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On ‘Useless’ Knowledge

William Tam finds uses for philosophy and other ‘useless’ arts.

The ancient Greeks pursued mathematics and astronomy for their own sake. They did not study them out of their wish to be accountants or season predictors. Their sole desire was to gain a better understanding of the world. We read Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Walt Whitman’s poetry. Their lines strike us as beautiful as a comet across the sky – so much so that we are compelled to recite all the famous verses. Snap back to reality, and what use are those verses? Does remembering a beautifully-written line of Shakespeare’s get us a brand new Mercedes? Does it help to highlight the ills of capitalism, or get us to the top of the social hierarchy? I’m afraid not. Knowledge, as I have been told, is merely a tool for providing us with a good career. Therefore I must bow to the necessities of practical knowledge, and neglect the arts and humanities in their uselessness. But I find there is something praiseworthy about the Greeks. They were not ashamed to be eccentric when their curiosity demanded it. They always valued the intrinsic interest of knowledge over its material benefit. There was no practical reason for their scrutiny of mathematical knowledge, or even knowledge of how we should live. They suggest that ‘useless’ knowledge is essential in making civilisation possible, by cultivating what is desirable in life.

The wisdom of ‘useless’ things is not only exclusive to the Greeks. Laozi, the founder of Daoism, was also among the first ones who recognised the usefulness of ‘useless’ knowledge and experience, when he wrote by analogy:

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.

We turn clay to make a vessel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.

We pierce doors and windows to make a house; And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.

Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognise the usefulness of what is not.

Laozi, Dao De Ching, trans. Arther Waley, 1958

Laozi was suggesting something contrary to what the majority was committed to. Rather than affirming the existence of material objects with imperfect eyes, he invited us to consider the usefulness of the space we normally neglect precisely because it’s the space that allows us to move the material objects around. This is a metaphor for the value of the experience of emptiness; that is, of peace of mind.

Celestial Peace and Mundane Cacophany

What does this say about our society? In the modern world, it’s not uncommon to think of the arts and humanities as worthless, while thinking of business and finance as providing the gospels for promoting our development. Yet however useless the arts and humanities may seem, Laozi’s argument forces us to look at ‘what is not’. If the arts and humanities are useful, it is first because they are able to hold our greediness and materialism in check. Moreover, Laozi also urges to revise our lifestyle. Our busy days are often devoted to bustle because we have been taught that hard work is a virtue. Driven by this virtue, we no longer consider it useful to look up at the sky or lie in the grass. But the wisdom of Laozi’s suggests that silent immobility of this very sort provides us with the necessary conditions for meditation and self-awareness.

How then does the study of stars and other useless knowledge make civilisation possible? The study of stars suggests that there is something inherently elegant and wonderful in the night sky other than city lights. The splendour of the stars, whose light originated perhaps millions of years ago, confronts us with a natural work of art. Yet the study of stars doesn’t only allow us to appreciate the beauty of nature, it also produces in us a contemplative habit of mind. City life is fast, and makes people nervous. The day of a businessman is dense with meetings. He seldom has the time to engage in serenity and scrutinise himself and everything that happens around him. By looking at the stars, he discovers the beauty he previously neglected. As the stars stand still and look upon him, he is in awe of their remote beauty and able to obtain the peace of mind essential for meditation. Through the study of them, the pleasure we derive from appreciating the world become fuller and richer. It enhances our sensitivity and purifies our soul, civilizing us.

Philosophy Heightens Pleasure

Philosophy has been considered one of the most useless subjects. Time after time I encounter the same questions concerning the relationship of philosophy to the practical world, and whether job opportunities are offered as much to a philosopher as to a man who has a business degree. But philosophy has no patience with all this pecuniary talk. It is concerned with thinking. It promotes speculation concerning things that have no definite answers yet, and helps us break free from the bondage of the herd instinct, broadening our minds so we can comprehend the world differently. Yet philosophy is left unnoticed and lonely in a world where the market determines how things work.

Let’s turn to the movie Fight Club. An audience not equipped with a philosophical outlook may think the protagonist Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt/Edward Norton) suffers from multi-personality disorder. They’ll think the theme of the movie is for the narrator to destroy his illusionary self. On the other hand, an audience in the habit of philosophising may find Tyler Durden to be a Marxist, or perhaps an anarchist. The words uttered throughout the movie resemble Marx’ critique of capitalism, Marx’s theory of alienation, and provide reflections on the enslavement of consumers. Through philosophical awareness we have discovered a new understanding we previously neglected. It heightens our enjoyment of the movie.

Bertrand Russell presents this argument in favour of another variety of useless knowledge:

“I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of Han Dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kaniska introduced them to India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era; that the word ‘apricot’ is derived from the same Latin source as the word ‘precocious’, because the apricot ripens early; and that the A at the beginning was added by mistake, owing to a false etymology. All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter.” (In Praise of Idleness, 1935)

The immediate benefit of learning is perhaps the pleasure of thought itself. There is too much readiness to act in this world, and too little reflection. The speeches of politicians are often charged with emotion, manipulating our minds with soundbites made by spin doctors. The media and the masses determine our ideal of happiness, and our failures are deemed absolute if we don’t live up to their expectations. Yet the pleasure in mere thought not only allows us to enlarge our sympathies and diminish our folly, it helps us to ward off such bias and prejudice, thus making a way for us to see ourselves in a proper or honest perspective. It also comforts us with peace of mind among worries and misfortunes.

Understanding Enriches

As long as the benefits of life unrelated to money remain unmeasured, people are unable to realise how greatly ‘useless’ knowledge has contributed to civilisation. Knowledge of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity may not ensure us many job opportunities, but it profoundly changes the way we look at the world. Study of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait may not enable us to live like great artists, but it does help us understand the ideas behind it. For instance, this self-portrait is an affirmation of intrinsic human dignity: members of the royal family and the aristocracy were no longer to be the sole subject-matter of portraits, but were being replaced with people like you and me.

In a world where non-thinking, non-reflection, is praised, people become dogmatic and arrogant. They complain about their jobs and lives, and find no way to secure their ideals of happiness. Their lives become dusty and harsh, and filled with trivial self-assertion. All meanings are lost, and their years are ultimately wasted. By contrast, through my acquisition of ‘useless’ knowledge, never has the soft tune of a piece of music so charmed my ears; never has a painting so delighted my eyes; and never has a poem so communicated with my soul. ‘Useless’ knowledge enriches our intellects. It offers us consolations for our anxieties. It diminishes our misfortunes, while at the same time allowing us to entertain a pleasant form of wistfulness.

“Curious learning not only makes unpleasant things less unpleasant, but also make pleasant things more pleasant.”
Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness

© William Tam 2010

William Tam is far from useless as an international student from Hong Kong studying philosophy at the University of Houston.

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