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pathways (guide)

27 March 1998

Today I want to turn things round and ask some questions about the phenomenon of ignorance. Most persons would agree that there is a lot of ignorance about. We are all ignorant of something. We all have something to learn. So what?, you will say. How does that help? — The reason for taking this negative approach is that sometimes you can discover more about an object by studying it in silhouette, or seeing what contrasts with it. I don't know whether the trick will work with learning, the concept we've been looking into, but let's see.

If our picture of learning is a process of attunement with reality, then ignorance appears as a kind of lack of attunement, or clumsiness. When we are ignorant about a subject matter we don't know our way about, we feel lost, or at a loss with it. We are shocked to learn that we were ignorant about something we thought we knew. Or we strive patiently to overcome our ignorance. Or — as in the case of racial prejudice, or the cultural philistine — we remain wilfully ignorant. We close our minds, stop our eyes and our ears.

There are other ways of being ignorant, which we have less reason to be ashamed of. I don't know how to adjust the carburettor of my car engine or locate the loose connection in my PC but I know a man who does. We defer to experts, or share expertise with others, and by so doing reduce the burden of learning. We rely on others in less obvious ways too. I'll let you start the conversation, then ease myself in at the appropriate moment. You're so much better at these kinds of social gatherings than I. Don't worry about which foot to put forward in the Waltz, just follow me. (As if!) I'm sure there are better examples, but I can't think of any for the moment.

You could call philosophy the supreme study of ignorance. Socrates used to declare that he knew nothing. The point was that (unlike those he engaged in conversation, whose pretensions he punctured mercilessly) he at least was aware that he didn't know. There is a Greek word aporia which describes the sense of being bewildered, reduced to silence by a problem. Learning to philosophise is learning to cultivate the sense of aporia, learning to be gripped by the questions of philosophy. Learning the true limits of our ignorance.

There is another kind of ignorance that Freudians and Kleinians worry over, ignorance of the unconscious springs of our actions. Strangely, this looks at first to be a possible exception to the equation of learning with attunement. In becoming conscious of our unconscious we may find ourself becoming out of tune with our environment, say, the relationship between husband and wife, or parent and child. We can no longer conform to other's expectations of us, or dance to their impossible demands. Self-liberation can be a painful process.

A similar dialectic applies in the political sphere, where the talk is not of becoming conscious of the unconscious, but rather of overcoming 'false consciousness'. The revolutionaries are the one's out of step, out of tune. They make impossible demands on reality. And so they should. (Whatever you demand, you will be told that it's 'impossible', so why not go the whole hog?) To adapt Marx's famous thesis on Feuerbach, the point is not to attune ourselves to reality, but to change it.

— I may be onto something here. I'm not sure yet. I'll continue with this theme next time.

University of Sheffield

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From 2003–2014 Pathways provided tuition for the Diploma and BA in Philosophy offered by the University of London International Programme based at Birkbeck College.

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