The Way of Ignorance

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Although I don’t agree with some of his religious views, Wendell Berry is the most eloquent spokesman of this century on two important subjects: The need to rediscover our relationship to land and community, and the importance of humility. I’ve referenced his wonderful essay in Orion on the former subject before. This article is about an essay on the latter subject (not online), entitled The Way of Ignorance, in his recent book of the same name.

The title refers to a line in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, that goes:

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance

The essay is about our arrogant assumption that we know enough, or that, in sufficient time, we will know or can know enough, to save the world from what we have done to it over the past thirty thousand years. In truth, he says, we have no idea, and what’s worse, we’re ignorant of our ignorance, which is what makes us so dangerous. The solution is humility — the way of ignorance.

For readers of How to Save the World who wonder what my essays on Knowledge Management have to do with saving the world, Berry’s essay explains it better than I could. He starts his paper with a ‘taxonomy’ of the types of human ignorance and knowledge. Here is a summary:

Varieties of ignorance:

  • Inherent ignorance — ignorance that stems from the limitations of the human brain
  • Ignorance of history — due to our unawareness of what we have forgotten, and never learned
  • Materialist ignorance — willful refusal to recognize what cannot be empirically proved (narrow-mindedness)
  • Moral ignorance — willful refusal to come to a moral conclusion on the basis it may not be ‘objective’
  • Polymathic ignorance — the false confidence of knowledge of the past and future
  • Self-righteous ignorance — ignorance arising from our failure to know ourselves and our weaknesses
  • Fearful ignorance — stemming from the lack of courage to believe and accept knowledge that is unpopular, unpleasant or tragic
  • Lazy ignorance — stemming from not being willing to make the effort to understand what is complex
  • For-profit and for-power ignorance — deliberate obscuring or withholding of knowledge (e.g. advertising, propaganda)

Varieties of knowledge:

  • Empirical knowledge — that which can be empirically proved to be true or factual
  • Experiential knowledge — that which comes from personal experience
  • Traditional ‘common’ knowledge — the collective experiential knowledge of a community or culture, handed down, by those who have lived in the same place for a long time
  • Religious knowledge — more about that in a future article; Berry says that “those who premise the falsehood of such knowledge [like me] of course don’t have it and their opinion of it is worthless”
  • Instinctive and intuitive knowledge — that which need not be learned, which is known without the need for proof
  • Conscience or moral knowledge — the knowledge of the difference between right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate behaviours
  • Inspiration and imagination — knowledge that comes from sources that cannot be empirically located
  • Sympathy and affection — the intimate knowledge of others that comes by relating to and connecting with them
  • Bodily knowledge — the ability to apply skillfully what is conceptually known
  • Counterfeit knowledge — falsehoods that are known to be such but are nonetheless plausible

“Ignorance, arrogance, narrowness of mind, incomplete knowledge and counterfeit knowledge are of concern to us because they are dangerous; when united with great power, they cause great destruction”, Berry says. What he calls ‘corporate minds’ are more prone to such ignorance and arrogance than personal minds because they are so narrow and limited by their lowest common denominator, to strictly empirical knowledge. As such, the corporate mind is “compound and abstract, materialist, reductionist, greedy, and radically utilitarian”. Such a disembodied mind is incapable of complex or generous thought, and incapable of humility.

Science, Berry argues, produces knowledge that, when purchased and applied by the corporate mind, yields at once great technological advances, and global warming, acid rain, Chernobyl, Bhopal and Love Canal. To this list we might add Enron, 9/11, cluster bombs and ‘shock and awe’. As I have argued before, these can all be seen as ‘knowledge failures’.

Now that we’ve let this marvelous, dangerous genie out of the bottle, he asks, What can we do? “I have no large solution to offer”, he says. “Our damages to watersheds and ecosystems will have to be corrected one farm, one forest, one acre at a time. The aftermath of a bombing has to be dealt with one corpse, one wound at a time…If we find the consequences of our arrogant ignorance to be humbling, and we are humbled, then we have the first fact of hope: We can change ourselves. We, each of us severally, can remove our minds from the corporate ignorance and arrogance that is leading the world to destruction.”

He goes on: “If the ability to change oneself is the first act of hope, then the second surely must be an honest assessment of the badness of our situation.” Berry, a man of faith, has great faith that if enough of us pursue these two acts of hope, the world can be saved. For believing this, he is almost apologetic: “I am aware that invoking personal decency, personal humility, as the solution to a vast risk taken on our half by corporate industrialism is not going to suit everybody. Some will find it an insult to their sense of proportion, others to their sense of drama. I am offended by it myself, and I wish I could do better. But having looked about, I have been unable to convince myself that there is a better solution or one that has a better chance of working.”

Both John Gray, whose views are congruent with my own (as I reiterated in my last post), and Wendell Berry tell us that what we must do is Let-Self-Change, and focus our passion and energy at doing what we can at the local community level to make the world better. Neither believes that technology, or some external force, is going to save us. The difference is that Berry has faith in humanity’s ability to act, individually, quickly, dramatically and, most important, knowledgeably, in our collective interest. Gray and I do not. I am tempted to argue, without the benefit of Berry’s ‘religious knowledge’, that true humility might require us to acknowledge that such faith that he has in our wonderful, terrible and muddled species, might be misplaced — perhaps, even, a tiny bit arrogant.

This won’t change our efforts to do what we must, of course. These differences of belief matter only because most of us alive today probably won’t be around long enough to see whose belief was right. Even though ultimately this knowledge, the knowledge of what our planet’s future holds, doesn’t matter, it would be nice to know.

Photo by Kevin at the Bastish blog.

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3 Responses to The Way of Ignorance

  1. Julie says:

    Great essay, but you forgot “Percepticide” a lethal outcome of one form of ignoring. Percepticide is Diana Taylor

  2. Michael Spears says:

    “In searching for the obscure,we often overlook the obvious.” author unknown. Another form of ignorance,perhaps.

  3. sushil yadav says:

    The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature. Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment. Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct. Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel. Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet. Subject : Environment can never be saved as long as cities exist. Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking. If there are no gaps there is no emotion. Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion. When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing. There comes a time when there are almost no gaps. People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps. Emotion ends. Man becomes machine. A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety. A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety. A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety. FAST VISUALS /WORDS MAKE SLOW EMOTIONS EXTINCT. SCIENTIFIC /INDUSTRIAL /FINANCIAL THINKING DESTROYS EMOTIONAL CIRCUITS. A FAST (LARGE) SOCIETY CANNOT FEEL PAIN / REMORSE / EMPATHY. A FAST (LARGE) SOCIETY WILL ALWAYS BE CRUEL TO ANIMALS/ TREES/ AIR/ WATER/ LAND AND TO ITSELF. To read the complete article please follow either of these links : sushil_yadav

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