Philosophy and ignorance

It is natural for philosophers to take ignorance as their adversary. Philosophers love wisdom and wisdom is the antidote to ignorance. Knowledge is sometimes understood as holding intrinsic value but in many cases it is of extrinsic value too. Ignorance is often the basis of stupidity, such as when it is the root cause of racism or homophobia. Wilful ignorance is negligent and vocal ignorance is harmful, when given a platform.

The relationship of philosophy to ignorance is nevertheless complicated. Someone once put it to me that philosophy was about discovering new areas of ignorance. What we learn in philosophy are the new things we don’t know about. And in venturing into those spaces to eliminate the ignorance, we discover even more that we would need to know. We are always uncovering the hidden complexity within an issue that initially looked simple.

This constitutes a major problem for the philosophical method. Because so many issues are interconnected, for all we know there might be infinite complexity behind every subject. Philosophy is a Sisyphean labour. But we are finite beings with only so much time in which to work. Where, then, do we stop? The practical and pressing question we all face is how much ignorance we are willing to tolerate.

I’ve tried to approach this problem pragmatically in my career since I knew that to become a professional philosopher I would have to publish articles and books. The trick was to make them look complete, yet I recognise that all philosophy is incomplete. The purist in me accepts, in a very real sense, that I am still working on my first book. Back in the early-90s, I wanted to write on free will. When I started on the literature, I realised that to understand free will, I would need to grapple with some difficult metaphysical topics, such as causation, properties and laws of nature. So I went and studied those. As I started on causation, though, I found that I would have to understand powers, and possible worlds, and Humeanism, and so on. And to understand powers, I would have to read Aristotle, and Aquinas, and a growing contemporary literature that directs me to further problems. The philosophical task is never ending, which is why I’ve still not written my first book.

Perhaps the true philosophical attitude is to take joy in one’s uncompletable task and pleasure in discovering the hidden complexity behind apparent simplicity. Easy answers are tempting but a serious task of philosophy is also to problematize: to draw attention to the underlying ignorance. It would be a startling discovery that philosophers are actually seeking ignorance rather than knowledge. We are, but such ignorance is not an end in itself. We do want to know; it’s just that we also understand how difficult that is. The ignorance we reject is not simply a lack of knowledge but more of a rush to judgment and deficiency of natural curiosity. It can be fine to admit that we don’t know something. More our enemy is thinking that we know something we don’t.

1 Comment

  1. Alex Miller says:

    A thought provoking post. It’s no accident that Karl Popper’s autobiography is called *Unended Quest*.


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