Is knowledge intrinsically valuable or must it have practical application to have value?
Everyone should read T.S. Eliot's blazingly brilliant essay entitled "Virgil and the Christian World":
It was the Greeks who taught us the dignity of leisure; it is from them that we inherit the perception that the highest life is the life of contemplation. But this respect for leisure, with the Greeks, was accompanied by a contempt for the banausic occupations. Virgil perceived that agriculture is fundamental to civilization, and he affirmed the dignity of manual labour. When the Christian monastic orders came into being, the contemplative life and the life of manual labor were first conjoined. These were no longer occupations for different classes of people, the one noble, the other inferior and suitable only for slaves or almost slaves. There was a great deal in the medieval world that was not Christian; and practice in the lay world was very different from that of the religious orders at their best: but at least Christianity did establish the principle that action and contemplation, labor and prayer, are both essential to the life of the complete man.
Philip Rieff, the late social theorist and preeminent Freud scholar, remarks in a late work that some things are not worth knowing. He also says experience is a swindle, the experienced know that much.
Your mileage may vary. But my experience strongly suggests that the valuable knowledge about knowledge’s value has to do with what is on the other half of the scales across from a particular bit of knowledge—with what else hangs in the balance.
Much knowledge of some value is outweighed by great costs or wastes or dark puzzles or black pills that come, often quietly, along with something known. Some vast knowledge is outweighed by dark quanta that pull the knower into vast realms of qualia darker still. In the weighings of knowledge’s worth we are confronted with whether both we and our knowledge is worthy. Of what? Or who? That there is knowledge of inestimable worth.
I’m not sure I believe in “useless knowledge” tout court, as in, useful to no one ever. All truth is truth about something; knowing it would be useful for anyone dealing with or encountering that particular thing.
But knowledge can be useless to a particular person at a particular time in a particular context. It’s largely quite useless for me in my current occupation to know how to mend a faulty spillway; for a reservoir engineer, it’s useful. It’s useless to me right now that I know the color of my father’s eyes; if ever a time came when I had to describe him for someone who was looking for him, it might be quite useful.
Still, the question is whether all knowledge has value, and there are other kinds of value than usefulness. It is my experience that all knowledge acquisition comes with an intrinsic pleasure, which must have been what Plato meant when he compared philosophy to erotic desire—or what Aristotle meant when, in his more down-to-earth way, he said that mankind by nature reaches out for knowledge. The point isn't that knowledge has use: the point is, we like it.
I think this the case even when the truth we are learning is rather uncomfortable, and I think it has something to do—as Aristotle says—with the kinds of creatures we are. We yearn to know not because what we know is a good thing but because knowledge is in itself a joy. Joy is a thing of which, in my opinion, the goodness is self-evident—meaning one need not demonstrate or defend the value of one’s joys.
We are constantly challenged to do so—“why do you like this? What’s it for?”—and refusing to accept that challenge is itself a sort of quiet rebellion. Basic facts of the world are not the sorts of thing one argues for: our observations and experiences of them are the premises from which we argue, and which we must take for granted if we are to make any headway at all. We are very comfortable beginning arguments with factual premises such as “the earth is round,” but less comfortable than we should be proceeding from truthful premises such as “joy is good.”
There is much wisdom—another joyous thing—in learning to start one's reasoning from the brute reality of the delight one takes in something. I concede that some of our pleasures are harmful, but I am optimistic (or perhaps naïve) enough to say that we can feel a qualitative difference when our delights are wholesome. We may not always act on that intuition, but we have it all the same. In such cases--in cases of pure joy--it is enough that a thing is good, quite simply, and no more argument need be adduced. It is enough.