Why study anything? Mostly, we open the books because a possession of the knowledge contained therein is believed to profit us: either because it will gain us coveted credentials or because it will enable us in some practical application. Our motivation seldom comes from the thing-itself-studied, but rather from something extrinsic, something beyond the practice of studying itself.

Thus, absent that promise of something beyond, we seldom if ever find ourselves in possession of the motive to study. Perhaps we will indulge an intellectual curiosity: reading a “smart” book–something concerning economics, or politics, history, literature, even a book of philosophy–or listening to a “smart” debate, watching a “smart” television show or documentary, and so on. But most of this, if we are honest, is entertainment masquerading as some sort of “self-improvement” or “continued learning”. We may gain information from such endeavors, but we do not gain understanding.

Understanding is an act, a recursive process whereby we gain knowledge of a thing–whether presented to us directly or through information about the thing–to the extent that we no longer simply know about it, but know it, through knowing its causes. We may be very familiar with an object–say, a person with whom we live or work for a long time–but that familiarity is not yet understanding, properly speaking; for understanding entails an intellectual grasp which no quantity of familiarity alone can provide.

And yet, understanding is a natural good for the human being. Understanding begets a right ordering of ourselves toward the objects of our experience, and consequently an ability to help rightly order those objects as well. It is a good not easily earned and yet one which rewards without dissipation; a reward that does not pass into disinterest or out of fashion. Why do we not seek it more?

Simply, because the processes of education to which we have all been inured, which ape the right pursuit of understanding but perversely convince us of the worthlessness of understanding in and of itself. Certainly, study is tiring, and does not give us the immediate gratification of a cheap pleasure. But pleasure is always the consequence of an action; and, as doubtless we have all experienced, the pleasure derived from immediate gratifications wanes all-too-quickly.

Perhaps, if we are to gain the motivation which ought in some way be directive of us toward that natural good–indeed, the highest of natural goods–we need to unlearn these lessons.

Written by Brian Kemple

Founder, Continuum Philosophical Insight (cp-insight.com) | Director, Lyceum Institute (lyceum.institute) | Executive Editor of Reality (realityjournal.org)

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