The Liverpool View: Too much knowledge?

Judge Marko Bošnjak

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Thomas Harrison is Rathbone Professor of Ancient History and Classical Archaeology in the University of Liverpool’s School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology

“Much knowledge does not teach understanding, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote in what reads today like the first bitchy footnote.  ‘For if it did, it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and also Xenophanes and Hecataeus.’

Heraclitus had a point.  And it is a point missed – if their mottos are anything to go by – by many modern universities, who brag that ‘knowledge is power’ (London), opportunity (Edge Hill) or ‘the adornment and safeguard of empire’ (Imperial).

A commodity

Knowledge on its own is just a commodity.  Having special knowledge might sometimes constitute a kind of power.  But just harvesting more of the stuff is just stamp-collecting. What matters is how you deploy that knowledge, imaginatively or ploddingly, sharing it for the broader good, or hoarding it to your own advantage.

And so I cannot help feeling a little uneasy about the celebration of knowledge. Liverpool has a Knowledge Festival.  We have a developing Knowledge Quarter.  We are cogs in the wheels of a Knowledge Economy.  And not so long ago we voted for a Knowledge Hero.  A group of impressive figures from the city’s past and present were paraded, and –the good news – our very own Susan Wray was elected the winner. 

“What matters is how you deploy that knowledge, imaginatively or ploddingly, sharing it for the broader good, or hoarding it to your own advantage”

And now my second gripe. Amongst all the splendid contenders in the knowledge pageant, there was not a single person, living or dead, from the Arts.  Why?  My suspicion is this: the knowledge that we Arts people peddle is simply not solid enough to count as knowledge.

Scientific knowledge is something discovered. It is fresh and gleaming.  It allows for pioneers and breakthroughs.  (The inside story, of course, may be different – of breakthroughs that are not quite what they are cracked up to be, of progress as crabwise – but that is another story.)    But what knowledge can you have of Jane Austen’s novels, of Baudelaire or Virgil by being a ‘Knowledge hero’ that anyone couldn’t have by taking the time to read them, or by the cheap trick of learning the relevant language?

“Scientific knowledge is something discovered. It is fresh and gleaming…What counts as newsworthy in Arts research is usually peripheral to what we do”

What counts as newsworthy in Arts research is usually (just occasionally an archaeologist, say, may stumble upon a genuinely important discovery) peripheral to what we do.  Often indeed it’s the kind of thing that we scoff at.  An insight into an author’s sex life, raked out of an archive, explaining little or nothing of their works.  Another attempt to attribute the plays of Shakespeare to someone else.  And so on.

One of my very few forays into television falls into that category.  (In another, I drank a pint of Guinness with the literary theorist Terry Eagleton, pretending to be his student in earnest academic discussion, for Japanese television.  This sounds now like a disturbed postgraduate dream, but I am confident it did happen.)  A Channel 4 documentary team were looking for a lost Persian army swallowed by the Egyptian desert, and strained – largely unsuccessfully – to whip me up into excitement for the camera about how important it would be if it were found.

It was one of a series of programmes on lost things – a lost temple somewhere in a South American jungle, for example.  But, as the producer explained to me forlornly, the problem was that, in almost every case, the thing being searched for was either lost irretrievably or not really lost at all.  At the time of writing, the Lost Army of King Cambyses remains in the first category.

Honour our own heroes

What should we do? By all means let’s keep an eye open for new knowledge.  But let’s not strain to squeeze what we do into a mould that does not fit.   Instead, we might honour our own kind of heroes. Those whose commitment to their subjects was more than merely professional.

Those who, like the best scientists indeed, have opened up new views through the ever denser forests of knowledge, rather than just adding a few new trees.”

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2 thoughts on “The Liverpool View: Too much knowledge?

    1. Thomas Harrison

      Ah, innovation is not a term I talked about! Well if you mean by innovation really pioneering new ways of thinking about or looking at the world, then yes. But I suppose I am reluctant to view this as a kind of march of progress, and fear that just as we increase our knowledge and understanding in some areas, it becomes denuded in others. (My next Liverpool view is going to touch on this theme, in relation to communication.) Thanks for your response!

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