Of Learned Ignorance

One of the most common responses I have encountered from teachers new to TOK is sheer panic.  The main reason for this seems to be twofold.  One, because TOK applies to every Area of Knowledge (AOK), teachers become anxious about dealing with spheres of knowledge which lie outside their comfort zone.  Second, TOK does not seem to provide stock answers to any questions and, therefore, new teachers are afraid they will not be able to give clear and neatly packaged answers to students’ questions.  In short, many teachers new to TOK are afraid that their ignorance will be exposed for all to see, and that this will undermine their authority as educators.  This is of course a perfectly normal reaction, none of us possess the kind of encyclopaedic knowledge which teaching TOK seems to require.  The good news is that none of us needs to.  TOK lessons should primarily raise questions about knowledge in the different AOKs and to challenge students to think beyond the stock answers they are used to receive.  For me, the sign of a good TOK lesson is one where students will leave with more questions on the explored topic than they started with.  Their minds will be opened to the many assumed certainties which make up much of human knowledge, and so should those of their teachers. Can there be an argument to be made that without ignorance there can be no knowledge? Can Socrates and Nicholas of Cusa help calm the nerves of the novice TOK teacher?

Socrates is probably best known for having said something like this, ‘to know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.’ In Plato’s Apology Socrates comes to realise that he is described as ‘the wisest of them all’ because he is aware of his own ignorance whilst others just assume the certainty of their knowledge. This acceptance of ignorance includes the idea that the senses are too unreliable to provide certain knowledge, but also that moral knowledge should be the foundation of all other forms of knowledge as it alone can direct how our knowledge should be used. For example, he clearly believes in the need for justice but never comes to a final conclusion as to its true nature.  Thus, Socrates can be said to have been the very model of a good TOK student, always questioning everything and never being satisfied with stock answers.

Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), was a papal legate, experimental scientist, philosopher, mathematician, theologian among other things – a genuine Renaissance man. He wrote a now widely recognised seminal text on ignorance and its relationship to knowledge (De Docta IgnorantiaOf Learned Ignorance, 1440).  Whilst Nicholas of Cusa’s starting point is the unknowability of God (the infinite cannot be fully known by that which is finite), he goes on to apply his principle to other spheres of human knowledge. He argues that the ‘mind is the limit and the measure of all things,’ all knowledge is therefore restricted to the capacities of the mind to what can be ‘cognitively measured.’  Being finite, the mind cannot have complete understanding of anything, thus reducing human knowledge to conjecture as, ‘the exactness of truth cannot be attained.’  Nicholas of Cusa’s works shows that he anticipated the ideas of Copernicus, Kepler, Kant, clinical medicine and analytical mathematics (to name a few), he also proposed the possibility of there being multiple worlds and even aliens! His ideas on how ignorance informs and shapes knowledge are rightly, albeit belatedly, being rediscovered.

Ideally, TOK should produce, in teachers and students alike, an appreciation for the importance and role of ignorance in the pursuit of knowledge, but also the kind of confidence that comes from being comfortable with uncertainty. Ignorance highlights the limitations of human knowledge and as a result provides the focus and the incentive for the pursuit of knowledge. Informed ignorance was for Socrates the beginning of wisdom. Appreciating the limits of human knowledge across all spheres of knowledge was necessary for creative curiosity and humility for Nicholas of Cusa. TOK may not give the answers and the certainty we yearn for, but it maybe gives us something far more valuable; a method by which to challenge our certainties, a genuine recognition of our own limitations and a love of ignorance which the world seems to so undervalue.

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