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The Importance of Knowledge and Ignorance as Its Enemy

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Many may argue that the author-reader-text relationship can be seen in the form of a contract or at least a mutual agreement. Within this agreement, the author may take certain liberties when creating his/her masterpiece while the reader takes other freedoms when it comes to interpreting the aforementioned masterpiece. The aim of this paper is to explore (I) what is the characteristics of the contract between reader and writer and how do these influence the interpretation of a given text. Besides this, the paper examines (II) the reader’s journey from knowing to understanding and the important of knowledge for the individual. The reason for posing these particular questions is because they complement each other perfectly since they both focus on the role of the reader, from different perspectives, and how a multitude of factors may influence his/her interpretation of the text. In addition to this, they both fall under the umbrella of hermeneutics.

First, we will examine the contract between author and reader and how this contract influences the interpretation of a given text. To discuss this agreement, we will take our point of departure in Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ which takes a critical approach to how we as readers should interpret a text. At the heart of his argument, he pits the reader up against the author and by doing so discovers how the marriage works. He goes as far as to argue that if the reader focuses too intensely on the writer’s intention in his interpretation of the text, he may overlook the actual intent. If this is the case, the reader risks giving the writer too much power. If the reader gives the writer the majority of the power, Barthes insists that the writer will control the text through ‘his person, his history, his tastes, his passions.’ (Barthes 1978) By controlling the text through these tools, the writer creates limitations for the text and thus ‘closes the writing.’ (Barthes 1978) Next, the keen observer finds that Barthes moves the power away from the writer and on to the reader. Here, the important note to hit on is Barthes’ emphasis on the writer’s significance for the text overall rather than simply the words on a page. Or, as scholar Jennifer Nagel puts it, interpretation ‘needs a mind to access whatever is in libraries and databases or it won’t be knowledge, but merely ink marks and electronic traces.’ (Nagel 2014) One could argue that Barthes uses the same notion when he moves power away from the author and onto the reader. When it comes to the linguistic part of this puzzle ‘the author is never anything more than the man who writes, just as I is no more than the man who says I.’

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In this specific quote, one sees that Barthes emphasises that the writer is no more than the person who puts pen to paper, much like words are merely words. In this instance, the reader needs to give the words meaning before they are of any value. In short, it is the reader’s task to give these ink marks meaning and thus give the piece of writing a purpose as a whole. Through the reader’s attempt to give a specific piece of writing meaning he also chooses what power he wishes to give the author. According to Barthes, the role the author then takes on is merely ‘…language itself.’ (Barthes 1978) Furthermore, the author will by this point only have control over what he puts on paper because ‘…a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning.’ (Barthes 1978) For this reason, one may dare say that the writer has not lost all power, yet the power of meaning has moved hands. In simple terms, the reader’s ability to make sense of the writer’s nonsense will overpower the author. Barthes goes on to state that ‘a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue, with each other, into parody. Into contestation…’ (Barthes 1978) However, this particular notion relates to the reader and not the writer. Therefore, the interpretation of a certain text will always be on the reader’s terms rather than the writer’s circumstances. As far as this idea goes Barthes is of the opinion that ‘the birth of the reader must be of the cost of the author.’ (Barthes 1978) Then when the author chooses to unleash their creation on the world, it is no longer their job to interpret but the reader is given this honoured position. Some may even say the key to creative interpretations is for the reader to bathe in his/her interpretive power. Giving the interpretive power to the reader may be hard for the writer much like it is difficult for a mother to see her children leave the comfort of her nest. When the reader chooses to interpret the text given, he/she may make use of ‘hermeneutics’ which is the art of interpretation.

In this next section, we will discuss the reader’s journey from knowing to understanding and the importance of knowledge for the individual. But before this journey can begin, we need to take a closer look at the term ‘hermeneutics.’ Many scholars assert that hermeneutics at its core is the art of interpretation and this shall not be forgotten. To go back to the origin of the word itself, it can trace its history back to Hermes. The earliest reference to the god of language can be found in Plato’s dialogue, Cratylus. This specific writing starts quite abruptly, with someone calling upon Hermogenes to engage in a debate with Cratylus and among the audience the keen observer will find Socrates. Cratylus is one of the main debaters in this setup and for some reason this leads to the story itself bearing his name, while the other debater in this scenario is Hermogenes. Socrates suspects that Cratylus may be making a mockery of Hermogenes, this assumption is based entirely on the notion that Hermogenes is ‘always looking after a fortune and never in luck.’ (Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns 1961) Hermogenes may very well mean “Son of Hermes,” but who is Hermes then in this context? The simple answer is that Hermes is everything that Hermogenes is not, which may indicate that Hermogenes is not a true son of the latter. According to Socrates, this is because Hermogenes is focusing more on fortune than on luck, whereas Hermes focuses more on luck than fortune. And, Socrates continues his thoughts by suggesting that Hermes is always on the move and thus always searching, in short, he is a nomad. At the end, Cratylus even declares ‘I incline to Heraclitus.’

This dialogue as a whole has everything to do with names, with language. Within the frame of this discussion. At this point in the discussion, it seems as if it is going nowhere, thus they wish to let the master debater Socrates join the discussion. But by not inserting himself into this discussion Socrates plays on the notion that he is the wisest man of all simply because he is man enough to admit that he is at a loss. Furthermore, at this point in the reader is also introduced to Prodicus, who was a sophist who taught just because of the money and not because he had a gift for teaching. In simple terms, Prodicus taught for the fortune Hermogenes could not find. But di Prodicus find his fortune? Now, let’s find our journey back to Hermes, because at one-point Plato, or his fellow master of discourse Socrates, refers to the messenger of the gods in a more direct manner:

I should imagine that the name Hermes has to do with speech, and signifies that he is the interpreter (ermeneus), or messenger, or thief, or liar, or bargainer; all that sort of thing has a great deal to do with language; as I was telling you, the word eirein is expressive of the use of speech, and there is an often-recurring Homeric word emesato, which means ‘he contrived’–out of these two words, eirein and mesasthai, the legislator formed the name of the God who invented language and speech; and we may imagine him dictating to us the use of this name: ‘O my friends,’ says he to us, ‘seeing that he is the contriver of tales or speeches, you may rightly call him Eirhemes.’ And this has been improved by us, as we think, into Hermes. Iris also appears to have been called from the verb ‘to tell’ (eirein), because she was a messenger. (Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns 1961)

Here the reader sees Socrates laying out the job of Hermes and that this humble messenger main occupation was that of language at least for the purpose of this piece of writing. Besides this, he also picks the name Hermes apart and points out what is in a name definition wise. To this Hermogenes admits that ‘Cratylus was quite right in saying that I was no true son of Hermes (Ermogenes), for I am not a good hand at speeches.’ (Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns 1961) So, in Hermogenes own words he is no more a son of Hermes than Pan, ‘the declarer of all things (pan) and the perpetual mover (aei polon) of all things, is rightly called aipolos (goatherd), he being the two-formed son of Hermes, smooth in his upper part, and rough and goat like in his lower regions. And, as a son of Hermes, he is speech or the brother of speech.’ (Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns 1961) After this point has been made Plato loses all interest in the subject of gods, even though the debate on language proceeds. The reason why this has been laid out for you, dear reader, is because hermeneutics is a way for us humans to understand a given text. The explanation above may be a bit complex, if that’s the case, let us call upon Jens Zimmermann, who explains it as follows:

‘What is hermeneutics? A simple answer is that it means interpretation. Interpretation occurs in many fields of study and also in day-to-day life. We interpret plays, novels, abstract art, music and movies, employment contracts, the law, the Bible, the Quran, and other sacred texts; but we also interpret the actions of our friends and enemies, or try to figure out what a job termination means in the context of our life story.’ (Zimmermann 2015)

So, in short, hermeneutics is the methodology of interpretation which concerns itself with the issues that arise when humans attempt to make meaningful interactions and this cannot be stressed enough the products of these interactions, also known as texts. As a discipline it offers a variety of tools to solve problems in an efficient manner. In addition to this, it studies a long, proud tradition which have been prevalent throughout human history: and will for many decades to come call into question the importance of interpretation. Given its long history, it is no surprise that the problems it helped solve with the tools provided have changed along with the discipline itself. (Chrysostomos. 2016)

Next, we take our point of departure in Nagel’s notion that ‘Knowledge demands some kind of access to a fact on the part of some living subject. Without a mind to access it, whatever is stored in libraries and databases won’t be knowledge, but just ink marks and electronic traces.’ (Nagel 2014) This notion at its core tells us that knowledge can both be acquired and lost. Yet, in the modern world knowledge has greater significance to us than the basic necessity that is water or even the purest form of money, gold. The reason for this is that when homo sapiens have died out gold will still be present while knowledge will not, since as Nagel herself so beautifully states, knowledge can only exist if mortals are there to acknowledge their own existence. Then there is the question of access to this knowledge. The ability to access this knowledge may or may not be unique to the individual or collective since knowing differs from person to person. Despite this, certain knowledge may always belong to an individual or a collective, yet the collective may know more than the individual.

The best example of this is ‘that an orchestra knows how to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, even if individual members only know their own part.’ (Nagel 2014) Also, mortals as a unit can combine their collective knowledge in remarkable ways to find a solution to a given problem. For instance, researchers within a given field of study build their hypothesis upon fellow researcher’s knowledge on the subject. After working quite concentrated with this knowledge they will attempt to make a connection between fact and individual. So, to paint a very black and white picture of this, one may argue that knowledge can first be realised when subject and object can find the perfect balance. This so-called perfect balance has its basis in three principles. According to Aquinas, there are ‘but three requisites for knowledge, namely, the active power of the knower by which he judges of things, the thing known, and the union of both.’ (Schumarcher 1905) As in nearly every instance an object needs a subject. In connection to such, if one wishes to confirm that a certain form of knowledge exists, there needs to be a physical manifestation of said thing, e.g. libraries or databases because if one does not identify this physical object of knowledge it seizes to exists and thus will merely be electronic traces or ink on paper.

If one wishes to concern oneself with the intriguing term that is knowledge one should also take into account, the illusion of such. And thus, this interesting quotation spring to mind: ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is illusion of knowledge.’ (Boorstin 1994) Two great men are cited as saying this to warn humanity to be aware of how flawed the illusion of knowledge can be. The first is a celebrated American historian by the name of Daniel J. Boorstin and the other is the late great Stephen Hawking, a world-renowned British cosmologist. If looking at knowledge in a historic perspective, the obvious place to begin would be Socrates who so cleverly stated that ‘virtue is knowledge.’ (Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns 1961) In this case, virtue means excellence and according to the master himself, our ultimate goal is to achieve happiness. So, the point of his thought process is that if one achieves knowledge one achieves excellence which in the end may lead to happiness. Next, we have Plato, a pupil of Socrates, who claimed that his teacher was the wisest man on earth. This notion grew out of Socrates claiming, ‘if he was not wise then ignorant.’ (Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns 1961) In Plato’s view, the individual who realises flaws in his knowledge is the most knowledgeable individual on earth. To sum up, the statement above simply points out the importance of knowledge. What Hawking and Boorstin is trying to express is that not knowing is not a crime itself but rather claiming you know the ins and outs of a given topic without really knowing anything is the true crime because it may lead you down a dark path.

Lastly, now that the notion of knowledge has been explained in detail, thinking, knowing and understanding is next. Thinking and knowing is much like identical twins in the way that one can give a well-thought out answer to a question without knowing about the subject and based on this knowledge we contemplate upon it. To put it in simple terms, thinking cannot stand on its own, it needs a foundation which is most often cognitive. On the contrary, knowing needs its basis in a way of thinking to be acquired, stored, reflected on, or disproven. In short, thinking is a process while knowing is the result of this process. One could even argue that thinking is the instrument used ts create the orchestra that will be known as knowledge. Those who tend to be too much in their head would insist that thinking is the key to a world no one knows anything about. Many may say that understanding ‘is a deeper sense of grasping not just facts but their integration into a meaningful whole.’ (Zimmermann 2015) For knowledge the answer is rather obvious because it is information on tap. We even expect pupils to regurgitate such after they have been told. For instance, a given pupil can tell you the capital of Canada, who Luther is or at the least what Newton’s first law is. This may be all well and good but understanding needs more than simply reproducing information. Although one may say that even understanding is a routine of skill. The pupil who solves challenging math equations or writes a wonderful thesis on climate change may have no clue about understanding maths, writing or what he/she is discussing in a given dissertation. While knowledge and her best friend skill can be boiled down to information on tap, or routine performance on the go, understanding is a bit more complex. So, what may understanding be? Some may say that ‘it is the ability to think and act flexibly with what one knows.’ (Annenberg Foundation. 2016)

In this paper, we have discussed the contract between readers and writers and how this contract influences the interpretation of certain texts. On top of this, we have examined the reader’s journey from knowing to understanding and the importance of knowledge for the individual. When reviewing the findings, one realises that when the author gives the power of meaning to the reader, he/she takes on the role of speech instead. In this process, the reader’s task has then become the one giving the ink marks value. This shift of power has to occur in order for there to an interpretation of a given text. In connection to this the reader may use hermeneutics in order to analyse a text because hermeneutics in its essence is the art of interpretation. Hermeneutics can trace its history back to the time of Hermes and throughout its colourful and varied history of hermeneutics, but it has always been used as a tool for individuals to understand their surroundings, more specifically in this context texts.

When discussing the process of knowing to understand, a key component is knowledge itself. and, in modern terms such can be defined as the method in which we gain the known. If one wishes to concern oneself with the intriguing term that is knowledge one should also take into account, the illusion of such. Socrates talk at length about this specific notion with a side not on ‘wisdom’ or at least being ‘wise.’ On the point of being ‘wise’ he proclaims that if one is not wise one is merely ignorant. To finish this off, one should not neglect the processes of knowing, thinking and understanding. The most important concept here would be understanding which many argue is a deeper sense of knowing.

To wrap up, this assay may only have concerned itself with knowledge in terms of theory, but it would be equally as interesting to examine this concept within politics. The obvious path to go down here would be Maxims which mentions that ‘a little is a dangerous thing.’ (Martin 2019) The notion put forth in this statement plays off the idea that even a little knowledge can mislead individuals into believing the know more than they do in actuality.

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