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It is my impression that the modern phase of science and of scholarship began with the rise of the bourgeoisie. Here exploring and exploiting became synonymous, and the collection of knowledge another form of the accumulation of capital; experts became Consols, through which knowledge was invested in order to bear high and perpetual interest. Just as bonds were deposited with bankers, knowledge could be stored in special brains, to be called upon, when needed, by the entrepreneur. Now knowledge was not just power—but power infinitely augmentable.

Universities began to function as knowledge factories and to neglect their real task, the education of the young; they became mere bureaus for the issuance of professional licenses. The faded aureole of the scholar may still encircle the hapless heads of the searchers for scientific truth, but the real substance vanished long ago. Thus the old dispute about the relative value of a Madonna and a cabbage as the painter’s subject does not pose itself to the scientist: he finds what he finds.

His rise and his institutionalization as specialist, expert, professional has driven out and made impossible what used to be considered scholarship, and mankind has thereby been made all the poorer. I should find it difficult to define the period in which this process of encapsulation—the scholar making way for the specialist—began. The capture and circumscription of all intellectual activities; a misunderstood and misapplied scientism; a crude reductionism applied to what in fact cannot be reduced; a galloping expertitis, degree- and prestige-drunk; the general persuasion that anything new automatically depose anything old—these agents have caused scholarship nearly to vanish after having been in a decline for what must amount to the past one hundred years.

From “Knowledge Without Wisdom,” which appeared in the May 1980 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete article—along with the maga- zine’s entire 173-year archive—is available online at

In our times, all intellectual activities, all sciences, have become spectator sports, and the interest of the public is limited to knowing which fighter will slay which bull, and to hoping secretly that it will be the other way around. Had we been told in the newspapers that relativity had revealed Dr. Einstein, we should have been satisfied equally.

For ours is about the most ignorant age that can be imagined. I should like to see our leading statesmen subjected to a simple placement exam like the one given to the witless applicants for the New York police force. Even the most disillusioned of ancients would shudder at the result, for he would hardly accept the excuse that with so many think tanks around, our politicians need do nothing but meet the press.

Meanwhile we are being told that for this nation to stay on top, it must have the newest knowledge, the best science—that this would make it respected and even loved. Maybe so, although I always thought that he who declared he wanted to be loved was unlovely, and he who wanted to dominate was mediocre.

In truth, the low quality of our writing and of our art cannot be redeemed by courses in art appreciation or in the interpretation of poetry. Dr. Dryasdust will not become more imaginative when sprinkled with small amounts of public money. Academic chaff of all sorts—cultural, scientific—is being ground to powder day and night. Blake spoke of the “dark Satanic Mills,” but now that we have unlimited nuclear energy, they are illuminated brightly and are doubly satanic. To say it in Diabolese, If the old knowledge has failed, new knowledge will make us happy. Let us make it by the ton, for wisdom is cheaper wholesale.

In this connection I must make a horrible confession. I have been a scientist all my life. But in my waking hours I still live under the Ptolemaic system; Copernicus leaves me cold; the sun rises every morning. Of course I know that the earth rotates around the sun and that the Darwinian scheme of evolution is correct; but my scientific work would not in the least have been affected had it been performed on a flat and stationary earth and with organisms produced according to the gospel of Lamarck.

From “Knowledge Without Wisdom,” which appeared in the May 1980 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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May 1980

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