KNOWLEDGE IN A SEA OF IGNORANCE
"The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land."
"If our knowledge is, as I believe, only an island in an infinite sea of ignorance, how can we in our short lifetime find satisfaction in exploring our little island? How can we persuade ourselves to be exhilarated by our meager knowledge and yet not be discouraged by the ocean vistas?"
"The Amateur Spirit"
by Daniel Boorstin
from Living Philosophies
"I have observed that the world has suffered far less from ignorance than from pretensions to knowledge. It is not skeptics or explorers but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress. No agnostic ever burned anyone at the stake or tortured a pagan, a heretic, or an unbeliever."
Artists and writers, I believe, have a special role, creating new questions for which they offer experimental answers. We are tested, enriched, and fulfilled by the varieties of experience. And as the years pass there are increasing advantages to being a questioner. Answers can trouble us by their inconsistency, but there is no such problem with questions. I am not obliged to hang on to earlier questions, and there can be no discord - only growth - between then and now. Learning, I have found, is a way of becoming inconsistent with my past self. I believe in vocation, a calling for reasons we do not understand to do whatever we discover we can do.
I have observed that the world has suffered far less from ignorance than from pretensions to knowledge. It is not skeptics or explorers but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress. No agnostic ever burned anyone at the stake or tortured a pagan, a heretic, or an unbeliever.
If our knowledge is, as I believe, only an island in an infinite sea of ignorance, how can we in our short lifetime find satisfaction in exploring our little island? How can we persuade ourselves to be exhilarated by our meager knowledge and yet not be discouraged by the ocean vistas?
There may be ways to accommodate ourselves to our ignorance while enjoying our common exploring. What might they be?
In history. Since it is my vocation to be a historian I am tested every day. For history is a world of dark continents. Any historian worth his salt knows that the unknown past - enlarging every moment - will always be incomparably vaster than we know or we think we know. And current events become widening currents of ignorance. So every day I work at finding a sensible soul-satisfying compromise with the unknown. What are the terms of my everyday treaty? How much am I allowed to know or can I expect to know? How can I avoid being or seeming a charlatan by pretending to offer too much?
My first refuge is honesty. I am on solid ground so long as I do not pretend to offer the only or the final explanation for anything - the voyages of "discovery," the settlement of America, the American Revolution, the works of any artist or writer. I am a charlatan when I say anything about the past that excludes the probability of our always learning more or when I stop listening to new voices.
Another refuge is to exploit and enjoy the little that we really seem to know. This means luxuriating in the cosmic significance of trivia. What do we learn from the appalling increase in packaging in our country? What can we learn from the fact that the "public" theatres in Elizabethan England offered open-air afternoon performances, while we go to the movie in encapsulated darkness, or are newly segregated by our personal TV sets and VCRs? While their problem, even in their candle-lit indoor "private" theatres, was to find enough light, ours is to create enough darkness. What a wonderful iridescence there is in any fact! So we must love facts indiscriminately without professional or conventional snobbery, and be grateful for them all. We express our gratitude by finding surprising meanings.
When we make our history into literature - with the genius of a Shakespeare, a Parkman, a Joyce - we find refuge from the discouragement of the vast ocean. Making our history into literature becomes a way of confessing the limits of our knowledge, of expressing our hope to find some meaning in experience, and of playing on the frontiers.
In institutions and in politics. For me institutions have been welcome symbols of my quest for my community, the vehicles of our immortality. And, luckily, I have been given the opportunity to share in the life of great institutions - the University of Chicago, the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress (and the Congress). Such institutions have a wonderful power to change by surviving and to survive by changing.
I see democracy, government by amateurs, as a way of confessing the limits of our knowledge. The amateur is not afraid to do something for the first time. With our amenable constitutional congressional government we avoid the tyranny of anybody's pretense to know all the right answers. And se we need not suffer the paralysis of indecision because we don't know it all.
In religion. Being born a Jew makes it easier to be a questioner. For the Jewish God remains a mystery whose very name we cannot confidently utter. And being a Jew in a Christian society makes me wary of easy respectable answers to the deepest questions of theology and morals. It also makes me wary of those who would mold Judaism itself into an imprisoning chauvinism or orthodoxy.
Probably no one of us has the True Religion. But all of us together - if we are allowed to be free - are discovering ways of conversing about the great mysteries. The pretense to know all the answers to the deepest mysteries is, of course, the grossest fraud. And any people who declare a Jihad, a holy war on "unbelievers" - those who do not share their believers' pretended omniscience - are enemies of thinking men and woman and of civilization. I see religion as only a way of asking unanswerable questions, of sharing the joy of a community of quest, and solacing one another in our ignorance.
In science. I see science, too, as only a search for temporarily answerable questions. Therefore I find the history of science especially chastening and adventurous. No dogmas have been more confidently asserted than those of the scientists - from Aristotle to Ptolemy to Copernicus to Newton. Yet no dogmas are more suddenly or more unexpectedly upset. The courage to imagine the otherwise is our greatest resource, adding color and suspense to all our life. The courage to believe is easy, with lots of respectable company, but I admire more the courage to doubt.
In literature and the arts. The menace here is in the academies, the pretentious self-appointed custodians of prestige and respectability. Balzac was never elected to the Académie Francaise. Posterity and the free public are our authentic Académie. Dickens was quite right when he declared that "the people have set literature free" - from the arrogance of patrons of which the professions are the latest and most assertive.
In love and the family. I believe in commitment, another name for love, which can only be for reasons we do not understand. Yet our love for our children commits us to do duties we can never properly discharge. How can we guide our children if we know how crudely we have governed our own future? Still, we cannot help feeling a duty to share with our children our convictions and suspicions about the future. We feel we have not done our duty if we have not insisted that they avoid some simply mistakes we have seen ourselves or others making. But we feel we are imposing on them (who will know the future better than we do) the limits of our experience. This I find an unanswerable question. What is enough - but not too much - advice to give our children? And isn't it a comfort to know there is little chance they will follow it?
The amateur spirit. My own experience has made me wary of the institutions, the ways, the attitudes of all professionals. With the good fortune to be permitted to be a historian without conventional credentials, I have delighted in pursuing history for the love of it. This amateur spirit has guided my thinking and writing. Of course we need devices to economize our intellectual sallies, and the professions can somehow serve in this way. But the rewards and refreshments of thought and the arts come from the courage to try something, all sorts of things, for the first time. These first-time adventurers are the spice of life. An enamored amateur need not be a genius to stay out of ruts he has never been trained in.
All this is because I share Einstein's belief that there is nothing more beautiful than the mystery of things. The world would be a desert if we knew all the answers - yet each of us has the desiccating power to make the world less interesting by our pretensions to know.
In our age we are menaced by the cost-effective syndrome, which is the more menacing because it masquerades as prudence. It is a way of promoting the extinction of cultural species. The best things in life are free! Love, knowledge, art, music, literature, community, have no bottom line. I worry when I see the leaders of great cultural institutions - universities, publishing houses, museums, libraries - measuring our hopes and possibilities in the homogenized hash of cash. With the momentum of technology these assassins of the bottom line can impoverish our lives by removing from our daily experience countless passenger pigeons and whooping cranes that once enriched our view. How will this stunt the experience of my grandchildren?
I am, then, a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist. If our mission is an endless search, how can we fail? In the short run, institutions and professions and even language keep us in the discouraging ruts. But in the long run the ruts wear away and adventuring amateur reward us by a wonderful vagrancy into the unexpected.