Swift's Philosophy of Knowledge

Barry J. Fishman '89

What you don't know can't hurt you.

A special brand of solipsism best summed up by the folk-saying "what you don't know can't hurt you," is one of the prevalent philosophies in Swift's work. All of Swift's characters at one time or another questions knowledge that could conceivably alter the course of their lives. This philosophy is best viewed in "Hoffmeier's Antelope," a short story included in the Learning to Swim collection.

"Hoffmeier's Antelope" is the story of a zoo keeper fighting to preserve the last two living animals of a little known African species. The narrator engages in frequent arguments with the zoo keeper, pointing out that if Hoffmeier, the antelopes' discoverer, had never existed, the antelopes would also never have existed. To translate this idea into common terms: if somebody in the room next to you sneezes, but you did not hear the sneeze and was never told about it, then as far as you are concerned the sneeze never existed.

There is another slant on this thinking that answers questions of guilt. If you do not know something happened, you cannot be held responsible for it. This is of great importance in Waterland. When Freddie Parr is found dead in Henry Crick's sluice gate there must be an inquest. Henry does not know of Dick's guilt, so when he testifies at the coroner's inquest it is very easy to arrive at a conclusion of "Accidental Death." Waterland is also concerned with lineage, and it is important to note that the reader is kept in the dark as to Dick's true parentage until the end of the novel. The reader never considers the possibility that Ernest Atkinson is Dick's real father. To follow Swift's guiding philosophy: we knew nothing about it because Tom has not told us yet, therefore for us Henry is still Dick's only true father. All of this changes dramatically when Tom reveals the truth, and entire evaluative systems both for Dick, Henry, and the reader must be updated to accommodate the new information. Needless to say, this is truly one situation where Dick would have been better off never knowing the truth. As Tom says, "Better not to learn. Better never to know." (Waterland p.244)

In Out of This World the topic is discussed on several levels. Harry Beech is a photojournalist who captures horrors that most of the world never see. His profession is capturing facts on film, so that they may be relayed to others. He does his job so well in fact that the RAF impounded many of the pictures he takes of wounded fliers in World War II. The government's position is that what the public doesn't know won't hurt them. War may be bloody, war may be gruesome, but there is a certain level at which its horror is societally acceptable. The RAF will not allow the horrors of war to be portrayed as ironic or pointless.

Harry Beech does, however, introduce an example that brings Swift's philosophy into clear focus. Discussing the grim fact that shells manufactured for the abstract use of war often end up in very specific human bodies. Does the munitions factory worker ever stop to think where each shell might end up? Probably not. Such thoughts would make it impossible for that worker to carry out her task. But by ignoring the possible consequences, by not even considering them, she creates for herself a sort of immunity from guilt. An editor of a photo magazine can do the same thing for the readers. Harry tells the story of a series of photographs he once took: "There is a picture of mine of a marine throwing a grenade at Hoi An. . . It's pure Greek statue, pure Hollywood, pure charisma. And it's how it was. . . A second later, that marine took a round in the chest and I took two more shots and then some more as they got him clear." (OoTW p.119-20) The press only printed the single heroic first shot, so the public never knew that this marine died seconds later. The world only saw the heroism, and therefore only knew of it. Facts are unimportant under this doctrine. What you perceive carries much greater weight than what is actually true. What the world did not know could not affect it -- although it could and did affect Harry Beech.

The main character of Shuttlecock works in the Dead Crimes division of the London police department, and his function is to provide more information (knowledge) to sketchy outlines of past events. Prentis's work will re-open closed investigations, changing and possibly ruining the unsuspecting suspects of these "Dead" crimes. Prentis's boss Quinn sums up this point of view when Prentis asks for more information: "More information? Good heavens, limited information is why we're here, Prentis. If we had all the information we wanted, we'd be gods, wouldn't we?" (Shuttlecock p.31) Ironically, Quinn does not want any more information, and to protect his "flock" of suspects he has begun to destroy possibly incriminating files and bits of evidence. What these people don't know (and what we can't find out) can't hurt them.

The philosophy of knowledge in Swift's work is closely related to the overall fragility of his characters. The theme of crisis is a part of all his writing, with each person from Harry Beech to Dick Crick first finding a method of gaining knowledge and then dealing with the consequences. In the end most decide that they would have been better off without knowing, better off kept in the dark. As Thomas Huxley once pointed out, "[if] a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger?"

United Kingdom