Every couple of years Gutenberg students spend time reading a series of authors that consider the issue of knowledge. These authors raise questions about the certainty of our knowledge, the reliability of our senses and our reasoning. They take and debate a variety of different approaches, and the consequences of those debates continue to profoundly impact our way of thinking today.
This year while rereading these authors, an old thought struck me in a new way. It seems to me as if a large part of the debate about knowledge hangs on whether “living is for the sake of good knowledge” or “knowledge is for the sake of good living.”
Those philosophers for whom living was for the sake of good knowledge came up with all sorts of strange claims and systems. Their careers and self concepts were tied up in their philosophical musings on knowledge. Not surprisingly, they were led to doubt. Perhaps the most familiar example of this kind of thinking is the old question, “If the tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” We can all see that this strange academic question raises doubts and questions about knowledge and perception. We typically do not take the question very seriously except as a subject for repartee. More significantly, philosophers who subjugate living to knowledge have introduced into our cultural thinking the idea that there is a qualitative distinction between what I know to be true and what I believe to be true. For example, many will say that they can know mathematical and scientific knowledge but only believe philosophical and spiritual knowledge.
Philosophers for whom knowledge exists for the sake of good living take a very different view. What is important is making decisions and whether those decisions are bad or good. Knowledge is indeed important for these decisions, but in the end, a decision must be made. In this way of thinking, knowledge and belief coalesce in action. What I believe to be true, I act on; and what I know to be true I believe. I cannot afford to demand that all of my action be supported by some unattainable ideal of certainty. To do so would paralyze me. With the view that knowledge exists for the sake of good living, academic skepticism has no value other than to be used as an excuse to act badly and believe poorly because of a lack of certain “evidence.”
I still find reading these authors stimulating and interesting. They have paved the road to the twenty-first century, and it is worthwhile to see the streets they laid. Nevertheless, I continue to find it useful to remind myself that knowledge is for the sake of good living and not the other way around.