Have you ever stood by, staring blankly ahead as to of your friends chatted animatedly about something you were clueless about? It might be the details of an episode of The Wire, or a new strategy for borrowing money for a house deposit. You recognise the words they’re using, but it doesn’t fit together into something that makes sense.
If the situation sounds familiar, it’s because you’re a victim of a 400 year old prophecy from a gentleman sometimes credited as the father of modern science: Sir Francis Bacon. Bacon (yes, his name is great) proposed a series of four idols, which stand in the way of us accessing knowledge. The two I’m going to talk about, and which are most important today, are the idols of the marketplace and the idols of the theatre.
Bacon’s marketplace is all about language. We are continually negotiating when we talk, to evoke and communicate what we mean to someone else. We draw from a diverse market of words to do so. However, the way each person, and each group of people, access that market is different. Do you watch Scrubs? If yes, then a part of your language market will be available to you that is inaccessible to a non-Scrubs watcher. Are you a string theorist? You’ll probably struggle to understand what a scaffolder is saying when he talks about his work. For Bacon, this was important: knowledge must be able to be shared, so we need to guard against jargon, and on the flipside, oversimplification or casual language can obscure what we really mean.
Not only must we be aware of our place in the market, Bacon argued, we are also players in a grand theatre. Ideologies influence how we perceive the world, shaping what we do like a play’s director pulling the strings of her actors. As we filter ideas into our awareness, we seek to compare it against the mesh of ‘knowledge’ we already hold. Ideas that contradict what we think are more likely to be rejected; this often happens without us even being aware of it. Imagine a messenger attempting to intrude on a play to pass new instructions to an actor, being barred entry by the director so he can maintain complete control over his play’s content.
With the rise and rise of the internet, we are able to immerse ourselves in markets and theatres that are comfortable and familiar: people who think and speak like we do. Online communities share and create their own language and ideology, which allows people to reinforce, rather than broaden, their world view.
Are these idols becoming more of a problem? I believe so. There’s a huge and growing divide between the specialism and scope of human knowledge, and the ability of any given person to learn or understand it. Not only that, online networks can offer people with extreme views access to positive reinforcement, even if their real-life social networks are very different. This will only continue, as our experience of the internet is increasingly tailored to our personal preferences via custom searches and recommended links.
I’m not naive enough to think that I can see far outside of my own marketplace or theatre. The studies I’m doing, and more importantly, the people I’ve been getting to know since moving to London, have definitely broadened my perspectives on a lot of things. My ideology is in a state of flux too: no matter how much thought I’ve given to certain issues, like environmentalism or political structure, I simply can’t find a position I’m comfortable with. The squirrels vs cats question keeps me up at night as well.
When was the last time you found yourself floundering in a new marketplace, or stumbling into the wrong theatre? Did you learn the language, or adjust your ideology because of your experience? I’m interested!