The Rights and Wrongs of Ignorance: First the Wrong.

You may be surprised to learn I am pretty ignorant. (If you aren’t surprised, just for me, pretend.)

For all my 12 years of state schooling I was left largely to my own devices. No memorable educator to admire and emulate, no intellectual guidance, no challenge. Still my precociousness drew attention, revered and ridiculed in equal measure, yet, unhelpfully, left uncultivated. I had taught myself everything I knew. This meant by time I reached university I was starkly ignorant of perhaps the most important thing — learning. Ignorant of how to learn. Ignorant of why to learn. Ignorant of what there was to learn. Ignorant of all the goings on in the world of learning.

One main reason for my ignorance regarding learning is that I come from place where there is a certain pride in being ignorant in this way. I grew up amongst who I call the wilfully ignorant. Those who purposefully disengage from formal education, scholarship, anything intellectual. And consequently, they are deeply wary of those who do pursue it, acting as if the learned are somehow tainted, or defective, and are out to infect you with their taint or defect. The wilfully ignorant’s whole position is resolutely summed up with their go-to rhetorical response: ‘What the bloody hell do you want to do that for?’

As I edge closer to being one of the learned myself, my encounters with the wilfully ignorant have become generally more subtle but more damaging. The most insidious being those delivered as jovial, self-deprecation. With a laugh and wave of the hand it is declared ‘Oh that’s all beyond me’ or ‘I’m too stupid to understand any of that.’ Distinct from expressing a lack of confidence in understanding, such comments from the wilfully ignorant aim to kill the conversation (and injure the learned).

Compared to those potential conversation killers I described in my very first edition of this blog, I take this ‘all beyond me’ response to be the deadliest. Unlike the misguidedly earnest or the lecturers on philosophy’s death, I spoke of previously, the wilfully ignorant think that there is just no conversation to be had, nothing to learn either way. But also, following the idea (that I aimed to debunk last time) that philosophy is winning arguments, the wilfully ignorant think that remaining ignorant is always the winning argument. Indeed, they think performing their swift conversation kill shows that they possess some kind of superior knowledge — they’re too clever to be fooled by this learning business.

If it looks as though this behaviour annoys me, I assure you it makes me jolly furious! Still, by now, you are probably wondering, ‘what does this woe is me rant got to do with being a philosopher?’

‘Surely,’ you might reply, ‘the wilfully ignorant described explicitly have nothing to do with being a philosopher.’

Perhaps unexpectedly, and to the likely shock and chagrin of the wilfully ignorant themselves, in a sense that is exactly what they are doing.

In contrast to most of the unavoidable everyday ignorance that we are all prone to, wilful ignorance is NOT philosophically neutral. By positively choosing to be anti-learning, anti-intellectual, or as particularly relevant, anti-philosophical, the wilfully ignorant are (unwittingly) posing a philosophical position. A largely unfruitful, highly problematic, even paradoxical one, but a philosophical position, nonetheless.

Wilful ignorance as a philosophical position has two positive features. The first, as I have been discussing, is that avoiding learning, and maintaining ignorance, gives a superior — and significantly, untainted — knowledge of the world. This is underscored by a real fear that institutionalised learning indoctrinates us with at best the useless or at worst the dangerous. This leads to the second complimentary feature that genuine worldly and practical wisdom comes from good old common sense. So, in the same way that it is argued that builders not engineers really know how to build a house, the practically sensible not philosophers really know how to think about the world, and most importantly, how to live.

Now, to be clear, I have nothing against common sense, in fact I am a willing advocate, and aspire to have some myself. Nevertheless, I do not think it is the only right (thus, worthwhile) way to think about the world, and without due reflection, it is never clearly the best way, nor is it an infallible guide for living. But this is exactly how the wilfully ignorant see it — common sense is beyond doubt, beyond question. It follows for them, then, that the questionable taint of everything else is wisely ‘all beyond me.’

The problem with this position is that it offers no way to distinguish common sense from its convincing impersonator tradition. Because they look wholly inward and hold what they find with certainty, the community of the wilfully ignorant equally reinforce arbitrary traditions as well as reasonable common sense.

Still, the wilfully ignorant counter, this does not stop them getting on with life, they know how to get things done without being confounded by looking outside themselves, by learning. Unfortunately, maintaining this height of certainty in a monocular view of the world denies them the cornucopia of possibilities of life, the genuine opportunity to flourish. This sort of ignorance, I insist, is not bliss.

‘Ok enough, I’ve got it,’ you say. ‘But, again what has this really got to do with being a philosopher? All you have told us (rather shouted) is that this wilful ignorance shouldn’t be it.’

Indeed, it shouldn’t! But it creeps in. Evidently the limitations of our minds, lives, times means we remain ignorant of most things. And thus, by accident, sometimes choice, we focus on learning about particular things. The hazard is that we can come to mistake our particular focus for a superior way of viewing the world. For philosophers it is a superior way of philosophising. In this way we can become wilfully ignorant. That is, to purposefully kill the conversation with alternative ideas, practices, philosophy, because, without looking at them assume they do not count as philosophy at all — pejoratively it becomes ‘all beyond me.’

Ignorance plays an important role in philosophy. Wilful ignorance does not.

I wanted to get this wrong of ignorance clear before next time when I turn the rights of ignorance.

Calvin & Hobbs Jan HtbaPhilos

Next time: The Rights and Wrongs of Ignorance: Now the Right.


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