Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge, from Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic by Simon Winchester

Harper Collins

Review by Walter Cummins

While Simon Winchester’s book is an entertaining read because he writes well and tells a good story, a more accurate title might be Knowing What We Think We Know. The knowledge transmitted is very often transitory and incomplete, what humans assumed was true at a particular time in history. Many of these beliefs functioned as accepted wisdom for centuries—that the sun went around the earth, that the planetary orbits were circles rather than spheres, that kings ruled by divine right. All passed on from accepting generation to accepting generation. Winchester’s real subject is the processes by which such assumptions are generated, compiled, stored, and spread. A disturbing corollary he addresses is the similar spread of deliberate misinformation, planted untruths that thousands, even millions, accept as knowledge: “Ever since the Enlightenment, the gulf between dogma and discovery has deepened and widened.” Of course, judging the difference has been the source of violent arguments and bloody wars.

Winchester has his own reasons for considering our relationship with knowledge problematic, essentially that we have too much of it available to anyone with a computer or smartphone, devices that can “instantly summon up all that is known and has ever been known about any topic imaginable—what implications does such a development have for humankind?” He frets about an existential intellectual crisis much like that seen by those who fear artificial intelligence. If machines don’t stop with acquiring all our knowledge and advance to doing our thinking for us, “what, pray, is the need for us to be?”

But before we reach that state, he laments the frequent deliberate distortion of information by those in power and by marketing: “The skillful manipulation of knowledge, the wily distortion of fact, can however be rather more insidious [than outright lies], less amenable to correction. The principal villain is propaganda …”

He considers the acronym developed by information scientists, the DIKW pyramid—data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. It’s the crucial need for the latter that concerns Winchester most, the need for people intelligent and wise enough to make meaningful interpretations of the overabundance of information. He singles out thinkers like Aristotle, Bertrand Russell, Charles Babbage, Benjamin Jowett—translator of Plato—and Plato himself as exemplars of the wisest of humans. Winchester refers to Plato’s notion of “true belief” as a standard, and by implication—although he does not use the term—his heroes are in effect philosopher kings.

Winchester echoes Plato’s fear of writing because it would replace memorization. In his case, it is the instantaneous access to information through the Internet. He calls it digital amnesia: “What is the likely effect on society of making the acquisition of knowledge generally, so very easy, such that there may well be, eventually, no absolute need to know or retain—retain being the operative word—the knowledge of anything?

He also laments the lack of depth for those whose knowledge comes from the Internet compared with those who gain theirs from reading. And he worries about the disappearance of polymaths like Jowett and Russell now that extensive fragmented knowledge is controlled by specialists who have mastered only one small field. Who possesses the wisdom to connect and make sense of vast fields? He considers the gift of wisdom “the highest state of mental acuity to which a sentient human being can aspire.”

At the book’s conclusion Winchester reveals Aristotle as his ideal human being: “He is, in short, as well-rounded, multidimensional, clever, knowledgeable, curious, and inspired a person as ever lived.”

Granting Aristotle the status as a philosopher king, would a 21st-century Aristotle aware of all the knowledge accumulated in the centuries since he lived possess the wisdom to make sense of the mess that is today’s world and have the answers to our problems? An underlying question raised by Winchester’s book—despite the plethora of information, documentation, and speculation available in libraries, museums, encyclopedias, and databases—is what do we really know?  Could it be that those responsible for what Winchester fears as a tangle of excess have overlooked what really matters?