Ignorance as absence and presence

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.

2 thoughts on “Ignorance as absence and presence

  1. I really enjoyed this blog. The hazards of delving into polar terms and being careful not to lose their unique identities and also not to equivocate their meanings seems like a difficult process. However, your use of WISE and IGNORANT helps keep your message on track.

    To me, addressing a topic of such seemingly dichotomous terms and putting them into a better relationship could speak volumes to our modern society and our human nature. Whether it is with Buddhists learning to find the middle way life, or Christians learning to live after having eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil I think it’s in our makeup to grapple with such contradictions in life. From a secular point of view i also feel it would be in our well-being’s best interest to desensitize the extremes and understand a more both/and scenario as you’ve suggested. If teachers taught more awareness in the realms of wisdom and ignorance I think it would displace a lot of unnecessary stress from students and help them to develop wisdom in a more healthful/fruitful way. .

    Thank you for sharing your ideas.

    • Celephais,
      Thanks for your kind comment. I am glad my blog has helped you in some way. Yes, I think in a technological age, we are more comfortable with dealing with discrete widgets than working through the confusing mess of dialectically related opposites that is the concern of real wisdom. Precision sometimes gets the better of truth in this regard. If you haven’t already, look at my earlier (Jan. 23rd) post on “Two types of problems,” which also deals with this.

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