Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Human Knowledge Depends on the Contributions of Others

With apologies to Fr. Alvaro Ribeiro, S.J., that most knowledgeable man on all things pertaining to Samuel Johnson, let me recall from Johnson’s famous essay, “The Role of the Scholar,” published in “The Adventurer” on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 1753. This essay begins by citing Bacon, to wit, “reading makes a full man, conversation a ready man, and writing an exact man.” (In case you are wondering, I recently purchased, for a modest fee, the paperback Oxford World’s Classics edition of “Samuel Johnson: The Major Works, including Rasselas” at Barnes & Noble).

When we read Yves Simon’s “A General Theory of Authority,” I frequently point out in class that practically all of our knowledge, both of theoretical and of practical things, depends on authority, on the testimony or instruction of others. At first, we might call this situation a defect, until we realize that, for us, in order to know absolutely everything about everything, we would have to be gods. We would consequently have to cease being ourselves. Presumably, this ceasing is something most of us, though we have nothing against the gods, would prefer not to do.

But the Johnson sentence that haunts me is the following: “Of those whom Providence has qualified to make any additions to human knowledge, the number is extremely small; and what can be added by each single mind even of this superior class is very little: the greater part of mankind must owe their knowledge, and all must owe far the larger part of it, to the information of others.”

In that sentence, Johnson distinguishes two categories of men: those who know much, but can in principle prove nothing, and those who can prove a couple of things, but not most things. This limitation of individual knowledge is both a theory and a fact. We do want to know what we are and are not capable of.

Johnson’s ability to “turn a phrase” is remarkable. Consider the passage, “of those whom Providence has qualified to make any additions to human knowledge, the number is extremely small.” He does not deny that some additions to human knowledge regularly occur. He delights in such additions. But even those who do add something to human knowledge must depend on others for most of their knowledge. Not only is “no man an island,” as John Donne wrote in his famous poem, but no man, unless he is particularly obtuse about himself, knows very much of all that there is to be known.

Viewed from another angle, this individual limitation is what a “common good” is about. That is, to learn anything, we must leave it to others to know something – some particular thing that often takes the whole of a lifetime to learn. Chesterton said in a famous comment that “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” But if anything is to be done well, we must allow people time to do it. And we must recognize that not everyone has equal talents.

It is part of the common good that those few with the capacity to “add to human knowledge” need time and opportunity to learn what they can know – otherwise none of us will know what he can know.

Ultimately, this fact of our own limitation is why we can rejoice that others first know what we ourselves do not yet know. Others figure out something that we have not learned and probably never could have figured out by ourselves. Still, those who know can, if they will, help those who do not know to see more easily what it means to come to know. This is, ultimately, what teaching is about.

The only way we can know what someone else knows – something that we do not yet know – is for us to listen and follow that person’s argument.

Lucy and Charlie Brown are at a fence. Lucy says to a perplexed Charlie, not used to ultimate questions, “So what do you think?” Charlie replies, “What difference does it make? You never listen to me.” Lucy looks straight ahead and says, “I was just making conversation.” Charlie protests, “When you make conversation, you have to listen, too!” To which Lucy replies to a deflated Charlie Brown, “You do?”

When we make conversation, we have to listen, too. We underestimate the great art of listening. We are first listeners, hearers. We hear someone else’s word before we speak our own word. If we just “make conversation,” we hear nothing. And if we hear nothing, we only know what we already know. Even if we are geniuses, which most of us happily are not, our contribution to the whole, as Samuel Johnson calculated, will be “extremely small.” To flourish as ourselves, we depend on the “information of others.”

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. is a professor of government. He can be reached at schalljgeorgetown.edu. AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT … appears every other Friday.

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