Ignorance is an absence. But to call it merely an absence is to leave the matter incomplete. An absence is always an absence of, just as hunger is the absence of nourishing food and darkness is the absence of light. Absence is a marker of intentionality and without an intended presence, there is no absence. So ignorance is an absence of something — let’s call it wisdom.
Ignorance, like any absence, is in some sort of dynamic relation to that of which it is deprived, i.e. wisdom. (The idea of a nothingness without this relation to some quality of positive being is not even thinkable. This was the chief insight of Hegel’s Logic, that being and nothing both presuppose becoming.) Absence is not featureless — it has a phenomenal character defined by what is dynamically felt as missing. It is an intermediate, a metaxy, between emptiness and fullness. Ignorance is one mode of an encompassing desire to know.
Yesterday, I posed two platonic questions:
1. Which sort of human beings are those who learn, the wise or the ignorant?
2. Do learners learn what they know or what they don’t know?
Let’s try to answer them in some way. The questions in the Euthydemus dialogue are posed by a sophist, one who is ready to pounce on anyone who takes a side of the either/or dilemma. But however ignobly intended, the questions pose a serious question for the lover of wisdom. A true answer will have to avoid the either/or and must hazard the potential confusion of a both/and. I say hazard, because we can easily get trapped in an equivocation of terms if we are not careful. In one sense, we must distinguish between the ignorant and the wise and prefer the latter state to the former. Let’s call the one who is wise in this good Socratic sense, WISE (with a capital W), and similarly the one who is ignorant in the bad sense, IGNORANT. The two mental states will remain uncapitalized.
I have just made the case (I think) that there is no ignorance without dynamic relation to wisdom. Is the opposite also true? Is there a (human) wisdom that does not contain within it at least a kernel of ignorance? I think that the answer is negative: all human wisdom is also in dynamic relation to an enfolded ignorance. The character of this relation of ignorance-to-wisdom and wisdom-to-ignorance must be encountered differently by the WISE and the IGNORANT. Let’s try to spell this out:
The WISE recognize, even if tacitly, that ignorance is in relation to the wisdom of which it is the deprivation. Wisdom is already anticipated in the experience of ignorance. This anticipation guides the search for the wisdom that would overcome the ignorance. It is now a commonplace of mathematical heuristics that naming the unknown is a powerful first step to solving problems. Naming the unknown makes it focal, rescues it from a state of nonrelational absence and places it into relationship with the known features of the problem. The WISE are those who take ignorance as a positive marker of the to-be-known. Self-knowingly claiming the ignorance, setting them in dynamic relation is WISDOM and WISDOM is always learning.
The IGNORANT on the other hand have lost the dynamic connection between ignorance and wisdom. To them, ignorance and wisdom are contradictories, not just contraries. Wisdom-without-igorance and ignorance-without-wisdom are binary, static, lifeless possibilities. Accepting the either/or presupposition of the question is already to be stuck in ignorance. Learning is not possible in either state.
Teaching that is based on the either/or understanding of wisdom/ignorance is a lifeless thing. Real teaching must keep the student aware of his/her ignorance not only before the learning event, but also during and after.