Wednesday Musings: The Extent of Knowledge

As an English major (soon to be Bachelor of Honours English – 4 weeks!!!!!), there are often times where I am left thinking about topics discussed in class long after the class has concluded. This has grown exponentially in my last semester of my degree, as I participate in a seminar surrounding postcolonial studies.

Yesterday’s discussion that we held on Gayatri Spivak’s Can a Subaltern Speak? led into a discussion on “true knowledge”. True knowledge is the ideal knowledge – the academy’s idea of what the intellectual needs in order to be the intellectual. The academy’s idea of knowledge acquisition seems to be the lecturing of someone’s chosen perspective on a certain knowledge, followed by the regurgitation of this on paper in a midterm, or final exam, or some other form of testing. To me, this is not a true representation of what knowledge and learning should be.

Learning, as my professor so aptly put it in discussion, is something that should “pull the rug out from under our feet”. We get so content in our own knowledge and presumed intellect, and learning should not be complimentary to how we see the world – it should be something that wildly contrasts ideas we’ve had in our mind for our whole lives. It should shock us and alter us.

And then there’s the question of whether anyone can possibly have all the knowledge in the world. To demonstrate this on a smaller scale, we can look at people. Can a person ever be completely knowable? The answer to this, I think, is absolutely not.

A student at Guelph and an ex-boyfriend of my roommate, and a previous friend of the both of us, passed away earlier this year. Naturally, my roommate and I were shocked, especially when we found out that it had been a suicide. I think the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “He wasn’t the kind of person I would have expected to do that.” A few months later, and I can see exactly where I was wrong. I had my own idea of this student, one that had been formed through various memories and history with him. And my roommate had her own idea of him, through her own experiences in knowing and dating him, and for the most part they complimented the idea that I held about him as well. But following his death, we saw the stories told about him from all different people: his siblings, his friends, old roommates, and those who had only interacted with him once or twice. And slowly the idea that I held about who he was as a whole person was chipped away, and I realized that he could not fit into one binary idea, and trying to do so did him no justice.

Being a person means that you are ultimately unknowable. My mom knows me differently than my best friend does. She knows me differently than my boyfriend does. He knows me differently than my sister does. And so on. Our inability to be completely knowable is where we gain autonomy and agency. And when we accept that the world is not completely knowable, then I think that is when we are learning effectively.

Ultimately, knowing is not owning everything or assimilating every fact. There is no true knowledge, or right or wrong knowledge. Knowing is simply a result of what you have learned. If you learn the right way – with the rug pulled out from under you again and again until you do not know if there is any truth to any one knowledge anymore – then you are doing it right.

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