Half-Baked Philosophy: Questions on the Utility of Knowledge
by New Dealer
Our good doctor recently asked in a Stupid Tuesday Question for our most useless pieces of knowledge. I admitted in these questions that I always have a hard time answering this because I don’t know how to define useless.
We can use a strictly practical sense of utility and say useful information is what help pays the bills, interact with the world and not get conned, injured, or killed, and potentially do things without relying too much on others. But this is unsatisfying and somewhat anti-intellectual to me. Street smarts and practical skills are important but there is more to the world and life and being connected than knowing how to clean and pay the bills.
For example, I know that in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, the semi-mysterious character Julius Beaufort is based on a real life 19th century New Yorker named August Belmont. August Belmont was a German Jew who came to New York to represent the Rothchilds. He changed his name to Belmont because it sounded more French and less Jewish and rose quickly in the world of 19th century finance and politics. August Belmont also married the daughter of Commodore Perry, the man who opened up Japan for trade with gunboat diplomacy.
Most people would probably find this knowledge useless but I am not sure. On a very basic level it contributes to my sense of self-worth that I can make a historical-literary connections by reading and cross-referencing in my head. On another and deeper level perhaps this ability to make historical-literary connections will one day help me connect the dots in a case and make a winning argument for a client in front of a judge and/or jury? Perhaps I will know I found the right woman or set of friends based on whether they are impressed or bored by my knowledge of Edith Wharton novels and 19th century New York history? Maybe I will meet a partner at a law firm who is impressed by that knowledge and wants me to work with him or her?
The same goes for the people who described their knowledge of sport statistics, movie dialogue, Star Trek, etc. This helps us find our friends and people we want to associate with or will at least put up with us without malice.
So the questions raised are: How do you define utility in what you know and don’t know? Why do we think of certain pieces of knowledge as being useless if the knowledge is part of our development, biography, sense of self-worth, etc?