Conditions for the Pursuit of Knowledge

In Book One of his Metaphysics Aristotle gives a brief history lesson on the evolution of knowledge.

“Hence when all such inventions were already established, the sciences which do not aim at giving pleasure or at the necessities of life were discovered, and first in the places where men first began to have leisure. This is why the mathematical arts were founded in Egypt; for there the priestly caste was allowed to be at leisure.” (Metaphysics, Book I, p. 1553).

Here he describes a departure from the condition of the “practical,” a condition which he uses to qualify the rest of his intellectual virtues. Even to art Aristotle prescribes a practical pursuit: to bring “into being” or to give pleasure (Nicomachean Ethics p. 1800). In this short passage Aristotle mentions a sort of pointless knowledge, with no utility beyond that of knowing for the sake of knowing, and certain conditions for pursuing this sort of knowledge—leisure. What he describes makes perfect sense; as human societies advance the goals of human society advance. Once human life was longer solely preoccupied with survival, with necessity, we were able to look up from the dirt, wonder why the sky is blue and then actually pursue that knowledge. This seems to imply that knowledge, what we even classify as knowledge, is determined by the flux of human goals and whims of the moment.

Although today we classify Set Theory as knowledge, there was surely a time in the past that such unnecessary information would not have been considered knowledge. Which seems crazy to me. Maybe in the future there will be a time where people pursue seriously, dedicate their whole lives to chasing, knowledge which we can’t even imagine or, even if we could, would consider useless. What we credit and think about has so much to do with leisure. Today all we seem to hear and believe is that “knowledge is priceless” and that “knowledge is the one thing which can never be taken away from you”. Yet it seems from this passage that knowledge, like anything else, carries a worth which fluctuates with the flow and supply of resources.

2 responses to “Conditions for the Pursuit of Knowledge

  1. Your explanation of Aristotle’s argument is on point. Apparently, what we consider to be knowledge changes with time. It is interesting to note that most new discoveries are considered to be mere leisurely pursuits at first. However, as the world starts to see how this discovery can be applied to their lives, it starts to regard it as knowledge. Nikola Tesla made numerous groundbreaking inventions such as the Alternating Current, X-rays, and radio. However, Nikola Tesla was never given the respect and praise that he deserves during his lifetime. Only after his inventions were applied to the world did he receive his deserved respect.

  2. I think that knowledge is correctly interpreted in this post. I find it funny that Aristotle says that mathematics was found out of boredom, due to the amount of math that is now required for many college degrees. However, there are many uses of math that are practical, such as finding the shortest distance between two shipping ports or accounting for money. Aristotle is right in his interpretation that even art is practical and serves a purpose. I also agree with the statement that the pursuit of knowledge is based off of what humanity wants to find out at their current time period. Practical uses of knowledge is always desired by people, so it makes sense that knowledge based off on ways to improve everyday life is commonly pursued. The future of knowledge is also interesting because as living conditions change in the future, it will be interesting to see what is considered practical knowledge given the problems of the future.

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