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On the Nature of Knowledge

1829 — Hall of Science, New York City, and other places


When I first entered upon the preliminary course of lectures which I am now about to deliver for the second time in this city, it was with a doubtful hope of awakening, and a yet more doubtful hope of fixing, your attention. The same cause which animated me to the experiment, inspired my apprehension as to its result. I knew the unnatural excitement which had been kindled in a sense opposed to just knowledge and sound reasoning, and I feared lest you should shrink from an appeal made only to your understandings, and, through them, to your hearts. Still had I some reliance in the power of truth, much fond reliance in the destined triumph of the cause I serve. The probability — may ! but the possibility of success had been worth more than all efforts; and amply — richly have mine been repaid by the request which brings us together this evening.

Never have I complied with a desire more readily than that which comes as a pledge of your willingness to enquire and ambition to learn. Where this willingness and this ambition exist, there is every requisite. Truth needs not the excitement of passion to be felt; knowledge seeks not heated imaginations to be understood. In the calm of the reason, in the composure of the feelings do they delight. They ask to be questioned, to be examined, to be weighed. Let them be weighed; and if they be pure, if they be genuine, they shall not be found wanting.

I am led to these observations by the knowledge that your accustom cd teachers have followed an opposite method. Instead of addressing the reason, they have spoken to the fancy: instead of seeking your improvement, they have triumphed through your ignorance. They have reached your confidence by the way of your terrors, and employed your confidence in building up their power and advancing their worldly gain.

As my object is different so are the means I shall employ. In my endeavor to develop the nature of human knowledge and the rule of hu man practice, I will engage, if not wholly to enlighten, yet never to mislead; I will show you no error, though I pretend not to show all the truth. Of that which I am ignorant I shall not speak; and what is not by myself clearly understood, I shall not insult you by attempting to explain.

Being under the impression that I was to address in this building a new, as well as a more extensive audience, I decided on a repetition of the preliminary discourses first delivered in your court house. I call them preliminary, as they are in fact intended simply to open the door of that temple into which, as I fondly trust, you and your children, this nation, and all mankind will at last enter; there to sit down in peace and universal love.

We may never see that day. It may not be ours to take sure possession of that fair habitation where strife enters not, and from which misery flies. But let us at least open the portal. Let us together pass the threshold of the blessed abode. Let us hail the effects of its pure atmosphere, and lift our foreheads assured and serene ; regarding each other with confidence, all nature with confidence, and assuming in our thoughts and actions that self possession and that self respect, which there, and there alone in the temple of just knowledge, can be found.

Here in this land conquered by the arm of liberty, must that temple stand or stand no where. The hopes and prospects of our race have followed the sun to the west. Here may the voice of truth be heard; and here shall she speak, though bigotry frown or priestly usurpation threaten.

Permit me again to impress on you, that the investigations which we are about to enter are only introductory to those in which I believe it important, or rather indispensable to your happiness that you engage.

The most rational pursuit of sentient beings is happiness; and happiness can only be found by and with the aid of knowledge. Be it our endeavor to distinguish the right road; for that once found, our progress will be easy.

We will now open our investigations by an enquiry into the nature and object of just knowledge; and if we succeed in ascertaining these, we will farther examine the causes which at present impede our progress, and the means best calculated at once to remove such impediments, and to advance us in the course which it is our interest to pursue.

If we consider man in comparison with other animals, we find him distinguished by one principle. This principle which is shared by no other existence within the range of our observation, gives him all his pre-eminence. It constitutes, indeed, all his excellence. By its neglect or cultivation he remains ignorant or degraded, or becomes intelligent and happy; and, as he owes to it all that has elevated him above the brute in past time or at the present, so in it may he find rich hope and promise for the future. Much does it behove us, then, earnestly to consider this distinguishing principle of our nature.

Much does it behove us to understand the fulness of its importance and its power; and to know that, as without it we should be but as the beasts of the field, so with it we may rise in the scale of being, until every vice which now degrades, every fear which unnerves, and every prejudice which enchains us, shall disappear beneath its influence.

I advert to the simple, but all-important principle of improvement. Weak as we are compared to the healthy strength we are conscious would be desirable; ignorant as we are compared to the height and breadth and depth of knowledge which spreads around us far as the universal range of matter itself; miserable as we are compared to the enjoyment of which we feel ourselves capable; yet in this living principle we see nothing beyond or above us, nothing to which we or our descendants may not attain of great, of beautiful, of excellent. But to feel the power of this mighty principle, to urge it forward in its course and accelerate the change in our condition which it promises, we must awaken to its observation. Are we yet awake to this? Do we know what we are, or have we ever asked ourselves what we might be? Are we even desirous of becoming wiser better and happier? and if desirous, are we earnestly applied to effect the change?

It is probable that some vague desire of advancing in knowledge pervades every bosom. We find every where some deference paid to the great principle of our nature in the growing demand for schools and colleges. We seem to have discovered that the faculties of man demand care for their development; and that, like the marble of the quarry, he must be shaped and polished ere he will present the line of beauty.

But alas! here is the difficulty. If agreed that something must be done, we see but darkly what that something is. While eager to be doing, we are still in doubt both as to the end to be attained and the means to be employed. While anxious to learn, we are but too often ignorant of the very nature of knowledge. We are unacquainted with her haunts and her habitation, and seek her where she is not to be found. It may be useful, then, before we engage in the labyrinth of learning, that we examine carefully what knowledge is.

If we ask this in our schools, we shall be told, that knowledge is an acquaintance with the structure of our own language, a familiarity with foreign, especially with dead languages. We shall moreover hear of history, geography, astronomy, &c. Do we ask the same in our colleges, we shall hear farther of law, medicine, surgery, theology, mathematics, chemistry and philosophy, natural and mental: and we shall be farther told, that when a youth has mastered all these sounding names, and puzzled through all the learning useful or useless, attached to them — he is well taught and thoroughly educated. It may be so. And yet may, he be very ignorant of what it imports him to know. Nay more! in despite of an intimate acquaintance with all the most esteemed branches of knowledge, he may be utterly unacquainted with the object and nature of knowledge itself. Let us then enquire again what knowledge is.

Is it not in the first place acquaintance with ourselves? and secondly to all things with which we stand in relation?

How are we to obtain this acquaintance? By observations and patient enquiry.

Let us now examine what are the objects really submitted to the investigation of our senses.

These may be all embraced under the generic term matter.

Were we to proceed minutely in our analysis we should observe, that matter, as existing around us, appears under three forms, the gaseous, the liquid and the solid; and that under one or other of these forms may be accurately classed all that is submitted to our observation—all in short that we can see, hear, feel, taste or smell. But to enter at present into such details would be foreign to our purpose.

I will therefore pass on to observe, that the accurate and patient investigation of matter, in all its subdivisions, together with all its qualities and changes, constitutes a good education. And that in proportion as we ascertain, in the course of investigation, the real qualities and actual changes of matter, so do we acquire knowledge. The view of knowledge we have here taken is simple; and it may be observed, that not in this case only, but in all others accuracy and simplicity go hand in hand. All truth is simple, for truth is only fact. The means of attaining truth are equally simple. We have but to seek and we shall find; to open our eyes and ears; without prejudice to observe; without fear to listen, and dispassionately to examine, compare and draw our conclusions.

The field of knowledge is around, about and within us. Let us not be alarmed by sounding words, and let us not be deceived by them. Let us look to things. It is things which we have to consider. Words are, or more correctly should be, only the signs of things. I say they should be; for it is a most lamentable truth, that they are now very generally conceived to constitute the substance of knowledge. Words, indeed, should seem at present contrived rather for the purpose of confusing our ideas than administering to their distinctness and arrangement. Instead of viewing them as the shadows, we mistake them for the substance; and conceive that in proportion as we enlarge our vocabulary, we multiply our acquirements.

Vain then, will be the attempt to increase our knowledge, until we understand where we are to look for it, and in what it consists. Here is the first stepping-stone. Let our foot but firmly strike, and our after progress is easy.

And in what lies the importance of this first step in human knowledge? In the accuracy in which it brings in all our ideas. It places us at once on firm ground, introduces us into the field of real enquiry, and lays the rein of the imagination in the hand of judgment. Difficult were it to ex aggerate the importance of the step which involves such consequences. Until we bring accuracy to our thoughts, and we may add accuracy to the words employed for their expression—we can make no progress. We may wander, indeed, and most certainly shall wander, in various paths; but they will be paths of error. The straight broad road of improvement it will not be ours to tread, until we take heed unto our feet and know always whither we are going.

Imagine — and how easy is it to imagine when we have but to look round us or within ourselves — imagine the confusion of hopes desires, ambitions and expectations with which the scholar enters, and but too often leaves, the halls of science. On entering them he conceives that some mysterious veil, like the screen of the holy of holies, is about to be withdrawn, and that he is to look at things far removed from common life, and raised far above the vulgar apprehension. On leaving them, he has his memory surcharged with a confusion of ideas, and a yet worse confusion of words. He knows, perhaps, the properties of ciphers and of angles; the names and classifications of birds, fishes quadrupeds, insects and minerals ; the chemical affinities of bodies; can measure star from star; anaylize invisible substances; detail in chronological order the rise and fall of nations, with their arts, sciences and sects of philosophy. He can do all this and more, and yet, perhaps is there neither arrangement in his knowledge, distinctness in his ideas, nor accuracy in his language. And while possessed of many valuable facts, there is blended with all and with each a thousand illusions. Thus it is that so many wordy pe ants, and hair-brained, or shallow disputants are sent forth from the schools of all countries; while those who do honor to their species by rendering service in their generation, are, most generally, what is called self taught.

Greatly, very greatly to be desired is a just mode of instruction. It would not only shorten the road of knowledge, but carpet it with flowers. We should then tread it in childhood with smiles of cheerfulness; and, as we followed its pleasant course, horizon after horizon would open upon us, delighting and improving our minds and feelings through life unto our latest hour. But if it is of the first importance to be launched aright in infancy, the moment we distinctly perceive what knowledge is, we may, at any age, start boldly for its attainment. I have said, we may start boldly — ay! and there lies the surety of our success. If we bring not the good courage of minds covetous of truth and truth only, prepared to hear all things, examine all things, and decide upon all things according to evidence, we should do more wisely to sit down contented in ignorance than to bestir ourselves only to reap disappointment. But let us once look round upon this fair material world, as on the book which it behoves us to read; let us understand that in this book there are no puzzling mysteries, but a simple train of occurrences which it imports us to observe, with an endless variety of substances and existences which it imports us to study — what is there, then, to frighten us ; what is there not rather to encourage our advance 7

Yet how far are we from this simple perception of simple things! how far from .that mental composure which can alone fit us for enquiry! How prone are we to come to the consideration of every question with heads and hearts pre-occupied how prone to shrink from any opinion, however reasonable, if it be opposed to any, however unreasonable, of our own How disposed are we to judge in anger those who call upon us to think, and encourage us to enquire To question our prejudices seems nothing less than sacrilege; to break the chains of our ignorance nothing short of impiety!

Perhaps at this moment, she who speaks is outraging a prejudice — (shall I be forgiven the word?) Perhaps among those who hear me, there are who deem it both a presumption and an impropriety for a woman to reason with her fellow creatures.

Did I know, of a surety, this prejudice to prevail among my hearers, I should, indeed, be disposed to reason with them. I should be tempted to ask, whether truth had any sex; and I should venture farther to ask, whether they count for nothing, for something, or for every thing, the influence of women over the destinies of our race.

Shall I be forgiven for adverting, most unwillingly, to myself? Having assumed an unusual place, I feel, that to my audience some explanation is due.

Stimulated in my early youth, by I know not what of pitying sympathy with human suffering, and by I know not what persuasion, that our race was not of necessity born to ignorance, and its companion, vice, but that it possessed faculties and qualities which pointed to virtue and enjoyment; stimulated, at once, by this pity for the actual condition of man, and this hope of a possible melioration, I applied myself to the discovery of the causes of the one, and of the means for effecting the other.

I have as little the inclination to obtrude on you the process of investigation and course of observation I followed through the period of an eventful youth, as you would probably have to listen to them. Suffice it, that I have been led to consider the growth of knowledge, and the equal distribution of knowledge, as the best — may I say, the only means for reforming the condition of mankind. Shall I be accused of presumption for imagining that I could be instrumental in promoting this, as it appears to me, good work? Shall I appear additionally presumptuous for believing that my sex and my situation tend rather to qualify than to incapacitate me for the undertaking?

So long as the mental and moral instruction of man is left solely in the hands of hired servants of the public — let them be teachers of religion, professors of colleges, authors of books, or editors of journals or periodical publications, dependent upon their literary labours for their daily bread, so long shall we hear but half the truth; and well if we hear so much. Our teachers, political, scientific, moral, or religious; our writers, grave or gay, are compelled to administer to our prejudices, and to perpetuate our ignorance. They dare not speak that which, by endangering their popularity, would endanger their fortunes. They have to discover not what is true, but what is palatable: not what will search into the hearts and minds of their hearers, but what will open their purse strings. They have to weigh every sentiment before they hazard it, every word before they pronounce it, lest they wound some cherished vanity, or aim at some favourite vice. A familiar instance will bring this home to an American audience.

I have been led to inspect, far and wide, the extensive and beautiful section of this country which is afflicted with slavery. I have heard in the cities, villages, and forests of this afflicted region, religious shepherds of all persuasions haranguing their flocks; and I have never heard one bold enough to comment on the evil which saps the industry, vitiates the morals, and threatens the tranquility of the country. The reason of this forbearance is evident. The master of the slave is he who pays the preacher, and the preacher must not irritate his paymaster. I would not here be understood to express the opinion, that the preaching of religious teachers against slavery would be desirable. I am convinced of the contrary — convinced that it would be of direful mischief to both parties, the oppressor and the oppressed. To judge from the tone but too generally employed by religious writers in the northern states, where (as denunciation against the vice of the south risks no patronage, and wins cheap credit for humanity), negro philanthropy is not so scarce — to judge, I say, from the tone employed by northern religionists, when speaking of their southern neighbours, and their national crime aid affliction, one must suppose them as little capable of counselling foreign as home offenders — as little capable of advising in wisdom, as of judging in mercy, or speaking, with gentleness. The harshest physician with which am acquainted, is the religious physician. Instead of soothing, he irritates; instead of convincing, he disgusts; instead of weighing circumstances, tracing causes, allowing for the bias of early example, the constraining force of implanted prejudice, the absence of every judicious stimulus, and the presence of every bad one: he arraigns, tries, convicts, condemns — himself accuser, jury, judge, and executioner; nobly immolating interests which are not his, generously command ing sacrifices which he has not to share, indignantly anathematizing crimes which he cannot commit, and virtuously kindling the fires of hell to consume sinners, to whose sins, as he is without temptation, so for whose sins he is without sympathy. I would not be understood, therefore, as regretting in this matter the supineness of the southern clergy; I would only point it out to you, desirous that you should observe how well the tribe of Levi know when and where to smite, and when and where to spare!

And though I have quoted an instance more peculiarly familiar to Americans, every country teems with similar examples. The master vice, wherever or whatever it be, is never touched. In licentious aristocracies, or to look no farther than the towns and cities of these states, the rich and pampered few are ever spared, or so gently dealt with, as rather agreeably to tickle the ear, than to probe the conscience, while the crimes of the greatly-tempted, greatly-suffering poor, are visited with unrelenting vigour.

Is any discovery made in science, tending to open to us farther the book of knowledge, and to purge our minds of superstitious beliefs in occult causes and unsubstantiated creeds — where has it ever found opposers — or, might we not say, persecutors? Even among our hired preachers and licensed teachers of old doctrines and old ways. Is any inquiry instituted into the truth of received opinions and the advantage of existing practice — who are the last to encourage it? nay, the foremost to cry out “heresy!” and stop the mouth of knowledge? Who but those who live by the ignorance of the age, and the intolerance of the hour? Is any improvement suggested in our social arrangements, calculated to equalize property, labour, instruction, and enjoyment; to destroy crime by removing provocation; vice, by removing ignorance; and to build up virtue in the human breast by exchanging the spirit of self abasement for that of self respect — who are the foremost to treat the suggestions as visionary, the reform is impossible? Even they who live by the fears and the vices of their fellow creatures; and who obtain their subsistence on earthy by opening and shutting the door of heaven.

Nor, as we have seen, are our licensed and pensioned teachers the only individuals interested in disguising the truth. All who write for the public market, all who plead our courts of law, all who harangue in our halls of legislature, all who are, or who aspire to be, popular servants or popular teachers of the people, all are compelled to the support of existing opinions, whether right or wrong — all, more or less, do, and more or less must, pander to the weaknesses, vices, and prejudices of the public, who pays them with money or applause.

I have said not only that they do, but that they must; and most assuredly they must conciliate the popular feeling, or forego the popular favour. Here is intended no satire upon any individuals, professions, nor employments. The object is merely to expose a fact, but a fact highly important to be known; that as, to be popular, men must seek them from other mouths and other pens than those which are depending upon popular patronage, or which are ambitious of popular admiration.

And here then, is the cause why I have presumed to reason with my fellow creatures; why, in my earliest years, I devoted myself to the study of their condition, past and present; why I searched into their powers and their capabilities, examined their practice, and weighed their opinions; and why, when I found these both wanting, I volunteered to declare it. I believe that I see some truths important for my fellow beings to know; I feel that I have the courage and the independence to speak that which I believe; and where is the friend to his species that will not say, “Happy, most happy shall it be for human kind, when all independent individuals, male or female, citizens or foreigners, shall feel the debt of kindness they owe to their fellow beings, and fearlessly step forth to reveal unbought truths and hazard unpopular opinions.”

Until this be done, and done ably, fearlessly, and frequently, the reign of human error must continue; and, with human error, human vice, and human suffering. The advocates of just knowledge must be armed with courage to dare all things, and to bear all things, for the truths they revere; and to seek, as they may only find, the reward of their exertions in the impression, great or little, slow or rapid, as it may be, which their exertions may produce on public opinion, and through the public opinion on the public practice.

Of all the errors the most dangerous is that which is most common, indifference. Ninety-nine out of a hundred — nay, it might not be too much to say nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand — pay no attention to the nature of their opinions; their justice, or their injustice, their truth or their error. They conceive it safer and wiser to go with the stream, in through as in action. They would say, and they frequently do say: “Why should we make ourselves unpopular or singular by differing from our neighbors? What matter is it if we believe this way or that way, so as we do but avoid criticism and persecution?” My friends! it matters every thing. On the justice of our opinions depends the practice, depend also our feelings; and unless you are prepared to say that your practice is unimportant and your feelings unimportant, do not conceive that your opinions can be unimportant. Would all men seek true opinions, we should not have so many dissentient creeds and fire-side as well as market-place disputes. There are indeed many ways of thinking, yet there is but one right way; and that way can only be found in the paths of knowledge. We must first understand what knowledge is; we must then get knowledge; and then, having knowledge, we must have just opinions; and in proportion therefore, as we all acquire just knowledge shall we all agree in opinion.

And is it not desirable that we should agree in opinion? Is disputing and quarrelling agreeable or advantageous? Are all the bad feelings which arise out of contradictory opinions, conducive to happiness? Do we love each other and aid each other in proportion as we differ from each other? if we do not, and if we consider it desirable to live in peace and harmony and good fellowship, let us be no longer indifferent to our opinions; and let us engage in the acquisition of knowledge.

We have now sufficiently considered, so far as I have found possible in a single discourse on so wide a topic, the main subject of our introductory inquiries: viz. the nature and object of just knowledge. We have examined, also, many of the impediments which now obstruct our advances in the road of improvement. We have seen that just knowledge is easy of acquirement, but that few are interested in revealing its simple principles; while many are driven by circumstances to interpret or dissemble them. We have remarked that, to accelerate the progress of our race, two means present themselves; a just system of education, and a fearless spirit of inquiry; and that while the former would remove all difficulties from the path of future generations, the latter would place far in advance even the present. We have also observed on the advantage which would accrue to mankind, if all independent individuals would volunteer the task, for which appointed teachers and professional men are now but to frequently unfit, by devoting themselves to the promulgation of truth, without regard to fashionable prejudice. I have been led, also, incidentally to advert to the influence exerted over the fortunes of our race by those who are too often overlooked in our social arrangements and in our civil rights — I allude to women.

Leaving to a future opportunity the more complete development of the important subject, we have this evening approached — the nature of all knowledge — as well as the equally important subject of youthful education, I shall, at our next meeting, consider the other two enumerated means of improvement, viz. by free inquiry. And as this is for us of the present generation the only means, so shall I endeavour to show how much it is our interest, and how imperiously it is our duty to improve it to the uttermost.

It is with delight that I have distinguished, at each successive meeting, the increasing ranks of my own sex. Were the vital principle of human equality universally acknowledged, it would be to my fellow beings without regard to nation, class, sect, or sex, that I should delight to address myself. But until equality prevail in condition, opportunity, and instruction, it is every where to the least favoured in these advantages, that I most especially and anxiously incline.

Nor is the ignorance of our sex matter of surprise, when efforts, as violent as unrelaxed, are every where made for its continuance.

It is not as of yore. Eve puts not forth her hand to gather the fair fruit of knowledge. The wily serpent now hath better learned his lesson; and, to secure his reign in the garden, beguileth her not to eat. Promises, entreaties, threats, tales of wonder, and, alas! tales of horror, are all poured in her tender ears. Above, her agitated fancy hears the voice of a god in thunders; below, she sees the yawning pit; and, before, behind, around, a thousand phantoms, conjured from the prolific brain of insatiate priestcraft, confounded, alarm, and overwhelm her reason!

Oh! were the worst evil withdrawn which now weighs upon our race, how rapid were its progress in knowledge! Oh! were men — and, yet more, women, absolved from fear, how easily, and speedily, and gloriously would they hold on their course in improvement! The difficulty is not to convince, it is to win attention. Could truth only be heard, the conversion of the ignorant were easy. And well do the hired supporters of error understand this fact. Well do they know, that if the daughters of the present, and mothers of the future generation, were to drink of the living waters of knowledge, their reign would be ended — “their occupation gone.” So well do they know it, that, far from obeying to the letter the command of their spiritual leader, “Be ye fishers of men,” we find them ever where fishers of women. Their own sex, old and young, they see with indifference swim by their nets; but closely and warily are their meshes laid, to entangle the female of every age.

Fathers and husbands! Do ye not also understand this fact? Do ye not see how, in the mental bondage of your wives and fair companions, ye yourselves are bound? Will ye fondly sport yourselves in your imagined liberty, and say, “it matters not if our women be mental slaves?” Will ye pleasure yourselves in the varied paths of knowledge, and imagine that women, hoodwinked and unawakended, will make the better servants and the easier playthings? They are greatly in error who so strike the account; as many a bankrupt merchant and sinking mechanic, not to say drowning capitalists, could bear witness. But setting aside dollars and cents, which men, in their present uncomfortable state of existence, are but too prone exclusively to regard, how many nobler interests of the mind and the heart cry “treason!” to this false calculation?

At our next meeting, we shall consider these interests, which will naturally present themselves during our investigations on the subject of free inquiry. In what just knowledge consists we have cursorily examined; to put ourselves in the way of attaining that knowledge, be our next object.



Source: “On the Nature of Knowledge,” The Isis: A London Weekly Publication, Edited by a Lady, From February 11 to December 15, 1832. (London: David France) 1832, pp. 248-255.


Also: Wright, Frances, “Lecture I: On the Nature of Knowledge,” Course of Popular Lectures; With Three Addresses, on Various Public Occasions, and a Reply to the Charges against the French Reformers of 1789 (London: James Watson) 1834.


Reprinted in Frances Wright D’Arusmont, Life, Letters and Lectures, 1834/1844, (New York: Arno Press) 1972,  pp. 15-21.