I think I’ve stumbled upon a problem that is both common among scholars, intellectuals, and intellectually curious generalists (the category I fall into) and yet rarely discussed.

The fact that they don’t talk about it could mean, of course, that it’s only a problem for me. Or it could be that other people know the answer to the problem and have considered it too obvious to be worth mentioning. Then again, they may see the problem too but not talk about it for fear that other scholars, intellectuals, and intellectually curious generalists will think they are boneheads.

This type of hemming-and-hawing is tangentially related to the problem in question: How do you know whether you should really know about something that other people already seem to know?

What I mean is that there are not only different types of knowledge, but differing assumptions about what sort of knowledge is expected to be know. For instance, there is broad base of knowledge that almost all well-rounded, highly educated share in common. There is also specific area knowledge that is known almost exclusively by people with a PhD in the relevant field of study. In the middle is the grey area, the knowledge that even if you don’t know, you know that it is something that you should probably expect to know if you hang around scholars, intellectuals, and intellectually curious generalists (let’s call them SIICGs, for short).

Take, for example, David Bentley Hart’s recent article in First Things on Heidegger’s philosophy as a meditation on the mystery of being . Even if you do not know much about the German philosopher, you recognize that as an SIICG you should be familiar with Heidegger and, duly chastised, you tell yourself that you’ll finally get around to reading Being and Time (even though, let’s be honest, you probably won’t).

This is a prime example of knowing that you should really know about someone that other people already know. I know enough to know that I should know about Heidegger—even if I don’t. But there are times when the issue is not so opaque.

And that brings me to my Žižek problem.

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and critical theorist who works in the traditions of Hegelianism, Marxism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis and has purportedly made contributions to political theory, film theory, and theoretical psychoanalysis. There is even an open access journal dedicated to his work ( International Journal of Žižek Studies ).

Three years ago I had never heard of the guy. Now I hear about him all the time. And it’s never in the “Here’s somebody that you’ve never heard of and need to know.” No, the references are always of the type that assumes that you are so familiar with the guy that, like Plato, Heideigger, or Sting, they don’t even need to include his first name for you to understand who they are referring to.

To be honest, even now I’m hesitant to confess my ignorance about Žižek. The last time I admitted not knowing who someone was, when I confessed that I wasn’t familiar with Rene Girard, an acquaintance responded, “Seriously? You haven’t read The Scapegoat ?” (I wanted to say that hadn’t had a chance since I was still working my way through the Seussian oeuvre. Instead, I just ordered the book on Amazon.)

No, I don’t know much about Žižek and I’m not sure whether I should or how I should go about learning more. It’s not like I can just read the Wikipedia entry about him and get up to speed. I’d have to read some dense, jargon-filled articles and books by him (and probably by Hegel, Marx, and Lacan too) just get to the point where I could understand enough to discuss his work intelligently—and comprehend why others are talking about him.

The problem is not an unwillingness to do my homework (though the Lacanian stuff is a bit off-putting). I’m willing to put in the effort if the result will be worth it. But therein lies the crux of the problem. How do you know ahead of time whether it’s worth it? How do you know that he isn’t merely a philosopher du jour and that by the time you are well-versed enough to hold your own in a discussion that the SSIICs will not have moved on to someone else?

Since ROFTERS are almost exclusively comprised of SSIICs, I thought I’d enlist your help in developing a heuristic to determine when learning about a person’s work is worth the effort.

Surely someone has a few useful rules-of-thumb for this problem. And if not, I’m confident we can harness the wisdom of the crowd to come to workable solution.

So what do you think: How do we know whether we should really know about someone that other people already know?

Articles by Joe Carter

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