A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

famous-life-quotes_9704-5 I know most people say “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” (how adorable….sorry, mom), some even following in the footsteps of Socrates, and many that followed after him, said that knowledge is virtue and virtue will ultimately lead to human happiness. But what exactly does all this mean? If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, perhaps a lot of knowledge is an even more dangerous thing. That is, if the meaning is that one is an expert in her field. For after all, an expert in the field of atomic physics is far more capable of designing an atomic bomb than one with little relevant knowledge. What about an expert in the field of human psychology? Such a person could manipulate people to do their bidding, plus all sorts of other atrocities. One with little knowledge would likely be shooting in the dark and sometimes be successful and sometimes fail abysmally. Seems those of little knowledge also, of course, have equal chances of fumbling the job of the psychologist who aimed to enhance potentiality, liberate the feeble from forces of coercion and more, just as the physicist could use her knowledge to create devices for peace rather than mass destruction. It would seem then that Plato might have had it right. The issue of knowledge is really a moral issue. You can have all the knowledge in the world and use it for good or for evil; the greater one’s expertise the greater the likelihood of success. But this does not in itself reduce the risk of danger, rather short of a moral compass, it increases it.

But then there is the added issue of self-deception to which both Nietzsche and Sartre spoke, though in an entirely different vain. Nietzsche, of course, offers a diagnostic narrative to account for various forms of self-deception (ressentiment amongst the decadent, for instance) which is not reserved for the plebeians since many philosophers (oh, my!!!) also erected false idols which for centuries would rob humanity of any chance at authentic living; whereas Sartre would argue that because all consciousness is self-consciousness, and hence always being and nothingness in that it is always lacking the being that it intends. Hence, self-deception is the result of experiencing oneself as an enduring self through all of one’s manifestions.

It was pointed out to me that:

The original quotation, or something very like it that substitutes the word “learning” for “knowledge,” is originally from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.” If you look it up on Wikipedia, you’ll get the full quotation with an explanation.

His main point is that you should either pursue deep knowledge or not study at all. The benefit of no study at all is that you at least know that you’re ignorant. The problem he’s attacking is the illusion of knowledge without the substance of it, which makes people confident in their opinions when they really aren’t that worthwhile. He wasn’t talking about literal dangers, like developing a nuclear weapon, but primarily the dangers of vanity and stupidity.

In Pope’s lifetime, technology didn’t create nearly as many problems as it solved, so there would be less ambivalence about the attainment of knowledge than we have now. I think attitudes began to change at least by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was not quite 100 years later.

To which I replied:

So I read from that point of reference and, of course, found it powerfully written with many references that would have to be properly invited to give insight into the full significance of his meaning. In any event, the first lines: “A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring: There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain, And drinking largely sobers us again.”, suggest, that a little learning is dangerous because it can mislead one into thinking one knows (intoxicate the Brain) more than one does, and as a result draw invalid conclusions, upon which one might act hastily. The psychological aspect regarding overconfidence, to which you refer – one which Socrates too was concerned with – may lead to undeserving airs of vanity and arrogance, but as unbecoming as these airs are they aren’t actually “dangerous” in any sense of the word. So I just wonder how the illusion of knowledge counter-set against substantive knowledge could be making any significant point were we not to consider it in the context of the role of knowledge personally, inter-personally, morally, politically and so on.

Though it is not this original text that I had in mind when I wrote this post – it was inspired by a conversation, frustrating at that, with a family member and a former student – it is not, in my mind far off in meaning. For though Pope may not have been concerned with the consequences of illusory knowledge, especially in the context of technology (only a chanced example used to illustrate my point) a disdain for smugness and arrogance could be off-putting because it obstructs the possibility for further learning (again Socrates would have made this point) and hence the dangers of remaining in a state of ignorance, or it may be off-putting only when it springs from a position of ignorance, unless, of course, such airs unlikely find the truly knowledgeable, humility being the true mark of knowledge.

(I had originally posted this on G+.)





7 thoughts on “A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

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  1. You still need to get the context, though. Pope’s essay is titled “Essay on Criticism.” He’s writing about the effects of bad literary criticism on the writing of poetry and on the understanding of poetry. That’s it, really.

    So he is very much concerned about the consequences of having a little bit of knowledge rather than a lot or none at all, but just in the area of literature. Since his consequences are negative, as he describes in his essay, he can fairly refer to them as a danger to be avoided.

    You don’t need to be concerned about physical or widespread economic danger or anything else that causes physical harm to use the word danger. He is worried about the social consequences of incomplete knowledge limited to knowledge of how literature, especially poetry, should be written.

    I should add that the poem is remarkable in its use of poetic conventions and its manipulation of them. Pope writes consistently perfect lines from beginning to end and modifies his lines to Illustrate the points that he is making. When he describes a bad use of Alexandrine lines, for example, he writes in bad Alexandrine meter.

    I think it’s fair, however, to criticize how most people use the phrase, and how it should be limited. Of course a little bit of knowledge is not always a dangerous thing. At the same time, the principle doesn’t have to be true without exception at all times to be valid. All general truths have exceptions. You could probably fairly apply the principle to any area of academic study: it’s like knowing a little bit about a subject, thinking you know a whole lot, and then mistaking your ideas as for valid ones because of the little bit that you know. That process inhibits the acquisition of further knowledge and disseminates ignorance. That is indeed dangerous in a sense as far as I’m concerned.

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    1. Again, though I really didn’t have Pope’s original thesis in mind when I wrote this, I’m still intrigued by the context you lay out. I certainly do see how a little learning with regards to the subject of criticism (be that film, art, literature or anything else), here literature, can have damaging consequences not of the physical variety. As my very brief (hence I may have fallen prey to the very thing Pope loathes….but I’m still just trying to get a handle on this) consideration of this text (read only partially), he was concerned with how critics of poetry can do more harm to poetry than bad poets because not only do they have the power to censor talented poets (and that I presume would be a loss to the art form itself) but they also have the power to shape how poetry is to be appreciated (again doing a disservice to the art form itself). Is it not interesting though that pride is considered to be one of the most telling obstructions to wise criticism? Is this something he would claim even for those critics that have developed and been attentive to all the skills of good criticism, who are also learned scholars of poetry, or not?

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      1. Great response. He absolutely did attack pride, but I would say a certain type of pride: vanity. I think he would say that taking the time to do the work to gain that much knowledge, and then try to execute it in real poetry, is a better cure for vanity than partial ignorance.

        If you read “essay on man,” you’ll see his full critique of society, and it will provide you context for his comments in “essay on criticism.” He invented the idea of common sense as we have it now.

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  2. I’ll check out “Essay on Man”. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Vanity! It kinda sounds like there’s this linear progression of things whereby one acquires all the scholarly skills and attitudes (maybe this is a stretch) to appreciate and critique poetry, so that when it comes time to actually execute that knowledge vanity has recoiled to the corners of one’s being, leaving one free to do her scholarly job scholarly-like. Now if that is the case (and I may have this wrong…baby steps), then is Pope somehow suggesting that born out of this knowledge will be a deep love and appreciation for the subject such that she could not but put all of her creative and critical forces into anything that might compromise the subject?

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  3. That’s a good question. Now I feel like I have to go back and reread the essay on criticism. The object of his critique is pretty clear to me: he seems to be describing people who learn one or two principles and then apply them mechanically and stupidly without really learning the entire field. But on the other end? He seems to think that art is not just raw nature, so he’s not a nativist or romantic, but at the same time he doesn’t believe it’s all abstract principle either. What he seems to argue for is nature methodized or regularized. So I think that would be the exercise of good judgment more than anything else in addition to taste and the ability to feel without being carried away by one’s feelings.

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    1. Only a very limited appreciate of disconnected principles and concepts can truly destroy any hope for genuine understanding, of that I have no doubt (hahaha). I’m just wondering (yet again) whether it is not just a matter of learning a field in part or whole that is the only pertinent issue (vanity, for instance, can corrupt this exercise); there seems to be something else going on here. I suggested that perhaps what grows out of the experience of “proper” learning (so not just a quantitative exercise) is a deep love and appreciation of the subject (I’d be leaning towards some sense of meraki), but this point (which I did come across) regarding Pope’s conceptual understanding of the art form per se seems (perhaps more) promising – “not just raw nature, so he’s not a nativist or romantic, but at the same time he doesn’t believe it’s all abstract principle either. What he seems to argue for is nature methodized or regularized. So I think that would be the exercise of good judgment more than anything else in addition to taste and the ability to feel without being carried away by one’s feelings.” I think I need to learn (hahahaha) about this to properly appreciate his grander point.

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      1. His “Essay on Criticism” and “Essay on Man” go hand in hand: the second supplies his general philosophy, while the first apply it to criticism. He writes as he does out of a deep love for the subject, so pathos is a part of his reasoning, but he would reject the notion that the emotional content alone is enough to make writing good. Art must be studied and practiced as well.

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