The benefits of ignorance: the will to philosophy

In these days of efficiency and productivity, we are encouraged to be certain about things—to know for sure—and people who admit they don’t know something tend to be regarded as unreliable, indecisive or just plain stupid. Why is this? What is the crime in not knowing something? Doesn’t the real flaw lie in not knowing something and not bothering to try and find out? Or, worse yet, in believing to know when one really does not? Ignorance itself, it seems, is not the problem. In fact, ignorance is the root of the solution. We cannot learn anything if we first believe we already know everything.

The discipline intended to deal with this situation is philosophy—a discipline which, not surprisingly, tends to be treated by society as a useless frivolity: thinking for thinking’s sake, which really leads to nothing except a possible headache and a handful of maxims or expressions that don’t really contribute to everyday wisdom. This misses the point.

Philosophy means the love of wisdom, and wisdom and knowledge are not the same thing. It is not a set of beliefs, but the ability to break down false assumptions and arrive at a more accurate understanding of the world. Philosophy is not what you believe, but how you come to believe. The heart of this ability lies in the ability to recognize one’s own lack of understanding.

Socrates said he was wise simply because he was aware of his own ignorance, while others were not. The Tao Te Ching says, “The ancient masters didn’t try to educate the people, but kindly taught them to not-know. When they think that they know the answers, people are difficult to guide. When they know that they don’t know, people can find their own way.”

We all realize it is impossible to know everything, but often we go about our lives more or less unconsciously, as if we have the world pretty much figured out. This is a dangerous attitude. If we lose the ability to ask questions because of our arrogance, lack of interest or fear, then we can never learn, never grow, and never respond intelligently to a constantly changing and infinitely complex world. Instead, we end up sleepwalking through life.

Of course, accepting ignorance is not an easy thing to do. It requires real courage to accept ignorance. First of all, there are the potentially harsh social consequences of admitting one does not know something. Then, there is the much greater task of facing uncertainty. As rational beings, we hate not knowing things—it drives us insane with fear and anxiety. We don’t trust politicians who seem unsure, not simply because they look silly, but because they make us nervous. They remind us that there are never any clear answers to the important questions in life (like how to best run a society).

Of course, we do need a kind of certainty in life—but in order for that certainty to remain responsive to ever-changing circumstances, it cannot remain locked in fixed beliefs about the world. Instead, we have to have faith in our abilities as human beings to look and see and make the best possible guess about what is happening in the world (and within ourselves), and then act on it to the best of our abilities regardless of the consequences. If we remain locked in fixed notions, we trade our humanity for false, mechanistic security. We cease to be alive.

Coming to real wisdom—real understanding of the world lies in asking questions about everything we take for granted. It requires the courage and audacity to constantly say, “I don’t know a damn thing. But that’s okay. Neither does anybody else.”

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