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Andrew Martin THE GENESIS OF IGNORANCE: NESCIENCE AND OMNISCIENCE IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN Theologically, EPISTEMOLOGY stands condemned as irredeemably sinful because, psychologically, it is indistinguishable from vanity. The philosophical reflexivity on which a theory of knowledge depends implies a cognitive conceit that is the intellectual equivalent of narcissism . What philosophy lacks, in theological terms, is humility, or, philosophically speaking, a systematic anepistemology: a theory of ignorance . Nor (humility compels me to concede) do I propose, in the following pages, to rectify this deficiency. Simple modesty suggests that the traditional but arrogant question, What do I know?, should be supplemented by its neglected antithesis, What don't I know? And one answer to this question, one thing of which we are preeminently ignorant, is the phenomenon of ignorance itself. No doubt scholarly neglect (springing from an enduring Platonic disposition to identify knowledge with virtue) has rendered us more ignorant of the nature than of the condition of ignorance. But the circumstance that ignorance is largely ignored is also the consequence of an inexorable logic: on the one hand, the truly ignorant are inevitably ignorant of their own ignorance and so unable to give expression to their vacant state of mind; while, on the other, those articulate enough to propound a theory of ignorance, because they are also knowledgeable , are obliged to resort to their imaginations for their facts. Furthermore , it may be that the absolute negation of knowledge, a tabula rasa of cognition, a degree zero of the intellect, is simply inconceivable; analogously, Pascal admitted: "Je puis bien concevoir un homme sans mains, pieds, tête .... Mais je ne puis concevoir l'homme sans pensée."1 Nothing (as Samuel Butler might have remarked) is quite so unknowable as knowledge, unless it be the entire absence of knowledge. Perhaps it is the undoubted challenge that the concept of ignorance offers to the savant that nevertheless has sporadically made of nesci- 4 Philosophy and Literature ence—the antonym of science, the archetypal form of ignorance—the Utopian objective of intellectual aspiration: an ambition as admirable, in its way, if as futile, as a pretension to omniscience. An exhaustive account of the necessarily fragmentary, enigmatic, ironic, or paradoxical expressions given to this possibly unthinkable configuration of thought (most of which tend to be inscribed in a subversive margin of the page of culture), in short, the elaboration of a comprehensive history of anepistemologies, is beyond the scope of this article (perhaps of any article). But the topos may be initially situated by reference to those exemplary pages, coupled for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons to an anti-scientific inclination, that open the Bible, comprising the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis. Here is one view of the Old Testament: it is a book of wisdom written by wise men for wise readers, or to make the ignorant wise. Here is another: it is a sinful book, written and read by sinners. If we take Yahweh—the God of Genesis—at his word, then the curious truth is that both of these views are correct, and that the sages and the sinners are one and the same. In the eyes of a secular observer, the equation of wisdom and sin is bound to seem suspiciously like a paradox. Of course, we know that the mere accumulation of knowledge and the susceptibility to sin are not mutually exclusive. We know that a sage—let us say, a priest or a professor—can also be a sinner: he may, for example, give way to fornication. Conversely, we know that the ignoramus does not of necessity covet his neighbor's wife. Nevertheless, if we do not, in the manner of Plato, consider knowledge as synonymous with the Good, we do treat it, with quasi-Platonic respect, as a sound, perhaps indispensable, basis of moral conduct. Thus "wisdom," sophia, relates the possession of knowledge to the exercise of an ethically sophisticated conscience in its application. Ignorance, it follows, is a condition that favors, if it does not entail, immoral conduct; it is liable to be construed as primafacie evidence of undesirable propensities. The ignoramus, we may suspect, is a sinner at heart. Such are the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 3-20
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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