I’ve always found it strange that a certain idea may be in the public domain, everyone knowing or using it, but very few people knowing how it relates to the rest of knowledge. It’s like driving – everyone can drive, but only a few know what the various parts of the engine are called or what they do. And it doesn’t really matter if you just want to drive the car.
The same goes for words. We use certain words every day, we use them well, we use them in wooden or creative ways, but we don’t always know what they’re called, where they come from, how they’ve evolved, what other ways there are to use and abuse them.
The division of knowledge in a society is almost as fragmented as the division of labour in the marketplace. Some know something, other know something else, everyone knows something, and that’s general knowledge, sometimes known as general culture – though culture is always general, belonging to a group, from gang to nation.
Knowledge inhabits a vast territory, and it’s constantly growing, ever encroaching on the wastelands of ignorance, falsehood and error. But as it advances, it is subjected to a cruel division which insists that it’s the only way knowledge can flourish, and the only way its conquest may carry on.
So we divide it, creating more and more units of knowledge storing smaller and smaller amounts of it. As the knowledge-base gets bigger, the baseline gets narrower. We can know more, which means that every person tends to know less, or at least share less knowledge with the next person. What we gain in depth, we lose in breadth. Everyone becomes more knowledgeable, but in their own specialism, and as these specialisms grow, the amount of knowledge we hold in common shrinks.
Common knowledge is about consensus on what should be held in common. And perhaps that’s exactly what we’re missing at the moment. It’s far more convenient to retreat within the cloisters of our narrow specialism.