The Rights and Wrongs of Ignorance: Now the Rights

Following from last time, you will now not be surprised that I remain pretty ignorant. As I described, my schooling neglected to … well, everything. This meant I went off to university ignorant of the one required skill — how to learn.

Entering my first real institute of learning, I was a lone naturally skilled, self-taught thinker set amongst a sea of educated, trained learners. For me, it was not simply a matter of adjusting to a new learning environment and new expectations, not just the next step on a path of learning progression. I had no path. No points of reference at all. I was like Columbus off on an uncharted ocean, with only the hope of finding the East Indies before falling off the flat earth. Only I had many more naysayers and a lot less funding.

(I was probably not so lone in this; nevertheless, I continue a lone struggle to catch-up with subtle educational advantages that the majority of my peers are oblivious of having.)

Like any point of difference, though, my particular ignorance has its own advantages, real philosophical advantages. It meant that when I finally turned up at my first philosophy lecture I had no idea, let alone any preconceived idea, of what philosophy was or supposed to be. By being ignorant in this way from the outset I have been continually reflecting on (or more accurately grasping for) what philosophy is about. As I hoped to demonstrate early on in this blog, this self-referential question — what is philosophy about? — is central to good philosophical practice. At least in this respect, I began and continue to be a philosopher.

But it also meant that I had no existing formal ways of learning philosophy. I had never been taught a system nor mode of scholarship. It did not follow from this that I was primed for indoctrination (that is, the misconceived fear of the wilfully ignorant I described last time). Instead, I was open to discover philosophy without any particular philosophical or intellectual convention for learning it in place. I carried no burden of dogma. Well, at least no philosophical dogma (as I have shown we are all in some way of our time).

As a result, my system of thinking regularly does not follow the usual routes of systematic thinking often found in philosophy. What appears simple, possible, or obvious to me is not always simple, possible, nor obvious to many others more entrenched in philosophical conventions. And, of course, vice versa. Still this allows me to make novel and unexpected, yet worthwhile, philosophical connections. Without deep conventions (and perhaps a suspicion of them), I am open to observe the improbable at its most probable, the extraordinary at its most ordinary.

To see what I mean, imagine a group of philosophers having a conversation like this:

‘Oh look at this [insert some accepted as crazy philosophical idea],’ says educated philosopher.

‘Ho ho — look at the craziness!’ is proclaimed, and knowing looks shared.

‘Umm. Excuse me, what’s so crazy about it?’ asks curious yet convention ignorant philosopher.

Silence. (And potentially some condescending looks.)

The ignorant philosopher continues: ‘Well doesn’t that crazy idea look just like this ordinary one [insert some conventionally accepted philosophical, even everyday, idea]?’

Despite the aghast looks, ignorant philosopher powers on: ‘So look at the important bits of the ordinary idea, then look at the important bits of the crazy idea — see how they look the same.’

Then, all the looks change.

Equally, the reverse can be the case, where the ignorant philosopher sees the crazy in the obvious. Either way such conversations echo those of philosophy’s oldest, and best known conversationalist — Socrates.

As reported by Plato, Socrates conversations pretty much all look like this:

‘Hey guys! Look it’s Socrates! Hey, Socrates. Come over here — tell us something wise.’

On joining them, Socrates claims ‘oh what would I know about anything, the know-nothing I am? What do you want to know about anyway?’

‘[Insert some important idea of everyday life]’ one guy says.

‘Tell me’ Socrates replies, ‘how do you define that?’

‘It’s just [insert some sensible everyday definition, the type of thing we’d all normally agree with],’ is the quick retort.

‘I don’t know but doesn’t that look like [insert something crazy]?’ asks Socrates.

‘Okay. So let me try again’ says the guy, putting forward a counter-idea.

‘I still don’t know’ Socrates says, ‘but doesn’t that now look like [insert another crazy thing]?’

Hesitation, then another guy wades in: ‘How about this…?’

And on it goes until not only does Socrates know he knows nothing but so does everyone else.

In conversation as in life Socrates exemplified philosophical ignorance. He did not presume to know anything, and in turn, he valued the wisdom of knowing himself to be ignorant. And it is this wisdom that seems to have made the Oracle of Delphi proclaim him the wisest of all. (Remember her from here and here?)

However, being aware of the limits of what we can know and being resolved that we may never really know anything appears to simply render a philosophical life futile. Why bother going via philosophy just to find out we’re know-nothings? For Socrates, the reward was a genuine good life, with a richness only born out of enquiry into such a limit. It is a misunderstanding to believe that nothing valuable is learnt on the way; coming to know how we are wrong about things is still importantly coming to know.

Finally, I make no claim to being a Socrates, always exhibiting his sparkling philosophical ignorance. Often I completely miss the point or just do not know enough about something (the usual ignorant) to get what is going on philosophically. For all I know I could never be smart enough to realise how ignorant a philosopher I am. Unlike Columbus I may never reach land, not even one I wasn’t expecting to. But…

Join me next time to find out if this actually matters.

Next time: Yeah, but, I’m not smart enough to be a philosopher.


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