The Madness of Knowledge

The Madness of Knowledge

Steven Connor


Much attention has been paid in the history of philosophy to questions of what we can and cannot know, this being the area of philosophical enquiry known as epistemology. Its English name is much newer than the practice it baptises, epistemology having only been proposed in 1847 as a translation of Wissenschaftslehre, a term coined by Fichte in 1794. Nevertheless, however denominated, or left innominate, enquiry into the nature of knowledge, truth and belief has been a feature of philosophical thinking from whatever we might recognise as its beginning.

Almost all the philosophical attention paid to epistemological questions has been necessarily reflexive – that is philosophers have used their ways of worrying and wondering about knowledge to ask and enact what philosophy itself may do. But much less attention has been paid to another, edgier form of epistemic reflexivity, namely the phenomenology of knowledge. I propose to call this an epistemopathy, in part to distinguish it from the kind of work represented by Ernst Cassirer’s Phänomenologie der Erkenntnis, first published in 1929, which has a very different understanding of phenomenology might be and entail. Where epistemology enquires into the truth, or logos, of knowing, epistemopathy would take as its object the pathos of knowing, that is, what we feel about knowing and its accessory and executive actions of learning, thinking and teaching. As such an imprudent coinage may suggest, this may amount in part to a kind of psychopathology of thinking and knowing. The kind of feeling suggested by derivations from Greek pathos is often morbid (neuropath, osteopath, homeopath), though there is a fork in the path of the word psychopath. Up to 1884, the word psychopath, equivalent to psychopathist, designated one who studied or treated disorders of the mind. In 1885, the Pall Mall Gazette used the word psychopath to mean, not the student of mental disorder, but the subject of that study, quoting a Russian psychiatrist, Balinsky, on the ‘[t]he psychopath – a type which has only recently come under the notice of medical science’. If I am to advertise my calling for the time being as an epistemopath, then this word may suggest that I myself may end up both as the investigator and the victim of an excessive or pathological attachment to knowing.

Freud identified what he called a Wissentrieb, translated as was his nervous wont by James Strachey by the learned-sounding fabrication epistemophilia. This is almost the same word as philosophy, but its form suggests what would later (though not by Freud) be termed a paraphilia, so suggesting a perverted or pathologically immoderate attachment to knowing. My work will indeed need to take account of some of the psychosociopathologies of knowledge, following through for example the history of the curiously insistent links between madness and the desire for knowledge, through an investigation of the ways in which knowledge is tied to mastery, in the traditions of Satan, Faust, Frankenstein and Schreber. In part, I will be concerned with the maladies of magical thinking as they afflict thinking itself. That study and the acquisition of learning are almost universally held to be self-evident goods should not make us overlook the fact that the ideal of knowledge pulses and swirls with the work of fantasy. The desire for knowledge must perhaps hold back from complete knowledge of the nature and workings of its own lusts: epistemofantasia may derive from and thrive upon a certain degree of epistemophasia. Psychoanalysis provides ways of understanding the pathological aspects of the drive to knowledge while also abundantly instancing its workings.

But not all the pathic dimensions of knowledge are pathological. As a study into the forms of our care for knowledge  – a care that extends as far as our self-designation as homo sapiens, the knowing hominid – epistemopathy would allow for an investigation of the experience of knowing and the quality of our awareness of it. It would be concerned with the idea of knowledge, the value we accord to it, the feelings we invest in it and the potent desires, dreads, aggressions and fantasies to which it may give rise. What do we feel, and fear, about knowing? What are the dreams and fantasies (and terrors) attaching to it? How do we speak or write of it, what social tone and temper do we impart to it, and through it? How, when and where do we encounter it? How does it form us, and infect or inflect other things? How do we, in Sartre’s transitive usage, ‘exist’ knowledge? What forms of the ‘libido of belonging’ (Serres) are channeled through the drive to know? How does the pursuit of knowledge make and modify space? Though concerned with the social embodiments of knowledge, epistemopathy focuses less on Foucauldian institutional power-knowledge conjunctures than the power of the idea, or fantasy of knowledge, though this may itself take institutional forms – and indeed institutional theories of knowledge may itself provide occasion for epistemopathic investigation (what are their phantasmal investments and payoffs?)

I would wish the word epistemopathy also to suggest a range of feeling-actions, as it does in the suffix of words like apathy, empathy, sympathy and telepathy. I want also to propose that, in epistemopathy, knowing might be both the object and the medium of feeling. That is, we have feelings for and about thinking and knowing, but we also form and exercise our feelings about the world through the ways in which we affect or undertake to know it. Indeed,  if feelings are to be regarded as attitudes to, perspectives on or judgements on the world, there is probably an epistemic aspect to every feeling, That is to say, feelings are forms of understanding, or at least essential components of them. Much of what I will find to say about epistemopathy will be governed by the effort to deny the cognitive disorder that impels us to think of thought and feeling, or reason and emotion, as opposite and incompatible.

My investigation will be centred around a number of themes, or epistemic occasions, which will include:

  • the figures of the sage and the expert on the one hand and the nincompoop on the other, via an enquiry into the rich history of human attitudes toward stupidity
  • the workings of curiosity and the traditions of detested or abjured knowledge, and the religious investments in agnosis, through mystical kinds of unknowing, the passion for ignorance,  and the idea of the Holy Fool
  • the theatrics of secrecy, obscurity, forbidden knowledge, scandal and revelation
  • the ownership and appropriation of knowledge and the play of plagiarism and pretension, for example  in the figure of the charlatan
  • epistemophilia (the love), and epistemophobia (the dread), of knowledge
  • the idea of ‘general knowledge’ and the history of the catechism, inquisition and quiz
  • epistemotopia, or the places, performances and (taking the word literally) preoccupations of knowing, in monastery, college, academy, school, study, library, laboratory, hospital, internet
  • the horrors of the coming epistemocracy

The Madness of Knowledge will have a particular concern with the current state of our relation to knowledge, and the possibilities and perils of a world in which only knowledge will count for anything.  If knowledge has always been entangled with apparatuses for storing, processing and transmitting information, how will our feelings about knowledge and about ourselves as sapient beings, or sujets-supposé-savoir (Lacan) change with the relay and delegation of ever more cognitive operations through instruments and mediating institutions? Questions about the affective forms and functions of knowing seem particularly salient under circumstances in which contemporary media simultaneously make available a vastly enlarged plenum of information and a huge intensification in the production and transport of emotional fixation and inflammation. Knowing and feeling seem ever more closely allied and even alloyed when our contemporary media and machineries of knowledge are also preeminently media and machineries of dream-feeling.