Tag Archives: wisdom

Knowledge as Déjà Vu

5 Apr

Apart from the self-castration stuff, Sextus, an unidentified Hellenistic Pythagorean philosopher, promoted a few compelling ideas. The Sentences of Sextus was widespread among early Christian communities. Some of these wise, dusty words are surprising, and feel fresher than, say, the much younger Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. For example, Sextus writes:

You cannot receive understanding unless you know first that you possess it. In everything there is again this sentence. (333)

The first part, sure, we’ve all seen this before through so many after-school specials and mythic Wizard-of-Oz journeys. We’re all already endowed with everything we seek: we just need to realize it! It’s the second sentence that’s intriguing. Not only do we need to realize that we already know in order to know, but that everything contains that knowledge. It’s like every surface is reflective, or everything, from objects to concepts, has the sweet same substance inside it.

What a strange epistemology! Not only do we already possess understanding, but that everything serves as a reminder of this. It’s knowledge as a kind of double  déjà vu. When we learn something new, we’re really realizing what we already know; when we understand anything, we’re faced with the reminder that it’s like everything else we’ve ever understood.

The only thing to understand through things–the only thing to know at all, really–is that we already understand. Is this a unified and interpenetrating universe?  Or does this feel flat, even claustrophobic?