On ignorance, mostly

Now I am reading Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, a series of philosophical arguments, dilemmas, extensions and inquiries in small dense type. It requires more concentration than I’ve had to expend on a book in quite some time. So much so that I began to wonder if the reading would ever yield anything valuable enough to have been worth the effort—but I think it is worth the effort. Granted, I am not yet much more than a quarter of the way through its 543 pages (ok, 454 if you don’t include notes, appendices, index); but I’ve reached some discussion about happiness and what can be defined as “good,” and Parfit gets there by means of examining theories of happiness that are directly or indirectly self-defeating. Among other things.

Although Parfit does not mention ignorance, at this section of the book I found myself musing on it, specifically “ignorance is bliss” (a phrase which seems to refute the Socratic statement about the examined life while allowing Socrates his insistence on his own ignorance and, I suppose, his happiness). And having recently read Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, which confronts how much reality is valuable for happiness, under extenuating circumstances, the concept of ignorance as a not-necessarily-negative state of being intrigues me…I, who have tried all my life to avoid ignorance. Though this book is doing a fair job of making me feel pretty ignorant, I don’t feel bad about it.

Am I suggesting ignorance is good? No…but it may be value-neutral, or it may be relative, operating along a sort of continuum that cannot be categorized as “good” or “bad.” I return to my last post, on malclichés. It is possible, even likely, that an instructor who encounters one of these mis-hearings/mis-writings in a student essay will assume the student is ignorant. The student may indeed be ignorant of the conventions of spelling or the usual turns of overused phrases. Such mistakes, however, may indicate a lack of education, simple laziness or disinclination or haste, an over-reliance on AutoCorrect, or perhaps a disability in the areas of vision-hearing-neural processing: not necessarily ignorance.

Then what is ignorance? (This is why so many people get irritated with philosophy: you have to define everything!)

One thing ignorance is not is a lack of conventional education, even though that definition may be the easiest to assume. Again, it’s kind of a continuum, isn’t it? If I miss an allusion to a line in a Yeats poem, am I ignorant? And am I more, or less, ignorant than if I miss an allusion to a Shakespeare play or, perhaps, an allusion to the Kardashian sisters?

(That sentence makes me really want to write a poem that contains references to Yeats, Macbeth, and the Kardashians; but I probably ought to leave that to Billy Collins.)

Anyway, Parfit’s book is really more about what is rationality and what is morality and how individuals may or may not be rational or moral, both as individuals and as persons within communities and societies. Which inquiry and argument, by the way, would encompass Yeats, Shakespeare, and the Kardashians.

Perhaps after I finish reading it, I will be better educated on rationality and morality. I may be just as ignorant, but I’ll try not to be too judgmental about being so.

Here’s one from Philip Larkin, titled (appropriately) “Ignorance”:

Strange to know nothing, never to be sure
Of what is right, or true, or real
But forced to qualify: Or so I feel
Or: Well, it does seem so,
Someone must know

Strange to be ignorant of the way things work
Their skill at finding what they need,
Their sense of shape, and punctual spread of seed
And willingness to change
Yes, it is strange

Even to wear such knowledge—for our flesh
surrounds us with its own decisions—
and yet spend all our lives on imprecisions,
that when we start to die
have no idea why.



4 comments on “On ignorance, mostly

  1. Marilyn Hazelton says:

    How much do I want to know is a question that is active in my life, and may have been active in my life all of my life. When I was younger I wanted to know everything I could. Now, there are qualifications, having known something of stupidity, of evil, as well as the lighter experiences of life. I am musing currently on wanting to know what is real and good. My progress is uneven. Still, there is progress. I think.

    Thank you, Ann, for the thought prompt. Marilyn


    • Thank you for the comment! I wonder whether we ever can filter out stupidity and evil, once we are aware of them; I think not (we are like the former prisoner in Plato’s allegory of the cave). What we can do, perhaps, is make choices of how far to participate in the stupidity or how to confront or combat it, and whether we want to be that engaged or not.

      I think making choices is a way of making progress.


  2. Must see this great documentary called Examined Life. At one point Cornel West tallks about the pleasure of thinking. We don’t often think of it as a pleasure, but it is. Most people view it as an obligation or a necessity, but for some of us it is nothing short of a thrill. Ignorance that leads to questing for knowledge–the kind Socrates had in mind–can be pleasurable, but ignorance that is accepted, that isn’t even noticed, is a horrifying denial of human potential. Must read this book you are talking about.


    • Can I find Examined Life on Netflix? Did I just ask a really profound and silly question (imagine actually finding the examined life on Netflix…)?

      I find the ignorance that leads to questioning usually pleasurable though, as Marilyn has pointed out, sometimes what I learn–for example, the existence of accepted ignorance or the prevalence of evil–is a bit disheartening.



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