In the middle of the afternoon, I made a concerted effort to read the Heidegger paper that Tristan sent me a few weeks ago: The Question Concerning Technology. It was meant to be a contribution to my ‘discretionary reading on environmental politics related matter’ effort. I know it will annoy him to say that I found it mostly incomprehensible – in both approach and diction – but that is assuredly the fact of the matter. Heidegger goes on and on about Greek and the nature of silver chalices. While I am sure the example would be brilliantly illustrative if I had any idea of what he was talking about, it serves no purpose for me. It’s akin, I think, to someone who knows nothing about computers sitting down with a dense text on scripting and the UNIX command prompt.
Just as arcane knowledge of computers alienates you from everyone who does not have it – by stripping you of the ability to communicate as richly as you could if you were alike in ignorance – such knowledge leads to tremendous frustration whenever you deal with someone who has it in the opposite quantity. The computer geek is as frustrating and incomprehensible to the neophyte as the neophyte is to the geek. The knowledge that is a source of pride for the geek is often marked off as unnecessary to the neophyte, for whom it only serves an instrumental purpose: a purpose that can be achieved indirectly, by enlisting the aid of the geek. What enlisting the aid of philosophers means, exactly, I don’t know, but I consider much of philosophy to be marked off in the space of “information for others to deal with.”
This is not necessarily an embracing of ignorance, but perhaps more properly a response to the impossible vastness of knowledge and the sheer variety of dialects in which that knowledge is stored and discussed. It’s paradoxical, but ultimately obvious, that increased understanding of something can actually strip you of the ability to explain it or deal with people who don’t understand it. Attending lectures of someone who has colossal knowledge of a truly obscure field is among the best possible demonstrations of how knowledge is a cage.
Of course, when were talking about the physical sciences, there can be an external referent for expertise. I may not be able to understand what an engineer means when they talk about stress factors or the properties of metals, but I can see whether the bridge stays up or crashes down. Likewise, physicists and chemists can make predictions and develop technologies that demonstrate that their knowledge is – in some sense – correct. What comparable contribution can philosophers or, for that matter, international relations scholars make?
So much of what we do is like the nuances of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony: only those with considerable specific knowledge could ever know whether what was being performed was correct or merely a close approximation. No observer not steeped in the tradition could tell and, in a broad sense, the tradition itself is completely arbitrary. If we had all argued our way to some other equilibrium, it would serve exactly the same role as this one.