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The Lab: Issue № 3

On the value of viewing knowledge outside a purely utilitarian frame

In a world which is increasingly built around the notion of productivity—both inside and outside of our career—it’s easy to forget about the importance of pursuing knowledge for no other reason than our own intellectual curiosity. There is a tendency to view this pursuit as an unnecessary luxury, in an era where information and knowledge are viewed exclusively from a utilitarian point of view—only as a means to an end. Indeed, knowledge has become so intermingled with work it can be difficult to separate the two; information is often seen merely as a pre-requisite for the application of technical skill towards a profit- or status-driven pursuit.

Of course, we require that some of our knowledge is gained from this purely utilitarian point of view. We require good teaching and should study hard to understand the fundamentals of university courses and/or more informal apprenticeships; these serve as the platform from which we build careers and work to improve civilisation as a whole. But this is skill-based knowledge. As humans we require more than this, we require a purpose. We require perspective about the world we live in, and the meaning of our lives within this larger world. Utilitarian knowledge solves for the how, but not the why.

As the cult of relentless productivity sweeps the population up, intellectual curiosity becomes viewed increasingly as a luxury. Instead of reading complete books, people read book summaries, cliff notes, or subscribe to services such as Blinkist. Information is disassembled, optimised and fed piecemeal back to us. Instead of taking a page of handwritten notes, knowledge bases are created using Obsidian or Roam Research. Standard Operating Procedures are built around study and knowledge retention. These are noble and well-meaning attempts, I don’t mean to imply otherwise. But they are commonly seen as an all-encompassing method of information consumption that obscures the purpose of this information. Only once we stop viewing all knowledge as something to obtain can we begin to explore the world simply for the sake of it.

Knowledge pursued for it’s own sake allows for greater perspective and balance in life. It is a way to step back from the tunnel vision of more and to survey the terrain around us. Without indulging in this ‘useless’ knowledge, we inhibit our ability to devise and implement high-level visions and to see solutions to problems previously outside our narrow range of personal concern. Pursuing our own curiosity with no expectation of usefulness promotes a profound sense of peace of mind and what Betrand Russell calls a “contemplative habit of mind”—we find more significance and joy in the everyday and can more easily grasp larger parts of the world around us. This leads to a compounding effect whereby curiosity begets more curiosity, and we operate in a cycle of our own making—sitting in the joy of our own contemplation.