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+.)