Learning to Know Less

Studying philosophy can be quite the humbling experience. The greatest minds we look to in the Western world produced some of their biggest ideas about how little they knew.  Socrates insisted didn’t know much of anything. British philosopher David Hume argued he didn’t know if the sun would rise tomorrow. French philosopher Renee Descartes didn’t know if anyone outside his own head was real.

Admittedly, the standard for knowledge in philosophy is incredibly high. Whether you subscribe to Hume or Descartes’ particular brands of skepticism or not, to “know” something suggests a truly intimate, and powerful relationship with that object.  It manifests in three conditions, Socrates tells us, where knowledge is something that is true, knowledge is something that you believe, and knowledge is something that you are justified in believing. It’s a “justified true belief” with all three necessary conditions to support the claim that one actually knows.

At face value, this interpretation is frustrating. Suddenly it’s no longer enough to claim to know that it’s your friend knocking on the door even if he told you he would and it turns out to be true. Something more is required in the way of real, objective evidence. Yet when applying this standard of knowledge to the bigger issues of life than knocking on doors, it becomes more than frustrating. When so few of our claims to knowledge fulfill these standards, this definition feels unsettling.

A cursory reading of psychology can explain why we don’t like this definition. It happens that we like certainty quite bit.  David Rock of Psychology Today writes, “ a sense of uncertainty about the future generates a strong threat or ‘alert response’… your brain doesn’t like uncertainty – it’s like a type of pain, something to be avoided.” Certainty, on the other hand, means order, and a readily predictable future.  Knowing means no surprises.

There’s something dangerous in succumbing to this hardwiring. When we subconsciously let our preference for pattern and certainty guide us, we either gloss over important arguments to that challenge us or fail to see them to begin with. We can spot instances where someone relies on certainty and their “knowledge” too much. Op-eds or opinions in campus newspapers smack of one sidedness, or political partisanship when they’ve drank too much of the certainty Kool-Aid.  Flipping through the campus news, you can spot these types all too often.

There’s immense worth in overcoming this impulse. After all, this is the grand claim of liberal arts education: tools of critical thought and inquiry free us from preconceived notions, painting starkly the distinction between what we know and what we think we know. The result is a more nuanced, and realistic perspective of the world around us sketched in more shades of grey than black or white.

Three years prior to his death, writer David Foster Wallace gave the 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College that this simple awareness of the limits to our knowledge was where he thought the “real, no bullshit value of a liberal arts education” lays. Our education gives us the choice of what to think about, between certainty and uncertainty.  It’s difficult, even tiring, to continuously make the choice to be aware of how little we know, but settling for our blind certainties dooms our discourse becoming pointless, ineffective, and totally predictable.


–Alexander Kane