On Alienation in Learning

What draws us to new knowledge, and what do we gain from learning it?

The important thing about a piece of new knowledge is that we do not already know it. But what sorts of new knowledge are we drawn to? If I were to tell you that on the planet Arium, which I just made up, fish have exoskeletons instead of scales, would that hold any interest for you? If so, it probably stems from the assumption that imagining such a species of fish would tell us something about the contingency of the design of our existent earthly fish, but as I am not a biologist this is unlikely to be the case. To be clearer, the fact in question has absolutely no relation (or as little as I can give it and still make it comprehensible) to any facts already in our head, and it is not even in the same plane of existence as us(1)(2). If we were to truly accept this fact as I have described it (which is impossible, because it exists in our imagination; see footnote (2)), it would hold no interest for us.

So what new pieces of knowledge do hold interest for us? Those that affect something we already know, but are not something we already know. Of course everything we learn is in the same plane of existence as us and therefore at least potentially affect something we already know, but the important point is that new knowledge holds interest for us insofar as it affects knowledge we already know.

But what in particular do we get out of this new knowledge? Let’s say we as English speakers learn that in some languages, like Latin and most Slavic languages, they do not really have articles (“a” and “the”). This allows us to imagine what English would be like without articles, or at least to comprehend that such a state of affairs might be possible. This gives us a clearer view of English, to be sure, but a better way of putting it would be that it alienates us from our familiar language. It is as though we zoom out a little from our everyday use of English, or as though we move from one understanding of it which allows us to use it fluently and correctly to another which allows us to compare it to other languages, teach it analytically, etc.

I contend that this kind of alientation is the main motive other than utility for learning new information. (Even utility often works through alienation.) It is not hard to see what other fields help alienate us from. History, sociology, and anthropology help alienate us from societal structures that are visible only at a macro level, and which appear to us in our daily lives as people, tasks, activities, and other mundane structures. Urban studies help us get an objective view of the cities we are familiar with, which otherwise would appear to us not as cities but as a collection of buildings, streets, parks, shops, and subway cars.

There is something inherently thrilling about this kind of alienation. When we suddenly see a familiar concept as it were from the outside, or from above, or objectively, we may never look at it entirely from the inside again. It is this new perspective that we are drawn to when we are interested in new knowledge.

Questions for commenters: Do we experience alienation in the hard sciences to the same extent as in the humanities? Can you think of any attraction to new knowledge that cannot be explained by utility or a desire for alienation? Is utility (as a goal of new knowledge) just a special case, or application, of alienation, or what is the relationship between utility and alienation?

(1) Do not tell me it should be “the same plane of existence as we.” “…as us” sounds more natural to me, a native English speaker, and any correction would be an attempt to impose logic onto natural language. Logic has its place, but it does not govern grammar.

(2) X is in the same plane of existence as Y if they are (potentially) connected by a chain of causality. George Washington cannot affect me since he is dead, but he can/could have/did affect something that can/could have did affect something…that can/could have/did affect me. The fish with the exoskeleton exists only in my imagination, which is as close to not existing as something can get in relation to me without me being unable to talk about it. If I could have the fish be something I was not imagining, I would do that.

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7 Responses to “On Alienation in Learning”

  1. “…they affect something we already know…”

    Does this alienation hold sway only over previously accumulated knowledge? In that case, what could be the relation between the first knowledge we gain and what went before? Is the first piece of knowledge alienating? In other words, is this thrill of alienation “inherent” to human life or internal to knowledge itself?

    Where does all this stand with respect to “know-how,” practical wisdom, skill? Learning to play guitar certainly makes strange rock songs that were once familiar. Then we should ask the same above questions of know-how, plus one more–what are the precise relations of alienation between know-how and knowledge? Can new knowledge make know-how strange? Can new know-how make knowledge strange?

  2. “knowledge is power”, its more than a saying. its really true, if you can apply it. I’ve felt it all my life. learning new things gives me power over those new things. the more I know the more power I have. I’ve always have been a mad scientist at heart.

    Another motivation for knowledge is immortality from discovery built upon existing knowledge.

    Motivations change as you get older.

  3. hmm, after reading your questions for the commenter, I’ll have to say the thrill of acquiring knowledge that transcends form / native language is the fact that once it does that you have mastery over the concept and can apply it independently of language. Its the power of prediction and potential application of the factoid or idea that makes the hair stand up.

  4. Wilfredo (in the first comment there) asks the obvious question, if new knowledge has attraction to us because of previous knowledge, what about the first piece of knowledge we learned? I am not sure what it would mean for that first piece of knowledge we acquire as babies (or fetuses?) to be alienating. What can it alienate you from, if you don’t know anything yet? It might be that babies’ consciousness is so different from ours that the question doesn’t make sense; maybe a body of knowledge sort of gradually coalesces out of the primordial soup of infant impressions, for example.

    You’re right that learning to play guitar alienates you from familiar songs to some extent, but I think you’re also right in your implication that this doesn’t entirely explain the attraction and utility of learning to play the guitar. Regardless, knowledge can certainly make know-how strange (for example, if you learn the acoustic physics behind the guitar’s sound). Can new know-how make knowledge strange, though? I don’t see how. What do you think?

    And Mark, I like what you said about knowledge transcending form/native language and thereby enabling you to apply the concept independently of that form/language. I think this relates to what I said about the two possible understandings of English: one that allows you to use it fluently and naturally without thinking about it, and the other more abstract one that allows you to compare it with other languages, etc.

  5. On the relationship of utility to knowledge: many people (“pragmatists”) have thought not just that it is utility that attracts us to knowledge, but that utility is a criterion (or even the criterion) of what constitutes knowledge (or truth).

  6. […] intend this less as “What Vicente Did on His Winter Vacation” and more as notes towards alienation and […]

  7. […] Language Change through Forgetting At the risk of pointing out the obvious, languages are passed down through generations because people remember them. But languages also change over generations, and often this is because people forget. They forget things it might not seem possible to forget, like the meanings of common words and the conjugation of normal verbs. But how can this be, when there are few things one knows better than one’s own language? Usually the forgetting is generational rather than individual; the speaker community as a whole forgets, in the sense that it loses information it once had, but only because the speakers learn a language slightly different from the language their elders attempted to teach them. What follows are a few types of generational forgetting that can cause languages to change, with examples drawn mostly from English for maximum alienation. […]

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