Knowledge vs Discovery

woman illustrating albert einstein formula

“The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us.” – Paul Valery, French poet and essayist. 

We human beings like to know things. Oftentimes, we believe we know more about a particular topic than we actually do. No one person can know everything about a topic. That’s why you must always educate yourself.

Always try to take in new information every day. Make it a point to learn as much as you can every day, in as many different topics as you can. Having a breadth of knowledge in a wide array of fields can come quite in handy no matter what you’re doing.

The French poet & essayist Paul Valery once talked about how sometimes knowledge isn’t exactly what we think it is. Life is full of many paradoxes, but the mere discovery of these paradoxes isn’t enough to truly understand what the paradox actually means. So many things in life seem to contradict each other, and many Catch-22 situations exist in our society. Sometimes, it’s very hard to put a finger on why exactly these paradoxes exist.

For example, you must have a college degree to get particular jobs. But, to get those jobs, you also need prerequisite work experience that you lack due to spending the time and effort spent acquiring that degree. If you spend all your time getting the degree, you’ll most likely lack the job experience.

Of course, it’s possible to try working internships while getting a degree. Still, internships rarely pay well, if at all. Plus, the debt incurred from most degree programs is mind-numbingly large – not to mention the burn-out factor. Then, you wonder why people wash out after the first year of intense academic programs!

Then, you have those with the work experience but no degree unable to land jobs. Even then, those with degrees can’t get the jobs because they don’t have the work experience. And, even those that get the jobs often have the piece of paper saying they’re qualified, but then can’t do the work when it comes to real life.

This is because practical experience in most lines of work beats book knowledge any day. We’ve created a generations of  memorizers. Critical thinking isn’t taught nearly as much as it once was. It’s a really messed-up paradox: you need the schooling, but with the schooling you lack the necessary experience, and vice versa.

Confusing Metaphors for Proof

Just because you read something in a book doesn’t mean you understand something. You might know something’s individual parts. But, when asked how and why they work together, you’ll find some of those who supposedly have the qualifications to know these things get stumped. They can memorize facts and figures and know how to sound intelligent when drafting papers and taking tests. But, in real life applications, there are so many supposedly well-educated folks who fail. This is, of course, partly the fault of the education system for not allowing as much on-the-job training as there should be – because of that whole not having the job experience required to get the on-the-job experience.

So, what happens? You get lots of graduates getting degrees that they aren’t truly qualified to have. Then, they go into the job market, and fail at doing their jobs properly. Some will eventually succeed, of course. But, more often than not, they don’t and find themselves job-hopping. That degree doesn’t mean as much as you might think it does.

As someone who has worked in recruitment research, I know this to be an  absolute fact. Most of the best candidates don’t have degrees or went to school a long time ago. A lot of the more recent candidates sell themselves as intelligent workers until they get to the interview. On the day of the interview, they reveal that they don’t know the first thing about the job, despite trying to convince others that they know it and that they are seemingly qualified to perform at it.

Confusing a Torrent of Verbiage for a Spring of Truths

So, we get into the third part of Valery’s quote: confusing “a torrent of verbiage for a spring of truths.” Just because a professor might be a great orator and make things sound engaging and educational doesn’t mean that professor knows what he or she is talking about. People like to talk, and many have the assumption that they truly do know what they’re talking about.

From my own experience, I can’t tell you how many teachers and professors I’ve had that had no true understanding of what they were actually teaching. There were also others who did, but didn’t know how to teach it properly. Others seemed totally apathetic to the idea of actual teaching methods. This is why so-called “talking heads” are rarely the best sources of knowledge. Many of them are simply getting paid to talk and making people think that they’re learning something and being informed.

On the Folly of Mistaking Oneself an Oracle

The last part is the saddest part: “the folly of mistaking… oneself an oracle…” Many human beings convince themselves they know all that they have to know about certain things. The only way to acquire true knowledge is to question your assumptions and understand why what you know is actually what you know.

Questioning what we understand as truth is the only way that we can truly develop intellectually. Gaining knowledge through books and the like is fine. But, we have to remember how to think critically about things. People have just become information sponges due to the massive overload of information available to humanity nowadays.

The last thing you want to do is consider yourself an oracle. But, it’s okay if you didn’t realize it. Most people don’t. These follies, as Valery says, are inborn within each of us. We are all curious creatures, after all. Sometimes we mistake our own assumptions as universal truths, not bothering to question why we do it.

People like to use metaphors to sound more intelligent and like to talk and talk to make it sound like they have plenty to say. Some people do indeed use metaphors cleverly, and some do in fact have a lot to share. Yet, you have to be sure to ask yourself if true knowledge is coming from someone’s mouth.

Valery said these things in the late 1800’s, but this quote is more relevant than ever now. People need to realize these common follies. Hopefully, you can recognize these follies in those you deal with daily, as well as seeing if you commit any of them yourself. You will very likely discover most people don’t know as much as they think they do. In fact, you might even discover you know more than you think!

~ Amelia Desertsong

Amelia Desertsong is a former content marketing specialist turned essayist and creative nonfiction author. She writes articles on many niche hobbies and obscure curiosities, pretty much whatever tickles her fancy.
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