To wit

Our ancestors would utter things like, What do you wot of that traveller?

The verb there is to wit, synonymous with to know, but with an especially mischievous set of conjugations: present tense wot, present participle witting, past tense and past participle wist.

(The word does survive in our times in the adverbial phrase to wit, though, to my understanding, this is employed exclusively in legal contexts or in affecting a hoity-toity attitude.)

Had you wist this curious archaism? In any case, with both you and I now witting, we must go on digging.

Apparently the word came to us in English via the German wissen, but the roots unfurl further, reaching Sanskrit’s veda, meaning knowledge (perhaps familiar from the Vedas, texts at the origin of Sanskrit itself), as well as Latin’s videre, meaning to see.

This prompts a pause for reflection: the kiss between the Latin and the Sanskrit, or what seems to be a widespread confusion in our species regarding pronunciation of the letters v and w, or this etymological bond between seeing and knowing. The word perceive comes to mind. Or compare the above wit with witness.

Perception traces back to Latin’s capere, meaning to take in, to seize, to understand. Think capture. Think Caesar.

One sees beside this the suffix -ceps, referring to a catcher or a taker, as in princeps: the first in line, foremost. And from there we reach principia, whence our principle: the foundations (q.v. Newton, Russell-Whitehead).

So the project of knowing is one of capturing, conquering. Which, by the way, darkens the alternative Biblical usage of know. Veda, too, could also refer to acquisition or the obtaining of wealth, as well as to marriage.

Know is rooted together with can (Latin’s gnoscere), the ability to do something resting on the knowledge of how to do so, or the worth of knowledge resting on the ability to make use of it. See also the word ken.

We must set down our spades and meditate. How are we to reconcile any of this with the decency, or at times even virtue, that appears to us in the pursuit of understanding? André Weil described his experience of mathematics by paraphrasing the Gita: one achieves knowledge and indifference at the same time. How poetic, but upon such achievement, did he not collect the fallen truths and immediately renew his hunt with them in hand?

The Gita perhaps meant to signify a different, less ravenous kind of knowledge. But I cannot conceive of it. And with all the arrogance and desperation I can muster, I am skeptical that anybody else truly has, for our languages suggest something incompatible:

This is war. We see and we know to seize reality for ourselves, to become able, so that we can construct or raze or iterate and improve, climb higher and see more, standing upon generations of giants’ shoulders all knotted and trembling in the throes of conquest, wielding our principles like incisors, riding in the pure name of knowledge, the pure names of our children, and at the end of it all, after we have trampled through this place, taken the beauty it has to offer, a passing traveller shall gaze upon a desert: walls of dust risen miles high and millennia long, and our names scrawled everywhere in the sand.