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Love Can't Be Disrupted
But Knowledge without Love is Toast
“Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away” (Song of Songs 8:7)
Pascal says that rather than know God to love him, one must love him to know him. Heidegger picks this up in Being and Time as evidence that mood or attunement precedes understanding. Knowledge is downstream of something more “affective.” Pascal’s point, then, is less about God and more about knowing. We wouldn’t say that to know the field of neurobiology one should love it first, but there is a truth to this. How many advanced researchers can sustain a search for knowledge without an abiding love? How many can make it to the edge of thought without, first, a love of the subject? At the highest levels, love differentiates the master from the professional.
I came back to this point while reading Roosevelt Montas’s Rescuing Socrates which makes the obvious, yet underrated, point that the success of a Great Books curriculum rises or falls with the personal example of the teacher. A person who embodies the authentic struggle with and connection to the canon will be more effective than a person who treats the books merely as subject matter. Love of learning is far more powerful than expertise, especially when it comes to teaching the Great Books, particularly to first year college students. If this is so, it seems that universities misprize research capacity over something more intangible. We can call the intangible thing leadership or authenticity or gravitas or charisma or spirituality, but the point is that it involves the whole person of the teacher, rather than just the information in the teacher’s mind.
As GPT technology disrupts the flow and availability of knowledge work, perhaps the premium that Pascal placed on love will once again be recognized. On the other hand, universities suffer “Innovator’s dilemma” in that they perceive themselves to be producers of knowledge, first, and love only incidentally if at all. For love and inspiration you can go to religion or yoga, but universities are places of seriousness and rigor. But just as the digital camera put Kodak out of business, and the iPhone turned every amateur into an artist, it is now possible to get a Harvard education for free by watching Youtube videos, listening to podcasts. Social media has empowered not just citizen journalism but citizen research. Meanwhile, university professors demonstrate their regularity by posting photos of the pasta lasagna they are eating for dinner, undermining their allure.
Reading the above verse from Song of Songs in this light, “many waters” refers to technological disruption and cultural upheaval. Many waters can quench knowledge, but not love. The bulwark against the impending revolution in knowledge work is love. AI will replace loveless teachers, while re-upping our appreciation for those whose gift is not expertise, but devotion. To save itself, academia will have to re-learn the virtues of pre-modern religion, which it eschewed in favor of rational Enlightenment.
In investing speak, “Knowledge is a commodity. Love is a barrier to entry.”
P.S.— here’s my podcast conversation with experimental poet Christian Bök.