Ignorance is strength

Felipe Fernández-Armesto prefers fertile uncertainty to dead-end facts

May 24, 2012

I hate knowledge, because certainty impedes thought. Every time I get to think that I know something, I stop and disturb myself with a new, subversive problem about it. “Don’t answer the question,” I tell my students in what may seem a perverse repudiation of other teachers’ advice. “If the problem you’re contemplating has a solution, it’s not interesting enough to be the subject of an essay.” My books - even my textbook, targeted at undergraduates - have lots of speculation and provocation, and as few facts and dates as I think I can get away with. Disciplines whose practitioners pride themselves on “adding to the sum of knowledge” may ease my practical difficulties, enrich me, increase my comfort, cure my illnesses and equip me with useful technology. Intellectually, though, they bore me. “A fertile error,” Hugh Trevor-Roper used to say, “is better than a boring fact.” In one sense, ignorance is morally superior to knowledge. Ignorance stimulates enquiry. Knowledge - except in as much as it alerts the knower to some previously undetected instance of ignorance - tends to arrest it. Knowledge is satiety, which inhibits activity. Ignorance is appetite, which arouses invention.

Surprisingly, perhaps, I’m not alone in equivocating about the value of knowledge: at least, so I suspect, after reading the second volume of Peter Burke’s A Social History of Knowledge - a book of obviously self-referential importance to readers of Times Higher Education, all of whom are engaged or concerned in gathering, guarding and sharing learning. From the Encyclopédie to Wikipedia is the book’s engaging subtitle. The author tells stories of gain tempered by loss, and of processes - sometimes contested, sometimes faltering - of specialisation, institutionalisation, commodification, secularisation and globalisation. A further, deeper dimension of the place of knowledge in society is how people feel about it. A paradox of our time is our society’s love-hate relationship with knowledge.

On the one hand, we drone on about “the knowledge economy”, clamour for “useful and reliable knowledge” and pour money into research designed to elicit facts. We throng pub quizzes, lampoon dumb Britain, excoriate ignorance and, in our millions, patronise televised knowledge contests. We want educators to rediscover Gradgrind’s only virtue and supply the economy with know-ledgeable workers. The demand for testable curricula privileges objectively verifiable content. In one respect, our trajectory from the Encyclopédie to Wikipedia suggests that we are more confident in our knowledge than our forebears: Wikipedia’s articles are unsigned, as if they represent objective truth. One reason, I suspect, why so much academic writing is dull is that we privilege unvarnished facts; and when you take the shine off, they lose their gleam.

On the other hand, knowledge seems to command little public esteem and our anxiety about the state of it is, perhaps, evidence of decline. The educational system values skills more highly than knowledge. Technology crowds knowledge out of space reallocated to data. Academic specialisation, for the individual who practises it, usually deepens knowledge but often broadens ignorance - sticking heads in furrows instead of raising them to survey whole fields. Postmodern epistemology doubts the validity of the very concept of knowledge. The economy gives higher rewards to chutzpah, celebrity, greed and fraud than to learning.

Crass fantasy has become an incomparably popular genre because (I suspect) you have to know something about the real world to appreciate traditional fiction. The endpapers of popular books no longer proclaim, as Everyman’s Library books did when I was a child, “In Know-ledge Lies Wisdom”. Punters prefer The Da Vinci Code to the life of Leonardo, and the works of Gavin Menzies sell better than those of Peter Burke. Even I, who hate knowledge, am appalled by the ignorance I find when I read some students’ essays and some professors’ books.

The quiz shows that superficially rate superior knowledge with felicitations measurable in thousands and millions of pounds really degrade it by reclassifying it as trivia. The $64,000 Question, a notorious TV programme of my childhood, was rigged - but at least the questions were hard. Societies of the past, which empowered their prodigies of learning - their witch doctors, wise women, magi and clerks - revered knowledge more than we do. Nowadays, an ignoramus like Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain can seriously bid for the most powerful office in the world. An ignoramus like George W. Bush can win it. Even self-know-ledge seems to have withered: it is now more important, it seems, to “feel good” about oneself and affect unmerited self-confidence than to know one’s limitations and confess one’s faults.

How can we resolve the paradox of our times, in which knowledge is simultaneously vaunted and undervalued, ignorance simultaneously reviled and rewarded? Knowledge, said Socrates, is the only good and evil the only ignorance. Whenever we use “only” as an adjective, we imply that the terms we qualify represent some discrete reality. Ignorance and knowledge, however, as Socrates knew in his wiser moments, are - like good and evil - interdependent, interpenetrated, inseparably implicated in each other. One thing we know for sure, with the certainty I generally deprecate, is that we are ignorant. That’s the kind of knowledge that I, who claim to hate knowledge, can learn to love.

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