“I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.” ~Socrates
In my quest to overcome ignorance, I have found Socrates. Philosophy. I am currently reading from (more like studying) two books:
The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook, by Ward Farnsworth.
Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy via Plato’s Apology, by Peter Kreeft.
What is philosophy?
Kreeft says in his Philosophy 101 book that philosophy is “the love of wisdom.”
In Farnworth’s book, The Socratic Method, the author begins with, “The Socratic method is a style of thought. It is a help toward intelligence and an antidote to stupidity.” This definition rubbed me wrong.
For a good portion of my life, I believed that ignorance equaled stupidity. I developed a complex, a sensitivity, about how others saw me. I worried about what they thought of me because each time I exposed my ignorance, I was certain they saw me as stupid.
If “intelligence” is the opposite of stupidity, then where does ignorance fit in there? I see intelligence as having the capacity to accept ignorance as a fundamental condition of being human. I see stupidity as denying (ignoring) that you are, or might be, ignorant. Ignorance is an innocent “not knowing” about something, whereas stupidity is a sort of unwillingness to consider yourself ignorant (like those annoying know-it-all folks).
Is Farnsworth suggesting that intelligence is the opposite of stupidity? Ignorance? Or both?
Is Stupidity the same as Ignorance?
But are the two—ignorance and stupidity—connected? If so, to what degree and how do you “heal” from one or the other? And am I just so sensitive to being ignorant that I am twisting Farnsworth’s words? What does he mean? Exactly? Does he think that because a person lacks the knowledge about something, like the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork, that they are stupid? A whole series of thinking, pondering, ruminating exploded in my brain. What to do?!
I immediately turned straight to Chapter 11, Ignorance.
“Socratic inquiry begins with awareness of your own ignorance—that is, awareness of how far short you fall from the wisdom you would like to have, and from the conclusive answers to the most urgent questions.”
“Socratic philosophy starts with “I don’t know.” It ends with “I don’t know.” Between those two points there is a progress and improvement, but it isn’t a journey from a question to an answer; it’s a journey from one question to another.”
Philosophy, I figure, is more like an antidote to ignorance. Besides, it is a lot easier to accept your ignorance than to see yourself as stupid.
What is Double Ignorance?
Farnsworth talks about “double ignorance”—ignorance of one’s own ignorance and that it (double ignorance) is the heart of the Socratic project. I haven’t explored this too much yet, but I suspect the Socratic project is about self-discovery, inquiry, and contemplation about one’s way of being. I was also reminded of something I wrote in my memoir, Glowing Houses:
“Opening your mind is the only way to diagnose and then cure yourself from the disease of ignorance. But overcoming the disease of ignorance is a complicated paradox: you’ve got to know you have it in order to treat it.”
Ignorance has been one of the most debilitating ailments in my life. But here in my later years, I understand that being ignorant is one of the greatest teachers one can ever know. In my memoir, I claim, “Although ignorant, I ain’t stupid.” The below excerpt from my manuscript is a bit about preparing to move to Colorado back in the early 80s.
“Nothing shines a light on your ignorance, your stupid ways, more than how you say a word or how you use it (wrong). I figured the O part of Colorado must be said like an O but really I couldn’t be for sure because so far I’d only heard people say the last O like ah, as if it ended with an A. Shoot, take the word color, for instance; if you really look at it, it could easily be said as c-OH-l-OR so sometimes it’s just really hard to know until you hear it said out loud by people who know how it’s supposed to be said. I decided I’d wait and see how the people who lived there said Colorado and then I would say it like them. They oughta know.
Even when I thought I knew a word, I learned through the pain and shame of exposing my ignorance that certain words I didn’t have right at all. And the more I interacted with people who said words the right way, like the town kids and teachers at high school, especially my Language Arts teacher who often rolled her eyes at me, the more embarrassed I got and the less I talked and the more I tried to fade into the background like you do at a party when you feel like you don’t belong. My poor grammar shone a light on my ignorance more than anything. I’d say things like infactuate instead of infatuate, aggerfate instead of aggravate, chimley instead of chimney, or take something for granit instead of granted.
I could tell I’d said a word wrong by the look on the person’s face. The heat in my belly was quick to rise into my own face. In a lot of cases I wouldn’t even know what the other person was talking about because I’d never even heard a certain word before, let alone seen it written out. Once I learned how to say a word, though, I practiced using it to make it stick.
When you don’t use words correctly, it’s a dead giveaway (to those who know words) that you don’t read, that you’re stupid.”
Even though I don’t think Farnsworth means to say that ignorance equals stupidity, exactly, there’s an element of truth in this thinking. Even a modest amount of learning about anything makes us less stupid. But the key is to know the difference between stupidity and ignorance. To overcome ignorance or stupidity, you must first consider that you might be one or the other: ignorant or stupid, and perhaps both.
Intelligence: the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.
Ignorance: lack of knowledge or information.
Stupidity: behavior that shows a lack of good sense or judgment.