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pathways (guide)

2 April 1998

I must keep reminding myself that the reflections of the last two weeks on aspects of learning are not meant as a contribution to psychology or sociology. As a philosopher, my interest in empirical facts — on how we learn, on the varieties of ignorance and so on — is essentially different from the interests of the scientific observer. My purpose is logical and dialectical. A philosophical theory, if true (thereby hangs a tale!) is true as a matter of logical analysis, not because the empirical facts happen to be such-and-such. At the same time, every philosophical theory has a dialectical context, is offered as a contribution to a debate between competing theories, each of which makes a similar claim to a logical, rather than an empirical foundation.

Philosophers invesigating human knowledge have chosen the wrong 'paradigm' (23 March). That is the basic point that all this is leading to. But that is something that is not easy for the reader to see at this stage. I am not holding anything back. I can see that there is a point to be made, at least I think I can. I just don't know how to put it into words. That is why I am writing these notes.

Let's get back to the notion of ignorance. One way to express the challenge of philosophical scepticism is that we may be more ignorant than we think. I remember once reading a book entitled simply Ignorance (by Peter Unger, I seem to recall). According to the philosophical sceptic who challenges knowledge claims right across the board, we are totally ignorant of everything. In the book, it is argued that we are never justified in making assertions or saying what we believe, because nothing counts as an adequate reason for belief. The Eighteenth Century philosopher David Hume made a similar sceptical claim. What we do — when we make judgements, or express those judgements, or act on them — we do without any ultimate rational justification. We just can't help spouting out. It is in our 'human nature'. Reason is, or ought to be, nothing more than the 'slave of the passions'.

Of course, if we are all ignorant about everything, then no-one is more ignorant than anyone else. There is no point in trying to overcome your ignorance, because all you can ever succeed in doing is exchange one form of ignorance for another. — Anyone who is not totally bemused by philosophy can see that this is an absurd position to be driven to. Ignorance is a problem, and one which we have every reason to be concerned with — which it wouldn't be, if the philosophical sceptic was right.

Why is ignorance a problem? At first sight, that seems a rather stupid question. As if the answer was not obvious! Well, let's be 'stupid', let's try stating the obvious, and see where it gets us. Ignorance about practical matters can get you into a lot of trouble. When taking your car abroad, it is a good idea to check whether in the country you are visiting cars travel on the left or on the right. If your internal map of the world fails to correspond to the world at any point, then actions you undertake relying on that map risk failure.

It is true that sometimes having an incorrect map can be of practical benefit. If you are the sort of person who can never turn up for an appointment on time, then one remedy is to set your watch ten minutes fast (it works for me). Generally, having an incorrect map can be a good thing if it makes you more cautious than you might otherwise have been, or else if it gives you the confidence needed to act, when knowing the actual state of things or the whole story might have prevented you from acting. (Compare the remarks last time on the occasions when we would prefer to avoid catching the 'disease' of learning.)

Apart from practical consequences, though, why should we care whether we are ignorant or not? So long as there is no danger of reality catching us out, why should we care whether our beliefs are true or false, whether our internal map of the world is accurate or inaccurate, or indeed totally wide of the mark? What is so good about truth? Come to think of it, what is truth? Is there such a thing as 'the truth'?

A logical point: You can't say, 'I think such-and-such, but such-and-such isn't true.' The point was made originally by the philosopher G.E. Moore. (It's called 'Moore's Paradox'.) Now, it looks at first as though asking, 'Why should I care whether my beliefs are true?' is like asking, 'Why should I care whether I speak with a posh accent?' The reply might be that it is a help to have true beliefs — or a posh accent — in certain circumstances. It is good to have a true belief when the belief is about which side of the road one drives on. It is good to have a posh accent if you are applying for a job in a bank. In fact, the similarity here is an illusion. If you know how to talk posh, then you can talk posh or not posh at will, as the occasion demands. But you can't 'believe the truth' or 'believe the false' as the occasion demands. — That is not a psychological observation. It is a point of logic.

As a matter of logic, truth matters. And if truth matters then ignorance about the truth matters. But just how it matters — how things pan out in practice — is another question altogether.