June 12, 2020

Yesterday I speculated about the critics of the avant-garde, saying that they are connoisseurs, which literally means “knowers.” The word can be used to connote elegant refinement, or snooty arrogance. Some have called such knowers as art curators and critics elitist.

That’s why I’m still thinking about connoisseurship today. I said there was perhaps a cost to becoming connoisseur, and the cost (or risk) is elitism. This reminded me of the Stoics.

William B. Irvine, in A Guide to the Good Life, writes that this is one reason that the Roman Stoics advise you to avoid this kind of knowing:

Finally, the Stoics are careful to avoid becoming connoisseurs in the worst sense of the word—becoming, that is, individuals who are incapable of taking delight in anything but “the best.” As a result, they will be capable of enjoying a wide range of easily obtainable things. They will keep firmly in mind Seneca’s comment that although “to have whatsoever he wishes is in no man’s power,” it is in every man’s power “not to wish for what he has not, but cheerfully to employ what comes to him.” Thus, if life should snatch one source of delight from them, Stoics will quickly find another to take its place: Stoic enjoyment, unlike that of a connoisseur, is eminently transferable. Along these lines, remember that when Seneca and Musonius were banished to islands, rather than succumbing to depression, they set about studying their new environment.

In other words, he argues that there is a cost to knowing, and the cost is the loss of simple pleasures. But what is costly to the individual can sometimes be beneficial for society as a whole, and vice versa. Perhaps bearing the loss of simple pleasures is the price to be paid for forward movement. In some sense, the avant-garde and entrepreneurs are often making risky sacrifices which may advance society — but equally may not.

Is there a more inherent connection between knowledge and pain? In Essays & Aphorisms (1851), Schopenhauer writes:

Knowledge is in itself always painless. Pain affects only the will and consists in an obstruction, impediment or frustration of it: nonetheless, this frustration of the will, if it is to be felt as pain, must be accompanied by knowledge. That is why even physical pain is conditioned by the nerves and their connexion with the brain, so that an injury to a limb is not felt if the nerves leading from the limb to the brain are severed or the brain itself is devitalized by chloroform. That spiritual pain is conditional upon knowledge goes without saying, and it is easy to see that it will increase with the degree of knowledge. We can thus express the whole relationship figuratively by saying that the will is the string, its frustration or impediment the vibration of the string, knowledge the sounding-board, and pain the sound.

I can’t quite work out whether this metaphor makes any sense, or specifically whether it adds anything to the idea that knowledge, the will, frustration, and pain are somehow related. But he does seem to think that though learning is not painful, knowledge leads to potential pain. That’s as far as I’ve thought about it today.


I got a bit sidetracked learning about the word “connoisseurship” today. “Connoisseur” is ultimately derived from Latin cognoscere. As I said above, in English connoisseur has a mixed connotation (a word related not to “knowing” but to “noting,” from Mediaeval Latin connotare).

The English (and evidently I) have occasionally added -ship to the word, of which suffix the OED states “Added to adjectives and past participles to denote the state or condition of being so-and-so. Such compounds were numerous in Old English, and many survived (or were re-coined) in Middle English, but few have a history extending beyond the 15th century.”

Among the Old English examples are some funny ones like “goodship” (meaning “goodness”) and “drunkenship” (“drunkenness”), but only a few, like “hardship” and “friendship” seem to have survived the whole time.

Connoisseurship is attested in two still-read novels from the eighteenth century, namely Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1761), the former in the straightforward sense of “The rôle or part of a connoisseur; critical acquaintance with works of art or matters of taste; the sphere or realm of connoisseurs,” and the latter “humorously, as a personal title:”

Which [picture] your connoisseurship knows is so exquisitely imagined.

Byron made a similar joke in Childe Harold (1818):

How well his connoisseurship understands
The graceful bend.

I personally think we should bring this sense back.

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.