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. Steven Connor’s The Madness of Knowledge is the first book to investigate this emotional inner life of knowledge—the lusts, fantasies, dreams, and fears that the idea of knowing provokes. There are in-depth discussion 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. Steven Connor’s The Madness of Knowledge is the first book to investigate this emotional inner life of knowledge—the lusts, fantasies, dreams, and fears that the idea of knowing provokes. There are in-depth discussions of the imperious will to know, of Freud’s epistemophilia (or love of knowledge), and the curiously insistent links between madness, magical thinking, and the desire for knowledge. Connor also probes secrets and revelations, quarreling and the history of quizzes and “general knowledge,” charlatanry and pretension, both the violent disdain and the sanctification of the stupid, as well as the emotional investment in the spaces and places of knowledge, from the study to the library. In an age of artificial intelligence, alternative facts, and mistrust of truth, The Madness of Knowledge offers an opulent, enlarging, and sometimes unnerving psychopathology of intellectual life.


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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. Steven Connor’s The Madness of Knowledge is the first book to investigate this emotional inner life of knowledge—the lusts, fantasies, dreams, and fears that the idea of knowing provokes. There are in-depth discussion 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. Steven Connor’s The Madness of Knowledge is the first book to investigate this emotional inner life of knowledge—the lusts, fantasies, dreams, and fears that the idea of knowing provokes. There are in-depth discussions of the imperious will to know, of Freud’s epistemophilia (or love of knowledge), and the curiously insistent links between madness, magical thinking, and the desire for knowledge. Connor also probes secrets and revelations, quarreling and the history of quizzes and “general knowledge,” charlatanry and pretension, both the violent disdain and the sanctification of the stupid, as well as the emotional investment in the spaces and places of knowledge, from the study to the library. In an age of artificial intelligence, alternative facts, and mistrust of truth, The Madness of Knowledge offers an opulent, enlarging, and sometimes unnerving psychopathology of intellectual life.

35 review for The Madness of Knowledge: On Wisdom, Ignorance and Fantasies of Knowing

  1. 4 out of 5

    Doctor Moss

    I had trouble engaging with this book. It may be that I was looking for something different than what the author, Steven Connor, had in mind to do. What attracted me to the book was that it promised to look at knowledge from a different perspective than what I’m used to in philosophical treatments (Connor, after all, while well versed in philosophy, is a Professor of English). As opposed to epistemology — addressing questions of whether, how, and to what extent knowledge of external reality is po I had trouble engaging with this book. It may be that I was looking for something different than what the author, Steven Connor, had in mind to do. What attracted me to the book was that it promised to look at knowledge from a different perspective than what I’m used to in philosophical treatments (Connor, after all, while well versed in philosophy, is a Professor of English). As opposed to epistemology — addressing questions of whether, how, and to what extent knowledge of external reality is possible — Connor wants to understand what he calls “epistemopathy” — addressing questions of how knowledge matters to us, how we experience and feel with respect to knowledge. The “pathos” of knowledge rather than its “logos”. That sounds great to me. I’ve always been intrigued about why philosophers feel such a compulsion to defend knowledge from skeptical arguments, why Kant thought it a “scandal to philosophy” that problems of skepticism had not yet been adequately answered. And there are more sociological questions to talk about. Why do we esteem knowledge, why are scientists like Einstein, Richard Feynman, or Stephen Hawking so revered? Why are “dumb jocks” and “dumb blondes” denigrated? How do claims of knowledge, or reputations for being knowledgeable, get used to advantage? And how does it turn out, at least in some circumstances, that a lack of knowledge is considered advantageous or even virtuous? I don’t really think I got my itch scratched. Maybe that just wasn’t the itch that Connor meant to scratch. It’s not as if he doesn’t address those questions, it’s just that he doesn’t travel along a direct line of investigation related to them. What he does do is present a long and scholarly reflection on the ways in which knowledge has mattered to us. Those reflections especially encompass various ways in which we have thought of knowledge as ways to gain mastery over nature or over ourselves. The biblical story of Eve and Adam eating the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil puts us in a position to even have to master nature and ourselves — the fall from paradise puts us in that predicament. Connor discusses both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche at some length in his chapter on “Will to Knowledge”. Schopenhauer is always interesting and a bit paradoxical. After all, knowledge of objective reality, for Schopenhauer, is essentially knowledge of nothing, a ladder to be tossed aside once climbed and used to escape the illusion it sought mastery over. And Connor captures Nietzsche’s unique brand of pragmatism, in which knowledge and language pursue, in Vaihinger’s later terms, an empowering “fiction”. The notion of mastery extends to Freud and psychoanalysis, where knowledge is freeing, a way of gaining insight, vision, and mastery over what otherwise may master us. Other chapters address, among other things, the role and power of secrets, the charlatanism of knowledge (con artists and the like), the notion of riddles and their strategic social role, and, one topic that I especially found interesting, the social role played by our use of the word “stupid." On stupidity, Connor relies on what sounds like a very interesting book by Avital Ronnell, titled simply Stupidity. Connor hits on some curious aspects of our talk of stupidity. Stupidity isn’t just an evaluation of intelligence — it’s a judgment of worth, as if a stupid person were actually less a person than people who aren’t stupid. After all, our species is called “homo sapiens”, and someone without sapience is going to register low on the scale. Throughout all of these discussions, Connor relies heavily on the etymology of words associated with knowledge and intelligence — words like “cunning”, "quiz”, and “dunce.” All interesting and indicative of the social history of knowing, not knowing, claiming to know, and seeking to know. Connor closes with two chapters that change tone from a more narrowly scholarly tone to one that’s more topical — the power and role of knowledge (and its lack) in our own culture. Those final chapters, Epistemotopia and Epistemocracy, touch on some familiar current issues in new ways — the ubiquity of information, the role of science, the rebellion against expertise, the social stratification that comes with access to and possession of knowledge, . . . All good stuff. I guess my feeling that my itch wasn’t scratched is that, rather than following a line of questioning or argument about the place of knowledge in our social history, Connor took his subject matter (“epistemopathy”) and turned it around and around, observing and examining one side after another. If there was a consistent line of argument, rather than a consistent topic of reflection, I missed it.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Tucker

    I got a lot out of the introduction alone. I shared a few key points on Medium that are just from the introduction. (There is more esoteric stuff in the introduction, too, about psychological and narrative "fantasies" of knowing, on which frankly I am not quite yet prepared to share my reflections.) The rest of the book is similarly full, though eventually the point is gotten. The final chapter doesn't exactly wrap up or finish with a bang. But once you unroll a few dozen of these recursive sent I got a lot out of the introduction alone. I shared a few key points on Medium that are just from the introduction. (There is more esoteric stuff in the introduction, too, about psychological and narrative "fantasies" of knowing, on which frankly I am not quite yet prepared to share my reflections.) The rest of the book is similarly full, though eventually the point is gotten. The final chapter doesn't exactly wrap up or finish with a bang. But once you unroll a few dozen of these recursive sentences, you are capable of drawing your own conclusion anyway.

  3. 5 out of 5

    ShiauYin

  4. 5 out of 5

    Patricia Beykrat

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jovany Agathe

  6. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie McGarrah

  7. 4 out of 5

    Darren Mitton

  8. 4 out of 5

    Nocturnalux

  9. 5 out of 5

    Timothy Urges

  10. 4 out of 5

    KalpaMantra

  11. 4 out of 5

    Corey Eubanks

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ibrahim Jaouni

  13. 4 out of 5

    Christen

  14. 4 out of 5

    Dean

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Allen Thakur

  16. 4 out of 5

    Julia

  17. 4 out of 5

    Hatchet Mouth

  18. 4 out of 5

    mark mendoza

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jordana

  20. 5 out of 5

    Mike Mueller

  21. 4 out of 5

    Ginny

  22. 4 out of 5

    Dajuroka Reads

  23. 4 out of 5

    C.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jan

  25. 4 out of 5

    Suzanne

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dyrgripen

  27. 5 out of 5

    Christian Lebogana

  28. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn

  29. 4 out of 5

    Drew Pavlou

  30. 5 out of 5

    Nurit

  31. 5 out of 5

    Emily Westfall

  32. 5 out of 5

    Cass

  33. 4 out of 5

    Wendi

  34. 5 out of 5

    Rob Brethouwer

  35. 5 out of 5

    Brent

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