What the ignorant know

The Zen masters warn that when the cup is full the student cannot learn. In the same vein, Socrates described himself as wise only in the sense that he knew that he did not know. Ignorance, like the open space in a photograph, has far more constructive and creative power than we generally acknowledge. Predictably, though, universities, and the knowledge factories of popular culture, place far more emphasis on the acquisition and juxtaposition of facts and data than on expanding the gaps between what we confidently feel we know.

Still, most instructors have probably griped about students with overly full cups. We likely recognize a student’s reflexive confidence in her social, religious or political views as limiting and immature. We may even conclude that such rigid certainty correlates well with the student’s limited critical thinking skills. But, of course, it isn’t only, or even primarily, college students who can be parochially solipsistic. It’s a habit pretty much all of us fall into at least some of the time, though we may develop elaborate self-concepts and justificatory schemes that prevent us from noticing such unearned confidence.

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In my own case, for example, the fact that I have been professionally and chronically focused on epistemological uncertainty — even my decades-old dissertation explored feminist critiques of objectivity — has not kept me from glomming onto paradigms and opinions with a tenacity they do not deserve. Like most people, I often leap from one apparent rock of certainty to another, reflexively avoiding the roiling water between for long stretches. In my case, though, and I think this is partly because I’m a philosopher in (voluntary) exile, I eventually judge my confident perches to be nearly as unsettling as the chasms below. I’m faced with questions, often from generously (or arrogantly) critical others, sometimes from life itself, that I become unwilling and unable to wave away.

It isn’t that I always abandon a cherished position in light of hard questions, but, rather, that such critiques can remind me of the fragility of ideologies as such, and of the intellectual and spiritual potential of epistemological humility. And in such moments of (wretched or blissful) uncertainty, I recall that, like a too-hot sauna or a deliciously assertive massage, uncertainty too is an experience I can sink into and savor. It’s a liminal zone in which my beliefs can come and go like weather, a place where concepts and opinions do not warrant or require my sycophantic allegiance. And it’s when I’m least certain about what I know that I feel myself to be a true intellectual, teacher, and spiritual traveler. Whenever I feel able to genuinely entertain that I may be wrong — and this does not happen as often as I would like — I know that I am on to something.

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Of course, the implications for falling newly and repeatedly in love with ignorance are far reaching, in the classroom, the synagogue, and the cultural milieus of science and politics. It matters if there are gaps in peoples’ attachment to ideas about drugs, immigrants, fiscal policy, or how to interpret that iconic Frost poem. But it also matters in more personal contexts, for example, in relationships with other people. Just as it is a sort of sin against liberal education to stubbornly attach myself to ossified beliefs about reality, so too I am failing if I become addicted to my perceptions, opinions, and judgments about other people.

Once I have committed to an interpretive framework in which someone is stupid, fabulous, deluded, princely, or just plain evil, I will find all the evidence in the world to support my view. Everything that obtuse idiot (or paragon of virtue) says or does will be slotted into the preexisting interpretive boxes I have built. And while it may be a reliable boon to my own ego to have my beliefs about others magically and endlessly confirmed, it also guarantees that I will never truly encounter actual others. Rather, like the narcissist entranced by her own fantasy or nightmare, I will engage primarily with my own mental constructs, repeatedly finding objective proof of another’s sin or saintliness in projections of my own creation.

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