The Feeling of Knowing

Steven Connor’s 2019 book ‘The Madness of Knowledge’

Digital art collage by Tucker Lieberman

Steven Connor’s The Madness of Knowledge: On Wisdom, Ignorance and Fantasies of Knowing (2019) proposes a new word for the feeling of knowing. Here are some insights from the introduction to the book.

A relatively recent word: ‘Epistemology’

Though the question of knowledge itself goes back at least to ancient Greek philosophy, the word to describe that intellectual concern is a relatively recent arrival to English. Ralph Cudworth’s treatise (written c. 1688, published 1731) suggested the related word “epistemonical, meaning something like ‘capable of being known’.” In Connor’s interpretation, a word like “epistemonical” begins to gesture toward our fantasy that something’s existence depends on our ability to know it “and not vice versa.” There doesn’t appear ever to have been a noun form, “epistemony,” for “the condition of knowability.”

“Epistemology” was coined in 1847 in the English Review as a translation of Fichte’s “Wissenschaftslehre.” That is used for theories of knowledge.

A new word: ‘Epistemopathy’

But what about “the feeling we have of knowing” and of “learning, thinking, arguing, doubting, wondering and forgetting”? What are these unpleasant feelings of “irritation, rage, envy, lust, misery, boredom and melancholy” plus the more positive ones of “satisfaction, assurance, excitement and triumph”? What do we feel “in the itinerant or suspensive conditions we call surmising, supposing, doubting or wondering”?

Connor proposes epistemopathy for our “complex states of feeling and imaginative projection” about what we know. It regards “the spectrum of feeling” about knowledge — the “idea,” “ambition,” and “fantasy” of knowledge. Where “epistemology” contains the word logos, “epistemopathy” contains the word pathos.

He proposes that “there is an epistemopathic payload within every epistemology, an excited yearning, for instance, to strive for a kind of self-realization and self-government in knowledge.” It’s what makes knowledge “matter” to us. Epistemopathy is “the rapturous attempt of knowledge to feel, fuel and feed its own powers of self-generation.” It is about the “word-magic” of “ineffable truths, truths too subtle or splendid to be available to human knowledge.”

Knowledge is more like a network than specific content: not “a pillowcase round an otherwise billowing mass” but “local stresses and linkages, analogous to the kind of structure described by Buckminster Fuller as ‘tensional integrity’, or ‘tensegrity’.”

Perhaps because it is difficult to point to our knowledge, as knowing is more of an activity than an object, we always fantasize about what we know and the fact that we know it. “You can only consciously think via a fantasy of thinking,” he says: “one which seems to say, ‘now there is thinking, and this is it.’”

Group Knowledge

Our knowing “must always have some tone, temper or purport through which it is lived and acted out.” It’s always partly subjective. It has “no uninflected form or zero degree.”

Groups, too, may take interest “in a particular valuing of knowledge in that it gives them a rationale for existence,” and the group members have “the strong sense that one’s being is held in some way to be compact or bound in” with this claimed knowledge. “A society is the fantasy that individual members or observers of that society have of it,” but there’s nothing “mere” about this fantasy, since it is “a sociality” and not just an “atomic or individual phenomenon.”

Our knowing is subjective, unique to an individual but also shaped by group decisions. So:“Systems and collectives are phantasmal, but these fantasies are systematic and collective.”

Knowledge Makes Demands

“The madness of knowledge,” Connor writes, often “demand[s] that knowledge must make sense.” To be “known or knowable” is to “move the knower and the world in the direction of order and simplicity.” Even if the object appears to become more complex, this could be “a way of letting yourself off having to think about it any more,” so this kind of illusion of complexity is something you can leverage to your own advantage to simplify your life. “The knowledge of complexity,” he says, “will always involve a scansion, narrativizing or orchestration of the complex within a containing frame that will make it knowable as a system of divergences.” But “the madness of knowledge” is also the question over what is knowable and “whether knowledge is more than the adjustment of the world to our focal length.”

Truth, too, seems to “operate in an imperative mood.” The fantasy of truth is our “demand that the truth actively and imperatively be, rather than passively existing.” Through “what may be called hedonic recursion” — that is, the pleasure of reflecting on our pleasurable experiences, including the pleasure of knowing anything at all for its own sake — people “begin to care more and more for the quality of their consciousness…” In other words, what’s important becomes less about a truth that is out there and more about the feelings that are in here.

How Do We Know What We Feel?

Even though our feelings matter to us, we often try to move our knowledge-discussions from pathos to logos. We ask things like: “How can I know for sure that this is what I or others feel about knowledge?” It’s a valid question, Connor says, but of course a tricky one. Such a question is “inseparable from knowing” and thus is “resistant” to being known. It is not a question that The Madness of Knowledge aims to solve.

The Limits of Knowledge

Knowledge is aware of its own limits. “To know something,” Connor writes, “is always to be aware of how much we know and what we do not yet know.”

More specifically, it is bound up with our awareness of and our feelings about our own mortality. We can’t know what it will be like to die, and, even if we assume that death is simply the end of consciousness, we can’t know what that is like. We can only know that we will die.

So, although we know that our own knowing is limited and temporary, still we may expect that some of its content or methods may survive us if we transmit it while we are alive.

If You Want More

I’ve tried to transmit some of my knowledge about this book, but it is a long one, so, if you want more of this, please check out The Madness of Knowledge for yourself.

Book cover: The Madness of Knowledge by Steven Connor
Book cover: The Madness of Knowledge by Steven Connor
The Madness of Knowledge

Writing on dignity, democracy, and the pursuit of truth. Author: ‘Ten Past Noon: Focus and Fate at Forty’

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store