Word of the Day: Knowledge

August 17, 2011 in Word of the Day

This is the second part of a triptych on the three words that make up the name of our parent organisation, the Open Knowledge Foundation. After Shakespeare’s openness, we come to Shakespeare’s knowledge. Again, we shall begin with the OKF’s own definition of the word:

> The term knowledge is taken to include:
> – Content such as music, films, books
> – Data be it scientific, historical, geographic or otherwise
> – Government and other administrative information

Shakespeare might have been able to grasp this (apart from the word data), although this kind of knowledge is, admittedly and unsurprisingly, far removed from his sense of the word, which already had (and still has) a complicated history, with its roots in both the concept of knowing something through experience (savoir) and that of knowing through the senses (connaitre). For a neat marriage of the two, take the disguised Duke’s rebuke to Lucio’s profession of love for the Duke himself towards the end of Measure for Measure:

> DUKE Love talks with better knowledge, and knowledge with dearer love.

Here, knowledge covers both Lucio’s blindness to the facts of the situation (i.e. that the Duke he professes to love is in fact standing, disguised as a friar, in front of him – savoir) and Lucio’s complete lack of tact (if he really did experience “love” for the Duke, he would not be shouting it in such a context – connaitre). In this respect, knowledge resembles something rather more abstract than its definition as content/data/information by the OKF would have it. Of course, such concrete, intellectual (knowledge as savoir) terms are necessary for articulating the aims and work of the foundation; when it comes to the world of Shakespeare’s plays, however, more subtle, personal flavours of knowledge emerge, blends of savoir and connaitre. The phrase “my knowledge” gets, for example, eleven airings in various plays, whilst one of the greatest speeches on ‘knowledge’ in all Shakespeare must surely be that in which Leontes, in the opening half of The Winter’s Tale, announces that he believes his wife disloyal:

> LEONTES How bles’d am I
> In my just censure, in my true opinion!–
> Alack, for lesser knowledge!–How accurs’d
> In being so blest!–There may be in the cup
> A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,
> And yet partake no venom; for his knowledge
> Is not infected; but if one present
> The abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
> How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
> With violent hefts;–I have drunk, and seen the spider.
> Camillo was his help in this, his pander:–
> There is a plot against my life, my crown;
> All’s true that is mistrusted:–that false villain
> Whom I employ’d, was pre-employ’d by him:
> He has discover’d my design, and I
> Remain a pinch’d thing; yea, a very trick
> For them to play at will.

Leontes’ suspicions ultimately prove groundless, and he spends the rest of the play regretting the outcome of his jealous rage, until finally offered redemption from daughter and wife in the final act. What this speech shows above all else in the personal nature of knowledge: Leontes’ “knowledge” is so personal that it is in fact delusion, and he lives in his own terrifying world of spiders and “pinch’d” things, a stark example of the terrible consequences of isolation and suspicion. The lesson of Leontes and of other uses of the word “knowledge” in the Shakespeare corpus is clear: again and again, the bard shows us how knowledge becomes personal, how we become attached to the things and people that we know, and how sharing this attachment is important. This is also, I suppose, ultimately what lies behind both the fear of exposure and the benefits of community that are inherent in openness as the OKF understands it: those that resist the opening of data fear the release of knowledge that has become personal to them, and those that support such openness seek the chance to build communities on a personal level.

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