Know-It-All Society by Michael Patrick Lynch

Know-It-All Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture     by Michael Patrick Lynch Liveright 2019

No one likes a know-it-all. They can quickly turn a pleasant conversation into a tedious affair. Despite their annoying propensities, they remain relatively harmless. A know-it-all society, however, can be downright dangerous to the democratic fabric of the country. So says Michael Patrick Lynch in his slim yet deeply considered study of society’s growing problem of intellectual arrogance in Know-It-All Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture

Lynch, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut and the director of the Humanities Institute, has previously written about the nexus of technology and human knowledge in The Internet of Us. He expands here on another side effect of our 24-hour information superhighway—intellectual arrogance—and how it is poisoning our politics, our communities, and our minds. 

Lynch describes in readably academic prose how the information pollution we subject ourselves to everyday has increased the incivility of our discourse, most appallingly epitomized by the present occupant of the White House. Instead of debate, the polarized Left and Right stand on opposite sides hurling insults, a shared intellectual arrogance calcifying their beliefs into a tribal arrogance that speaks in dialectically dangerous terms of “we” and “them” and places ego above truth. People have stopped listening to others’ ideas, Lynch says, and instead rest in the false security of believing they know everything there is to know. As a result, our democracy is impoverished and stunted by bias and dogmatism.

How did we arrive at this troubled state of affairs? Look no further than society’s overreliance on the internet and social media to communicate ideas and information. When the most arcane piece of information (not always true) is a mere Google keyword search away and the “outrage factory” of social media encourages people to emote and virtue signal to their respective tribes then…Houston, we have a problem. Much of our “Google-knowing,” as Lynch puts it, revolves around the daily, shallow intake of information that requires zero intellectual discipline in its acquisition and makes no demands for a deeper contextual exploration. As a result, we’ve become a society where people believe they know more than others but actually know less than they think. 

This is where we all need to step back and, as Lynch puts it, “own our limitations.” In other words, exercise intellectual humility. “Our tendency to overestimate our knowledge isn’t just a phase; it is part of human nature,” Lynch writes, and a panoply of some of the greatest philosophical minds are his best sources to attest to that. Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century nobleman, politician, and superb essayist, took a break from politics and retreated to a tower (literally, a tower) to escape the intellectual arrogance of his day and age. He believed there was a plague on Mankind, “the opinion that he knows something.”

We still suffer the symptoms of that plague in varying degrees, but the wisdom of those who’ve come before can offer some remedy. Lynch threads other great thinkers throughout the fabric of his argument: Hume, Locke, Hobbes, Sartre, Wittgenstein, Arendt, and of course, Socrates, dance onto Lynch’s pages with their insights and warnings. (Philosopher Pro Tip: We’re all stumbling in the dark, but the wisest people know that they are.) 

Lynch’s audience would be those open to questioning their assumptions, or at least wondering why so many people today posture as experts on everything. If you pick up this book looking for reinforcement of your political position, just know the author employs powerful and contemporary examples of the ways intellectual arrogance has dirtied the political climate on both the Right and the Left. No one gets out of this book unscathed.   

This is where the value of reading Lynch’s book becomes apparent: it holds up a shiny mirror to our face and tells us, in the words of Ayn Rand, to check our premises. Do we really know what we know? What is “knowing”? Have we built our beliefs on solid reasoning and evidence? Do we seek dialogue with others of differing opinions to listen and perhaps even learn? Are we operating out of good faith in our social media practices? Lynch invites us to consider these and other questions in the spirit of the Socratic method, which encourages a quest for knowledge by constant inquiry. After all, dogmatism and intellectual humility cannot share the same space. Learning is an infinite act, and it behooves us as a culture and a democratic society to acknowledge what we know and, more importantly, what we don’t. 

—Peggy Kurkowski is a copywriter living in Denver, Colorado