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Joyful Ignorance and the Civic Mind Bill Vitek There has never been a generation better educated than the one that ushered in the end of Athens. —Edith Hamilton the gist Advocating the virtues of ignorance is hard work. On the face of it, the proposition is preposterous to nearly everyone who hears it for the first time. People’s response is that the claim must be a joke. It is not. Or that it’s a spoof on the current political scene in the nation’s capital, particularly in the White House. It is not that either. In the end, most folks become angry and say that there is already too much ignorance in the world and that it’s making a mess of things. True enough. What, then, is being praised, and how is it different from the ignorance with which we are most familiar and that we try earnestly to avoid? And how could ignorance possibly be a good trait, let alone a virtue or joyful? The short answer to this last question is that it depends on what ignorance is being called on to replace and why. What is being replaced is a set of attitudes and beliefs—a worldview —about what can be known about the world, the methods by which this knowledge is acquired, of what this knowledge consists, who can possess this knowledge, and the moral boundaries governing the exercise of its use. Collectively, these attitudes and beliefs can be called a knowledge-based worldview (KBW) and can be seen operating most powerfully in the halls of science and engineering and with applications in agriculture, commerce, medicine, and even politics from time to time. The reason for urging such a replacement is that these attitudes and 214 Bill Vitek beliefs about knowledge are increasingly being shown to be inadequate and dangerous. Praising ignorance, then, begins with a deep dissatisfaction with the KBW and moves slowly toward an understanding of what might productively and ethically replace it. Proponents of this sort of ignorance—an ignorance-based worldview (IBW)—have rightly placed the bulk of the credit (and blame) for the KBW on the revolutionary and visionary work of two seventeenth -century thinkers: Francis Bacon and René Descartes. Between these two giants of pre-Enlightenment thought, I believe that it is Descartes ’ work with which there is most to be reckoned. It is not just his claim that human knowledge of the world is possible or his method of miniaturizing the world into discrete parts. Most importantly, and most dangerously—and, perhaps, unintentionally—Descartes likewise divides the community of knowers into ever smaller groups. For him, the pursuit of knowledge is first and foremost a solitary pursuit of a singular mind, a pursuit from which great power and good can come when it is correctly employed. The influence of Descartes’ work on the rise of scientific knowledge and its power and influence over other forms of interacting with the world are unquestionable. The Cartesian revolution marks the beginning of the individual as sovereign—first in science, then in economics and politics. Much good has come from this tripartite revolution of ideas, and we would be remiss to recommend a wholesale rejection. But so too has much trouble come, particularly in the misunderstanding of complex, living ecosystems, in the dangerous misapplication of partial knowledge in ways that are difficult to rescind or recall, and in the harmful effects of believing that the world is a laboratory or experimental playground. My purpose here is to liberate the concept of ignorance in order to bring some sense to the idea that the solitary Cartesian mind is insufficient for the work ahead, not to mention a lonely place in which to linger. What replaces it is a civic mind focused on the pursuit of understanding , with others, in a living world. what words mean and how we mean them I’ll start with some word work: Science: Knowledge, to know, to discern.1 Know: To be assured of, recognize. Joyful Ignorance and the Civic Mind 215 Knowledge: Assured belief, information, skill. Recognize: To know again. Assurance: To make sure, to secure. Secure: Free from care, anxiety, safe, sure. Ignore: Not to know, to disregard. Ignoramus: Literally “we are ignorant” (formerly a law term). “Ignoramus . . . is properly written on the bill of indictments by the grand enquest, empanelled on the inquisition of causes criminal and publick, when they dislike the evidence, as defective or too weak to make the presentment” (Blount...


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