The will to knowledge

“The urge to go beyond the limit remains stronger than the insight into the limitations of our knowledge. In [Goethe’s] Faust we can already see what Nietzsche and, later, pragmatism will emphasize: the will to knowledge is always nourished by a will to power. For this reason, the will to knowledge can never rest in knowledge itself; its urge, according to its roots, is immeasurable because, behind every knowledge, new puzzles mount up: A priori, knowledge wants to know more. ‘What one does not know, that is precisely what is needed. / And what one knows, cannot be used.’ Wanting-to-know is an offspring of the desire for power, the striving for expansion, existence, sexuality, pleasure, enjoyment of self, and for anesthesizing the necessity of dying. Whatever presents itself as theoretical enlightenment and research, in the nature of things, can never reach its alleged goals because these do not belong to the theoretical sphere.”

– Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (tr. by Michael Eldred, U. of Minn. Press, 1987), p. 179.

The close link between will to knowledge and will to power is recognized – and feared – by many societies. For example, in the Mande language of the Maninka (a.k.a. Malinke) of West Africa, the verb lon, to know, “often associated with the occult . . . may be used metaphorically . . . To know is to control; thus, one who has too much knowledge about a person is potentially threatening.” (John William Johnson, trans., The Epic of Son-Jara. Indiana UP, 1987, 117 n. 369.) The only limits to this knowledge, and the limits to which it may be put, reside in strong social norms. Not all societies have such controls: see, for example, R. Fortune, Sorcerers of Dobu, or Paul Stoller’s riveting In Sorcery’s Shadow. An interesting question is whether our own society may be one of those in which sorcerers rule essentially unchecked. (I raise this question in a very sketchy and unsatisfactory fashion in my essay “Freeing the Ensorcelled Word.”) This could form subject matter enough for another whole blog, easily.

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