21 August 2013

The Indirect Utilities of Knowledge

Philip Gilbert Hamerton, The Intellectual Life (London: Macmillan, 1887), pp. 95-98:
Whatever you study, some one will consider that particular study a foolish waste of time.
If you were to abandon successively every subject of intellectual labour which had, in its turn, been condemned by some adviser as useless, the result would be simple intellectual nakedness. The classical languages, to begin with, have long been considered useless by the majority of practical people — and pray, what to shopkeepers, doctors, attorneys, artists, can be the use of the higher mathematics? And if these studies, which have been conventionally classed as serious studies, are considered unnecessary notwithstanding the tremendous authority of custom, how much the more are those studies exposed to a like contempt which belong to the category of accomplishments! What is the use of drawing, for it ends in a worthless sketch? Why should we study music when after wasting a thousand hours the amateur cannot satisfy the ear? A quoi bon modern languages when the accomplishment only enables us to call a waiter in French or German who is sure to answer us in English? And what, when it is not your trade, can be the good of dissecting animals or plants?
To all questionings of this kind there is but one reply. We work for culture. We work to enlarge the intelligence, and to make it a better and more effective instrument. This is our main purpose; but it may be added that even for our special labours it is always difficult to say beforehand exactly what will turn out in the end to be most useful. 
....
More than all other men have authors reason to appreciate the indirect utilities of knowledge that is apparently irrelevant. Who can tell what knowledge will be of most use to them? Even the very greatest of authors are indebted to miscellaneous reading, often in several different languages, for the suggestion of their most original works, and for the light which has kindled many a shining thought of their own. And authors who seem to have less need than others of an outward help, poets whose compositions might appear to be chiefly inventive and emotional, novelists who are free from the restraints and the researches of the historian, work up what they know into what they write; so that if you could remove every line which is based on studies outside the strict limits of their art, you would blot out half their compositions.