Knowing that I Don’t Know

One of the marks of a philosopher is to rightly distinguish between knowledge and opinion. It might seem that people today are more confident than ever in their opinions, treating these opinions with the same conviction that is due to knowledge. But this is not the case. We have always been prone to this error. The natural drag of human beings is to confuse knowledge and opinion, as the history of our species demonstrates.

Because the philosopher claims to not know about most things, he or she does not fit in very well in society. In fact, it is this claim to ignorance that makes the philosopher so offensive to society. It makes the philosopher appear to be an impious person in the eyes of various religious or political parties.

The mark of a philosopher, it seems to me, is to claim to be ignorant about most things, while at the same time striving to find the knowledge that will remedy his or her ignorance. Some might think that it would better to pick a side and stick with it, to place my eggs in one basket or another. But it is not the mark of wisdom to pick a side just because life is short. I used to be a bit disheartened that the prospect of the life of philosophy was to die in ignorance. But I am less and less worried about that, because the life of philosophy is the best form of therapy for all the ills which arise out of our ignorance.

Untangling Poetry and Philosophy

I have been wondering about the “ancient quarrel,” as Socrates put it, the quarrel between poetry and philosophy. The Pragmatists, as Rorty admitted, subordinated philosophy to poetry, or if you will, Plato to Emerson. Nietzsche seems to collapse poetry and philosophy into one another. And it is not as if anyone who has spent time reading Plato could deny the poetic quality of Plato’s dialogues.

But it does seem however that we need a distinction between things like Comedy-Journalism on the one hand, and the well ordered pursuit of truth on the other. Both things might actually contain truth. But both ways of dispensing and seeking wisdom seem different.

That said, there is something in the great novelists, like Faulkner or Hemingway, that cannot be divorced from philosophy. But does this mean that there is no distinction between poetry and philosophy, or that all novels are philosophical?

I still hold the opinion that we must make a distinction between two fundamentally different types of speech: (1) the type of speech which is properly ordered to the participation in wisdom, and (2) the type of speech which aims at persuasion primarily, and only secondarily might lead one to participate in wisdom. The former I call philosophy (for sort), and the latter I call poetry (for short).

The Ground Zero Effect

One of the marks of a fanatic is the Ground Zero Effect, which is the tendency to identify the truth or the proper interpretation of the truth with his own view. I call this the Ground Zero Effect because the fanatic views his own mind as Ground Zero for truth/orthodoxy/etc. You see this phenomenon among people of all sorts of worldviews.

When a person has come under the spell of the Ground Zero Effect, he will collapse almost all opinion into knowledge. A wise man should admit that there are relatively few things that he knows, and everything else is only opinion. But a man who is characterized by the Ground Zero Effect will treat all of his opinions (or most of them) as if such opinions were known.

It is a misnomer, however, to think that the Ground Zero Effect is something for those who are dumb or are uneducated. Those with the highest degrees and with very high IQ’s can be possessed by the Ground Zero Effect. In fact their education might lead them to further entrench themselves in the Ground Zero Effect.

One of the best tonics against this problem is philosophy, not merely the academic study of philosophy (which has little effect in itself), but the practice of philosophy, the practice of rightly dividing knowledge and opinion.

The Raised Eyebrow towards Utopianism

What do ISIS, Marxism, Libertarianism, anti-religious Liberalism, and Nationalism all have in common: Utopian longings. The biggest political danger that we face comes from something far more primordial than these ideologies. It comes from the inner spirit that motivates them, the spirit that gives their authors the impulse to write the tracts and treatises, that primordial Daemon of ideological enthusiasm that causes a mob of believers to leap into one of these ideologies.

All of these utopian ideals are failures to accept the limits of reality. These are all reactions and protests to reality – acts of faith, conjurings up of new gods, offerings of one’s soul on the alter of perfectionism. But Darwinian animals can never be angels; and this cold dark universe can never be a utopian shire.

The best medicine for our problems is to make the good into the enemy of the perfect, rather than making the perfect the enemy of the good. We should be suspicious of freeing ourselves from suspicion, of handing over the power to some unchecked entity, whether that entity is a group of clerics, a group of officials, or even a group of universal brothers and sisters. How can we best balance the various currents of power that pulse through our world?

There is no algebra formula that can balance the current. The current is always moving, popping up from unknown geysers. And so we have to exercise vigilance.  We have to create systematic checks and balances, like the constant tug of war between state and federal power, like the division of the executive and the judiciary. But we also need something firmly imprinted on our faces, something that I call “the raised eyebrow.”

Whenever we see a man standing atop a platform with a megaphone in his hand, spouting out tommyleejonespoetic and idealistic statements, we should imagine ourselves standing in the crowd with arms crossed and an eyebrow raised. Suspicion is a character trait that we need to cultivate in order to fend off the Daemon of utopian expectations, a Daemon that too easily can overcome our souls.

Good thinking: common sense: restraint: reasonable expectations: these are the alloy out of which our shield against utopianism is forged. But go behind the shield, and remove the armored mask, what should we have underneath: a raised eyebrow whenever the frenzied man with the megaphone starts to speak.


Picture Credit: (1); (2) From No Country for Old Men, Tommy Lee Jones.

Proverb 5: The Fate of the Creative Thinker

The creative and independent thinker is ordered toward his own social condemnation, unless of course he applies his creativity to practical invention or entertainment, in which case he could be a billionaire.

Proverb #4

If they know human nature so well then why can’t they predict the future? And if he has such a misguided view of human nature, then why do his predictions come to pass?

Proverb #3: How the Philosopher-Kings were Filibustered

Why can philosopher-kings never rule? Because Plato and Aristotle, and Hume and Kant, and all the other philosophers were unable to agree. In short, philosopher-kings were filibustered through philosophy.

Proverb #2: The Problem with Holding Life Sacred

Viewing life as sacred leads to wars over various views of sacredness. The sufficient and necessary condition of peace is suspicion – collective suspicion, but certainly not sacredness. Sacredness is a flower that grows best in the garden of suspicion, where it can be cultivated and prevented from overtaking all the other vegetation.

Proverb #1: A World full of Confidence

In a world where so many people confidently put forth various and contrary opinions, who shall we trust? Answer: the one who can predict the future.

Noble Lies or Ignoble Truths

Petyr Baelish said that the national myth of Westeros was just a story, one that we agree to tell ourselves over and over again until we forget that it is a lie. The same might be said about most of our mythologies. We have a compulsive need as human beings to interpret our world in terms of triumphal myths, ones where there are good guys and bad guys, where there was a past golden age of some type, after which came a descent into corruption,  followed by a call to renewal, to go back to the sources of that golden age as a means of projecting ourselves into a better future.

The reality is that there was no golden age, ever. Nor will there be one in the future. The real world is simply various shades of grey –  it is a matter of better or worse in most instances, only rarely categorically evil, and never categorically good. Progress is possible, but never utopia. And that progress does not come about through unchecked idealism. Instead, the recipe for progress is more accountability and checks and balances, or in other words, the admission that the world is grey. The ignoble truth is that we can’t trust each other, that we need to have structures that require transparency and accountability.

Remember this proverb: any power unchecked will tend toward corruption. And this is something that Marxists and Libertarians each do not understand, though for different reasons. Are we capable of this ignoble truth? Plato did not think so, and perhaps he was right. But being that the noble lie cannot work to promote peace in our age, the only alternative is to make it noble to believe the ignoble truth.


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