Sunday, October 30, 2005

Focus Entails Elimination

Yesterday, at a conference featuring Steve Garber and Byron Borger, we noted that the Biblical concept of knowledge includes, necessarily, responsibility to and care for the beloved, and is not simply rational or abstract or detached "head knowledge." We watched U2's music video "Numb," and noted that the modern glut of information coming at us from all sides has the effect of deadening our concern for any of it. It is easy to say that we should be personally involved, and should care for that about which we have knowledge, but it seems that today we are presented with so much information that it is manifestly impossible for a human being to care about all of it.

Perhaps we need to make a distinction between knowledge and acquaintance, to preserve the deep Biblical concept of "yada," Hebrew for "knowledge." We are simply "acquainted" with those myriad facts or ideas that enter our eyes or ears each day in this modem world, but about which we care nothing. We might say that we only "know" those persons or ideas about which we care and with which we are personally involved. All the rest is not knowledge but mere acquaintance.

It would follow that a person who is truly knowledgeable in this Biblical sense, is therefore truly concerned and involved. It also explains the moral dimension that the Bible attributes to both knowledge and ignorance, in which knowledge is virtuous and ignorance blameable. It is hard to see how head-knowledge, in the modern abstract and detached sense, could be anything but morally neutral. But if knowledge necessarily entails responsibility and care for the known, then increasing knowledge means becoming increasingly responsible and involved, and ignorance means irresponsibility and carelessness.

There remains the problem of focus. Given that we are deluged with information, how do we select which items will enlarge our knowledge and which should remain facts about which we are merely acquainted? This selection process, it seems to me, is a matter of "attention" and is analogous to our normal human sensory function of the same name.

As you sit reading this, the nerves carrying sensory information from your trunk and extremities, your ears and nose and even some of your internal organs, are all still functioning, sending information continually to your central nervous system (CNS). You are ignoring nearly all of it. Even in your visual field , as you look at these words, you are getting visual input from the edges of your monitor. Perhaps you can see the keyboard at the bottom of your visual field. But the attention function of your CNS is filtering out all the data that isn't pertinent to your reading this article.If you wish, without moving a muscle, you can note the precise position of the fingers on your left hand, or the sounds coming from outside, or the fullness of your bladder. If you do, you will decrease the attention you are devoting to the reading.

Attention -- focus--entails elimination. Persons with attention deficit disorder have difficulty ignoring sensory input that is not pertinent to the task at hand. Even those without such disorder regularly eliminate distracting elements from their environment when they wish to focus. We understand this. The crowd is hushed as the golf champion makes his putt.

I would suggest that in this modern age, if we wish to truly know the things and persons that should be known, we will have to do some eliminating. This elimination will not be the same for everyone, of course. Perhaps less time reading the paper. Less time on the computer. Less time with the cell phone on. Less time reading and more time praying, thinking and doing.


  1. Sorry, Joe, but the English word "know" is resolutely ambiguous in the regard you're arbitarily trying to rigidify in one direction. To make "know" mean what you want, you have to go against the great mass of usage, literature, and preference. French distinguishes "connaitre" (with a circonflex over the "i") which means existential and personal knowlege of someone, as against "savoir" which means more factual knowing. The English "know" doesn't favour the meaning you want, rather its poetics even are loaded in the other direction from the sound's weight on the meaning > "know," "no" That's not very personal and caring, is it? Forced repristination of meanings usually don't work against such formidable obstacles of past and current usage.

    I don't think polarizing 'know/knowledge' vs 'acquaint/acquaintence' in a binomial logicizing helps at all. Let words have their ambiguities, please, because from these arise their nuances of meaning. It also allows a skillful poet to use and mean several meanings at once, in a context that makes the usage particularly rich.

    Arbitrary disambiguation in a non-technical pattern of usage of an everyday word is not a knowledgeable strategy, not a realizable one. Taken too literally, it smacks of hubris.

  2. Owlb,I don't think you understood the context of my post. I am certainly not suggesting we can change the denotation or connotation of the English word "know" in general usage. That would be nuts. I am suggesting that, in our reflections upon what the Bible means by the Hebrew word "yada" and upon how we might apply the distinctive aspects of that word to our thoughts about what we truly know,we might use the two words "knowledge" and "acquaintance" in a somewhat technical manner to make the distinctions discussed in the post. No aim here to change the English language.