Fear and Knowing in San Francisco: Our Complex Relationship with Knowledge

By John Riley

[Editor’s note: John Riley’s Toronto Pursuits 2017 seminar brings together works ranging from Plato’s Meno to a classic film by Francis Ford Coppola. Tying all these works together is knowledge and what it means to us. We strive for it, we fear it, we need it. But what is knowledge? John’s blog post explains the approach his seminar will take as participants take on this question.]

Harry Caul, the surveillance expert and protagonist of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, is not a happy man. “I don’t know anything about human nature!” he snaps at his assistant as they work processing the audiotape of an unsuspecting couple strolling Union Square in San Francisco. Caul traffics in information, but not in knowledge. He recognizes this limitation, and it makes him miserable.


From Kant to Coppola: Toronto Pursuits 2017 [http://www.themoviegourmet.com/]

Spin doctor: Harry Caul at work

We are told “ignorance is bliss,” but the trouble with that adage is that ignorance is not a “pure” state of mind, which makes bliss completely out of the question. We sense we are missing something. We pretend that we aren’t or that we don’t care, but even this gives us no peace. Nobody likes knowing they are ignorant.


Gene Hackman as Harry Caul on the streets of San Francisco

Harry Caul gathers “human intelligence” (oh, the irony in that phrase!) and tries to immunize himself to its significance and the lives behind those words. He wants to disappear behind the data, but he can’t. The message in the audiotape is cryptic, but it is not beyond his comprehension entirely, no matter how he might try to deny its meaning. As much is The Conversation is about the destruction of privacy and the paranoia that accompanies this, it is also a film about knowledge: how we need it, avoid it, and fear it.

If ignorance brings suffering, then does knowledge bring happiness? I wish it were that easy. Sometimes, knowledge just raises more perplexing questions. Knowledge can remind us of our limitations in the very same way that not understanding something does. Finally, having a surplus of knowledge often brings burdens and serious responsibilities of its own.

Still, if you love Classical Pursuits, you see knowledge as a gift that spurs our curiosity much more than it frustrates it. At least the curious know what they don’t know!

The science of knowledge, called epistemology, can be at times a bewildering discipline, but the benefits of having a sensitivity to the issues it raises are enormous. It sharpens our perceptions and makes us much more impervious to the flaws of conventional wisdom … the nice way of saying it provides great B.S. radar. It is worth the effort, Harry!

The works in this seminar go from classical philosophy to psychological thriller. How do you get, as my title suggests, from Kant to Coppola? The answer is that we learn and then we apply. The first couple of days will establish what the key questions are about how we know what we know. Philosophers like Hume and Kant work extremely hard to build a stable theory of knowing. These men want to show us where certainty lives, even as they respect the complexity of discovering it.


Six Characters in Search of an Author
Chuck Grimmett/Flickr

After the philosophy, we get to the application part of the program. Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and The Conversation let us look at humans who are searching for answers while stumbling upon the same questions as did our philosophers. Given that these are modern works, you might anticipate that these characters do not get as far along the path of understanding as they would like. If these characters fail, however, they fail in such important ways.

Finally, we will take our “knowledge about knowing” to a number of modern-era paintings. There are a few pictures I may ask you to look at before the seminar, but generally, we will avoid a lot of advance preparation. Instead we’ll try to put our epistemological chops to work in real time. Art is a great medium to practice knowing. Knowing is an action we take; knowledge (we hope) is the result.

Learn more about my seminar, From Kant to Coppola: Art, Life & the Nature of Knowledge. See you in Toronto!

– John


Image credit: MemorableTV.com


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