On Useful Ignorance

29 Mar

Yesterday evening your humble blogger read a newly-purchased little work by the great Henry David Thoreau.

It is called “Walking”:

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements”

Regular readers know that I have assumed the pseudonym The Blissful Ignoramus; that one of my all-time favourite scientists and thinkers is Nicholas of Cusa, author of De Docta Ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance); and that another is the late Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and his quote-for-our-time:

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”

There is a brief passage in Thoreau’s “Walking” that offers a wonderful take on the same theme. And since today’s other post also sidetracks somewhat from our usual fare and into the realms of philosophy, I thought it timely to share this passage with readers.

Ponder, and enjoy:

We have heard of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. It is said that knowledge is power, and the like. Methinks there is equal need for a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance, what we will call Beautiful Knowledge, a knowledge useful in a higher sense: for what is most of our boasted so-called knowledge but a conceit that we know something, which robs us of the advantage of our actual ignorance? What we call knowledge is often our positive ignorance; ignorance our negative knowledge. By long years of patient industry and reading of the newspapers – for what are the libraries of science but files of newspapers – a man accumulates myriad facts, lays them up in his memory, then when in some spring of his life he saunters abroad into the Great Fields of thought, he, as it were, goes to grass like a horse and leaves all his harness behind in the stable. I would say to the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge, sometimes – Go to grass. You have eaten hay long enough. The spring has come with its green chop. The very cows are driven to their country pastures before the end of May; though I have heard of one unnatural farmer who kept his cow in the barn and fed her on hay all the year round. So, frequently, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge treats its cattle.

A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful – while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless, besides being ugly. Which is the best man to deal with – he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?

My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before – a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. Man cannot KNOW in any higher sense than this…

2 Responses to “On Useful Ignorance”

  1. Kevin Moore March 29, 2012 at 10:23 am #

    I doubt that Julia would have any empathy with those thoughts.

    “When I was a child,I spoke as a child,I understood as a child,I thought as a child;but when I became a man,I put away childish things.

    For now we see with a mirror in dimness,but then face to face;now I know in part,but then I will fully know,even as I also was fully known.

    And now faith, hope and love,these three things remain;but the greatest of these is love.” 1Corinthians ch.13

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