Ignorance vs. stupidity

But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before [118b] that you are not only ignorant (ἀγνοεῖς) of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?

I am afraid so.

Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity (ἀμαθίᾳ) my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs, [118c] except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.

— Alcibiades Major, 118a-c, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 8 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1955. Public domain edition available on the Perseus Project website.

In this passage, Alcibiades confesses to lacking the kind of wisdom that he has already admitted is necessary to achieve his political ambitions. Like most who rule, Alcibiades has concerned himself not at all about the proper aims of politics, but has obsessively focused on the means of gaining and maintaining political power. Socrates claims he is “wedded to stupidity” and in what follows, I would like to articulate the difference between ignorance (agnoia) and stupidity (amathia).

Ignorance (agnoia) is simply the state of not knowing something that is knowable. We are born ignorant, and although we are all successful in replacing ignorance with insight in many arenas of life, all of us are still well acquainted with it. There is nothing shameful in this as such — it just points to our limitations as finite human beings. Where ignorance does become shameful is when (1) we are presented with evidence of our ignorance, (2) the matter about which we are ignorant is of great importance,  (3) we make no effort either to cure or mitigate the consequences of our ignorance, and, (4) we continue acting as if we were not ignorant. This more shameful kind is of the type of which Socrates is accusing Alcibiades — the disease of amathia, which our translation rightly renders as “stupidity.”

A-gnoia means literally “not-knowing”; a-mathia means literally “not-learning.” Amathia can mean just the coarse state of being uneducated. However this type of amathia doesn’t really fit Alcibiades, a wealthy aristocrat who has been given access to the finest educators in Greece (including Socrates himself). In addition to the type of amathia that is an inability to learn, there is another form that is an unwillingness to learn. This later state can disguise itself with all the trappings of cultivate speech and manner, and yet still maintain itself in ignorance.  The former type is brutish; the latter, since its owners are otherwise capable and ambitious, can be brutal.

Robert Musii in an essay called “On Stupidity, distinguished between two forms of stupidity, one he called “an honorable kind” due to a lack of natural ability and another, much more sinister kind, that he called “intelligent stupidity”: 

In life one usually means by a stupid person one who is “a little weak in the head.” But beyond this there are the most varied kinds of intellectual and spiritual deviations, which can so hinder and frustrate and lead astray even an undamaged innate intelligence that it leads, by and large, to something for which the only word language has at its disposal is [still] stupidity. Thus this word embraces two fundamentally quite different types: an honorable and straightforward stupidity, and a second that, somewhat paradoxically, is even a sign of intelligence. The first is based rather on a weakness of understanding, the second more on an understanding that is weak only with regard to some particular, and this latter kind is by far the more dangerous.

–Quoted in “Voegelin’s Use of Musil’s Concept of Intelligent Stupidity in Hitler and the Germans” by Glenn Hughes, The Eric Voegelin Institute, 2007. I commend to you all three: the Hughes essay, the Musil essay and the Voegelin book cited within.

It is clear that Musil is talking about the two forms of amathia that I just articulated. He makes a strong moral case against the second, intelligent kind:

The higher, pretentious form of stupidity stands only too often in crass opposition to [its] honorable form. It is not so much lack of intelligence as failure of intelligence, for the reason that it presumes to accomplishments to which it has no right; . . . . This higher stupidity is the real disease of culture . . . and to describe it is an almost infinite task. It reaches into the highest intellectual sphere . . . . Years ago I wrote about this form of stupidity that “there is absolutely no significant idea that stupidity would not know how to apply; stupidity is active in every direction, and can dress up in all the clothes of truth. . . . The stupidity this addresses is no mental illness, yet it is most lethal; a dangerous disease of the mind that endangers life itself.  (Ibid)

It is stunning that a problem like amathia can remain mostly invisible in a culture, given its serious consequences. (Note to the wise: it is still very much with us!) To call it out often requires real courage. Musil wrote his essay in 1937 in Austria. Obviously he had the Nazis very much in mind. On Musil’s reading, the disease of Naziism was due not a lack of intelligence. There were plenty of intelligent and accomplished Nazis. He accused them instead of the sin of stupidity, a moral deafness to the learning they had already received. This points to a real problem in dealing with amathia: since it is not due a lack of intelligence, amathia cannot be cured with “more education” but requires something akin to an existential conversion. Hughes writes in his essay:

[S]ince the “higher stupidity” consists not in an inability to understand but in a refusal to understand, any healing or reversal of it will not occur through rational argumentation, through a greater accumulation of data and knowledge, or through experiencing new and different feelings. Considering Voegelin’s analysis, we may say that the reversal of a spiritual sickness must entail a spiritual cure. It will involve a conversion: from a posture of closure toward the full scope of reason and the reality of spirit, to an existential openness toward the divine ground. And this cannot occur without an anxious and humble renunciation of the pride, the presumptuous hybris, that motivates and sustains existential closure toward the divine ground of being. (Ibid)

Our society is generally allergic to thinking that our ethical problems may be resistant to an increased educational effort and that the cure may require something as religious-sounding as “conversion”.  But Plato, having close access to the prototypical amathic type, i.e. the Sophists, knew better. More teaching of the usual sort just translates into greater forms of cunning and rationalization. As the Persian poet Rumi wrote, “Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment.”  (Assuming bewilderment means the humility that follows upon “aporia”)

On specific ignorance

Quisquis ubique habitat, Maxime, nusquam habitat.
[“He who lives everywhere, lives nowhere.”  — Martial, vii]

General ignorance is a bad thing, perhaps the worst thing. Let us never accept our ignorance placidly. Just as life is greater than death — infinitely greater — so too is knowledge greater than ignorance. We should strive for knowledge as we strive for life, for both types grow toward the same source.

But I want to argue that specific ignorance is a good thing. What do I mean by “specific ignorance”? Specific ignorance is not mere absence but absence of something definite. The form of general ignorance is “I don’t know anything,” whereas specific ignorance is “I don’t know this thing”. Such ignorance is essentially dynamic and oriented toward the reality of the specific. Perhaps the first rule of good teaching is to transform a general ignorance into a specific ignorance, so that the striving that ought to accompany ignorance can flower into actuality. Here are a few leftover thoughts to get you thinking:

1. The vehicle of specific ignorance is the questionable opinion, not the blank page.

2. Try replacing periods with question marks.

3. There is no consummation without a prior animation.

4. Real knowledge is the fruit of specific ignorance; no plant, no fruit.


The trifling knowledge of Socrates

As I listed in a previous post, Socrates (in the Platonic dialogues at least) claims to know only a few things:

(1) erotic matters;  (2) that there is a difference between knowledge and right opinion; (3) many small/trifling things; (4) his own ignorance.

At the end of the post listing the actual texts, I asked whether or not there may be anything that these bits of knowledge have in common. Let me give a stab at collecting them together within a single logos:

1. Erotic matters. Can we love something that we know anything at all about? Mustn’t we have some precognition of what is moving us to longing? In an early post in this blog, I discussed a phenomenon known as “felt absence” in which we are aware of something missing. I think this awareness of absence is at base an erotic phenomenon. [Perhaps I should note here that “erotic” does not mean narrowly “sexual” as it does in our culture. Eros can refer to any strong desire for consummation that is fueled by a sense of one’s own lack.] I may not yet “know” what it is I am after, particularly in the regime of intellectual eros, but I have at least a presentiment of knowledge that (a) makes the lack of knowledge present to me in a dynamically effective way, (b) guides my pursuit by strengthening or weakening as I get closer or farther from the object of desire, and (c) indicates a difference between what I have and what I want. Such knowledge is far from “trifling” to a philosopher, but is so to those who value fullness over lack.

2. The difference between knowledge and opinion. Notice that Socrates doesn’t claim to know what the difference is, only that there is such a difference. The fruit of Socratic virtue is to cultivate a dissatisfaction with mere opinion. The goal is not to jettison any opinion that fails to rise to knowledge for that would be to jettison all thinking. The goal is not to cultivate dissatisfaction as an end in itself, but as a goad toward that knowledge of which it is the presentiment. It is to cultivate a dissatisfaction specific to the opinion at hand, as an avenue for exciting an eros for the knowledge that it already intends yet lacks. The effect of the difference between knowledge and opinion is eros, an eros directed toward and hungering for a consummating knowledge. Knowledge of the difference between opinion and knowledge is a desire for knowledge growing out of dissatisfaction for a particular opinion.

3. Many small/trifling things. Clearly we can be sure that Socrates does know many things, that the sun is or is not shining for instance. All such things are true but not existentially urgent, i.e “trifling.” But I think there are other things Socrates knows that are trifling to those who consider ignorance a trifling matter, easily dismissed. Most prefer a strong opinion to the hesitations of doubt. But opinion is always partial. To the extent that opinion intends knowing, this partiality is always subordinate to some animating, comprehending whole. Desire for knowledge of the whole, which is the root of philosophical eros, is reflected in every still-partial opinion. There is felt difference between an opinion and the knowledge that would perfect it. Socrates “knows” an ignorance correlative to every bit of opinion he holds. For each opinion, there is a knowledge of specific ignorance related to it. 

4. His own ignorance. We have already seen how knowledge of ignorance informs every other nontrivial claim to knowledge that Socrates makes. Self-knowledge of his own ignorance is at the root of all of his other claims to knowledge.

My root hypothesis is merely speculative, but at least plausible: that Socrates had ignorance-seeking-knowledge in mind when he made his various claims to knowledge. Socrates prefers the desire for knowledge to the satisfaction of mere opinion. The former is better because it has a potency for knowledge that the latter lacks. His desire is not directionless, but is informed in each case by the defects peculiar to his best available opinion. To describe his profound knowledge of ignorance as “trifling,” is just as ironic as to call ignorance “knowledge” in the first place.

What Socrates claimed to know

There are only a few places in the entire Platonic corpus in which Socrates claimed to know anything, at least as far as I have been able to discover:

1. “I claim to know nothing aside from erotic matters…” — Symposium, 177d. (Ta erotika could also be rendered variously, “erotic things,” “the erotic,” “erotic matters”)

2. “It is certainly not conjecture to say that right opinion and knowledge are different. There are few things I would claim to know, but that is among them at least…” — Meno, 98b

3. “Come then, tell me this, [Euthydemus] said: Do you know anything? Certainly, [Socrates] replied, many things, though trifling.” — Euthydemus, 293b.  (The relevant objects of knowledge are qualified as polla, i.e. “many,” and as smikra, which is “small” or “unimportant” or, as I have rendered it in my translation, “trifling.”)

4. “I am wiser than this man, for neither of us seems to know anything great and good; but he imagines that he knows something, even though he knows nothing; whereas I, not knowing anything, do not believe that I do. In this trifling thing (smikron) then, I seem to be wiser than he is, because I do not believe that I know what I do not know.” — Apology, 21; (It must be said that this is the closest as Plato’s Socrates ever gets to saying, “I know that I do not know.” Literally, this is not what is said, although it is not clear how recognizing one’s lack of knowledge could ever be doubtful if recognized at all. Notice that this recognition of a difference between himself and the one claiming wisdom is also called a “trifling thing.”)

Is there some way in which Socrates’ few admitted objects of knowledge — (i) the difference between opinion & knowledge, (ii) erotic matters, (iii) many trifling things, and (iv) one’s own ignorance — are related in some way?