Sunday, November 25, 2018

'The Full Range and Scale of Our Ignorance'

Never underestimate the importance of ignorance, the unacknowledged driver of civilization. Ignorance is more than an absence. It is a powerful goad to knowledge. A decade or so ago, a prominent English blogger referred to me in print as an “ignorant cunt,” a title I humbly accept. Consider what the British philosopher Bryan Magee, now eighty-eight years old, says in Ultimate Questions (Princeton University Press, 2016):

“The resistance we feel against allowing the extent of the unknown into our view of reality gives us a powerful drive to piece together a complete picture out of what we do know, or can know. But alas, the human situation is as if we were given some but not all of the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and left to make a complete picture of them.”

As a teenager as was I briefly enthralled by Karl Shapiro’s 1960 essay collection In Defense of Ignorance, in part because of the provocative title. While I still respect much of Shapiro’s early poetry, I outgrew his enthusiasms, exemplars of ignorance – Blake, Whitman, Lawrence, Henry Miller. That is, the Romantics and their heirs. In other words, yet another “complete picture,” and a rather confused one. Near the conclusion of his brief volume Magee writes:

“It is easier to accept the security of a faith, either in the existence of unknowable entities or in their non-existence, than it is to confront the full range and scale of our ignorance and live with that. This last is what more than anything I would like to do – that, and perhaps to push back the frontiers of ignorance, as the philosophers I have named [Locke, Hume, Kant, Shopenhauer] did in such fruitful ways.”

I’m not certain about all of this. I find faith remarkably challenging, a perpetual tug-of-war between certainty and doubt, knowledge and ignorance. What I find attractive and useful in Magee’s thinking is his championing of our ignorance and its uses. It should never leave us passive. With each question, with each tentative, tested answer, we gain a sliver of knowledge. Ignorance is best confronted with a mingling of humility and defiance. Magee is a self-defined agnostic, in a sense that is neither resigned nor defeatist:

“What I find myself wanting to press home more than anything else is that the only honest way to live and think is the fullest possible acknowledgement of our ignorance and its consequences, without ducking out into a faith, whether positive or negative, and without any other evasions or self-indulgences.”

A thoughtful faith isn’t a matter of “ducking out.” It’s not an evasion or a deception but a useful way to address our profound and very human ignorance.

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

All due respect, but the idea of "outgrowing" so colossal a figure as Blake brings a smile to my face.