I Believe in Ignorance

Prof. Edward - Pawling, New York
Entered on March 15, 2009
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: question

I believe in ignorance, but not in the usual sense of lacking in knowledge or wisdom. The ignorance to which I refer is what Philosophers call ‘Socratic Ignorance’. This sort of ignorance can be contrasted with the hubris common to both the mindset of absolute certainty and the dismissive attitude of relativism. As a professor at a Connecticut Community College, I often encounter both hubris and trivialization in the writings of sincere students concerning what we can know.

In pursuit of societal success, some of my students either uncritically embrace the alleged certainty of what our culture proclaims as ‘real world’ facts or, with newly acquired skills of critical thinking, others globally reject claims to knowledge as merely cultural bias. But this dichotomy is false. Behind the obviously different worldviews presented by those who assert unswerving convictions and those who maintain that all convictions are temporary and ad hoc there is a commonly shared element. What each perspective shares is an unwillingness to question one’s own assumptions.

And they do this is supplementary ways. The student who is an absolutist is unwilling to put her affirmations to the test because when one has The Answer there is no need to further seek the truth. On the other side of this same coin, the pupil who is a relativist finds it besides the point to seek a truth common to all for all time because there can be none, only personal and/or group opinions embedded in time, place, and culture. Thus, fundamentally each perspective is dogmatic in that each makes a claim about the conditions necessary for objective knowledge that is beyond doubt. And they often steadfastly maintain their views even though definitive and final proof about what is knowable consistently eludes the absolutist and the relativist’s position rests on a contradiction—that they are one hundred percent certain there cannot be one hundred percent certainty about anything.

This is where Socratic Ignorance enters the discussion. While absolutists and relativists overlook the troublesome aspects of their own perspective as they critique the other’s shortcomings, Socratic Ignorance counsels epistemic humility that is captured in the Gospels when Jesus warns us not to see the splinter in our neighbor’s eye while ignoring the block in one’s own. It is also outlined in the dialogues of Plato where the absolutism of someone like Euthyphro and the relativism of a Gorgias are drawn out and whose partialities are exposed to the critical eye of the reader, who is invited as they read to see themselves in all the characters and weigh their values and strength of their own convictions through those found in Plato’s narrative. This is a way though literature of removing ‘blocks’ of bias and prejudice that hinder our personal search for the truth and keep us in the shadow of hubristic ignorance.

So, paradoxically, it takes the admission of ignorance about our basic assumptions to go beyond the human tendency to uncritically ‘stay-the-course’ in our beliefs. But Socratic Ignorance does more. It lets us begin to discern the outlines of wisdom through a process of elimination that winnows incomplete thought and selfish rationalizations. Never reaching a definitive conclusion but always striving for greater clarity, the ignorance that I believe in opens the mind to new understanding as it resists reducing opinions to the same veridical plane. Therefore it allows for tolerance while avoiding illiberality.

With the current economic crisis due to unregulated speculation and with the growth of dogmatic, intolerant religious fundamentalism the lessons on ignorance my students and I learn from Socrates might be lessons the world could ponder and apply.