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.