Perhaps nothing is more common at Columbia than the equation of one’s person with one’s knowledge. This is the consummation of a long process of education: Since preschool, we have been trained to find our greatest worth in our capacity to know. Many of us assume that, at the bottom of our souls’ depths, our SAT scores are writ in lightning. We would not be here if we did not excel at the complex, bureaucratic process that transforms our knowledge into marks on the page of a transcript. The engraving in our noble Reference Room presents us with no new, or inspirational, knowledge. Instead, it soothes the nagging conscience by repeating to us something that we have been hearing, and living, for many years.
To be blunt: Bacon is probably correct. This should not lead us, though, to embark on a panegyric to the wonders of knowledge (you will be inflicted with an infinite number of these during your education, and I am loath to provide one more). Instead, we should recognize that Bacon is correct about us, and not about “man” in some universal sense. We should be provoked, therefore, to inquire into what Bacon’s adage says, specifically, about the Columbians of 2012.
To begin: How did Bacon define knowledge? He provides the answer in another aphorism, not physically inscribed on the walls of 301 but omnipresent nonetheless. “Knowledge,” Bacon believed, “is power.” Specifically, Bacon wanted us to avoid the abstract and arid discussion of philosophers and theologians, turning instead to the natural world. With the help of the scientific method, we could learn to harness nature’s power in the interest of human welfare. As he put it in “In Praise of Knowledge,” the essay from which the Butler engraving is taken, we must learn to “command her in action.”
This sounds reasonable and laudable: What else, after all, is a doctor or a computer scientist attempting to do? We might wonder, though, what Bacon leaves out by defining knowledge, and therefore the self, in such a way. For instance, he does not evince much interest in the purpose of this knowledge, other than a characteristic desire to serve God and country. He lists three examples of knowledge in the essay: the printing press, the needle, and artillery. The third of these gives us pause: Despite the obvious scientific marvels that careen across the world’s danger zones, we are reluctant to admit that knowledge, true knowledge, might be present in the bowels of the Predator drone. But, taking Bacon as our guide, why should this surprise us? For what is artillery but the “command” of nature “in action”? And what better to serve the interests of power?
We live in Bacon’s world. This is a world in which nature has been “put to the rack,” as Leibniz wrote of Bacon—a world in which there is no shortage of knowledge, no shortage of power, and no shortage of artillery. The university, however, might offer the space to imagine a new way of being. To answer the initial question perversely: Bacon is correct, but we can dream of a world in which he would be wrong. Might we attempt to imagine ourselves beyond the axis of knowledge and power? Perhaps, and there is space here only for a provocation, we might return to the very concept that Bacon constantly rejected in the pursuit of knowledge: belief. Belief seemed too social to him, too enmeshed in webs of authority and community and language. Living now in Bacon’s world, we might seek to rehabilitate those very things, defining ourselves by our visions and our hopes instead of our knowledge and our power. Speaking of his rejected philosophical predecessors, Bacon wrote that many “had greater wits, far above mine own, and so are many in the universities of Europe at this day. But alas, they learn nothing there but to believe.” Perhaps they were on to something, after all.
The author is an instructor in the Core Curriculum and a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences studying history.