How to Be Ignorant

“While a genuine lecturer must obey the rules of mental decency, and clothe his personal idiosyncrasies in collectively acceptable generalities, an authentic ignoramus remains quite indecently free to speak as he feels. This prospect cheers me, because I value freedom; and have never expected freedom to be anything less than indecent.” (E.E. Cummings)

I never tire of raving about Oliver Senior’s How to Draw Hands. He is enviably confident in his own abilities and proposes unblushingly to pass that ability on.  At one level, I share his confidence. If I was to write a book called How to Write Essays, I would boldly “assume authority to propose a readily available course of study” too. I’d feel like I knew what I was talking about, and there wouldn’t be a trick I wouldn’t feel able to demonstrate with an example of my own making. (Neither Senior nor I claim to be great stylists; we only recognize ourselves as competent, as experts in the craft, and we wouldn’t propose to instruct anyone if we didn’t.) But there’s another book I want to write, one that I think is more needed than a book about writing (of which there are many perfectly good ones). It would be called How to Know Things, and here I run into a bit of a problem. In fact, I run into a paradox.

Am I actually an expert-level “knower”? In a strictly formal, professional sense, I am not. I never did make tenure, abandoning an academic career in favor of this “alt-ac” gig as a writing consultant. This profession does have an associated academic discipline, namely, “composition studies” (and a number of related fields), but I am by no means a regular contributor to its literature. There are some things I like to think I know — about say, Wittgenstein or Hamlet — but I’m not sure my knowledge holds muster against the objections that could be raised by qualified scholars. I wouldn’t know how to defend myself if such people challenged my views. On most substantive matters, in literature, philosophy, politics, or science, I’m an amateur. There was a time when I thought I could hold my own with organization theorists, but a number of failed attempts to engage with that community have made me reconsider that project. These days I aspire only to be half as charming an ignoramus as E.E. Cummings.

In this pursuit, we have a very illustrious precursor. “In this world, confused by too much knowledge,” said Kierkegaard, “what we need is, not another system, but another Socrates!” (Okay, that’s actually two illustrious precursors.) Socrates famously said (or didn’t say, but no less famously) that he knew only that he knew nothing. This, then, was to make him wiser than those who didn’t know even this, but, aside from being a paradox, it of course assumed that no one actually knows anything, which seems a bit unlikely. A more plausible quote has him saying, “I know what I don’t know,” that is, he doesn’t kid himself or others that he knows something that he doesn’t actually know. And this, I think, is how I feel about most things.

There is, to be sure, still something of a critical edge in this statement.  Cummings isn’t exactly impressed with the “acceptable generalities” of the “genuine lecturer” and Socrates felt himself to be wiser than those who “fancy they know” things they don’t. But maybe that really is the wisdom we’re after. Perhaps the whole trick to knowing anything is recognizing what you don’t know; perhaps the bulk of our ignorance consists, not in having “no idea” about something, but in having false ideas about it. This certainly seems like the lesson of the “replication crisis” — the proliferation of overblown and underpowered “studies” that have led us to believe in “significant” effects that are simply artifacts of very noisy data. The ignorance that believing in these effects has caused is much greater than simply not believing them would have been.

In questions of representation — drawing hands and writing essays — Oliver Senior and I are willing to assert some measure of expertise. But even Senior cautions us to “hold our drawing back”, to let the whole picture emerge gradually, maintaining a sense of proportion between the parts. Carefully rendering what you see, or what you think, on paper is a good way to understand your limitations, to “appreciate your finitude”, as I sometimes put it. You can represent what’s in front of your face or on your mind quite accurately while still being somewhat unsure about how “real” it is, how well you’ve understood your world. Perhaps I don’t need to remind you of the dark arts that help us conceal these limitations: the art, if you will, of not knowing what you’re talking about. But real wisdom, and clear writing, comes from knowing when not to talk, knowing what you are not in a position to say. Knowledge consists of what remains after you honestly acknowledge your ignorance.

3 thoughts on “How to Be Ignorant

  1. “…ignorance that believing in these effects has caused is much greater…”
    As sth like an alt-ac coming from research science, I think there’s something valuable about overblowing and underpowering studies that might make or break a line of research… something selfish/greedy, for sure, but that could have wider value nonetheless… Scientists still have to answer how they know they know even after all the statistics, and probably most go on gut (not that I defend that process entirely).

    Separate from that, I’ve been able to get through 5 or 6 articles without noticing the time, so thank you.

  2. I always thought writers had a sort of emotional maturity to slow down their thinking and transfer it to others (sth like not letting raw experience get cluttered in the who’s excitement or romanticizing or sadness but allowing their words to do that work)… And that’s not something they teach (even in writing) in school afaik, but I wish they would.

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