Too often we think of knowledge in purely epistemological terms. It is a process to be dissected, analyzed, judged, and ultimately synthesized into other fields. We have the vaguest sense that the accumulation of knowledge is for the betterment of mankind, though there are plenty of examples from history that knowledge has been utilized for nefarious purposes as much as for good. The reason we can and do judge the morality (or lack thereof) of applications of knowledge is precisely because we have a standard distinct from knowledge itself. If knowledge is its own moral standard, then knowledge cannot but be perfectly moral, and yet we know that that is not the case.
Knowledge is better understood in its ontological implications: How it applies to a man’s foundational being, or more precisely how it applies to a man’s growing awareness and utilization of his own being. Just as knowledge is not intrinsically moral or immoral, it is not intrinsically ontological, which is to say that it helps to shape a man’s being only to the extent that knowledge is paired with some other condition. It is actually conditioned knowledge that is ontologically relevant.
Knowledge may be conditioned by its separation from other persons or situations, or it may be conditioned by its connectedness with other persons or situations. For example, knowledge may be exclusive of empathy, or it may be connected with empathetic intent or action.
Without empathy knowledge can lead to a narcissistic appropriation of information for self-interested ends. It will tend to reinforce a man’s private or tribal biases. It will be so often self-referential as to make it increasingly difficult for that man to separate in his own mind his opinions from the facts. Indeed, it will laud his opinions over the facts even when the facts run demonstrably counter to his opinions. Taken to extremes, knowledge without empathy lends itself to a propagandistic mindset that actually lessens a man’s grip on real and objectively verifiable facts, let alone on objective truth.
With empathy, knowledge is understood to be found, analyzed, and synthesized properly with relation to “the other.” The man realizes that he must be open to what he does not know, does not believe, or may even find foreign or repulsive. Though he may reserve his moral judgment, and ultimately reject what he still finds to be repulsive to his private or tribal sensitivities, he nevertheless needs to be open at least to the interaction in order to acquire any meaningful knowledge. He realizes that knowledge, like his being, is not in his mind or in his flesh principally but in his relationships with other people and with the larger world. This is phenomenological (being as “being in the world”), and this is an important point not only in understanding what is conditional knowledge but in freeing knowledge from deconstructionism.
Knowledge with empathy is the first spark of wisdom. The reason is that interactions with “the other” invariably necessitate a heightened degree of moral discernment, a more nuanced application of ethical guidelines, and more generally a greater capacity for patience and understanding. When there are many hands to hold in finding and in applying knowledge, a man needs to understand himself better in order frankly to keep up with the complexities of so many new and interesting actors on his stage. He needs to have a better sense of what works and does not work when maneuvering across a life stage with many set design changes. With this greater wisdom over time, he finds it easier to obtain and to apply properly knowledge. He also finds it easier to separate in his mind lasting joy from momentary happiness or pleasure. All of this personal growth is rooted in a pursuit of knowledge conditioned by a spirit of genuine empathy.