Ignorant, Humble, and Curious

Featured image is a scholar with his books and globe.

Meredith L. Patterson has a wonderful post on the Platonic dialogues, and the different roles particular characters fill in them.

At a high level, there are just two roles: smart guy and dumb guy. Socrates is the only smart guy, so if you are his interlocutor, you’re the dumb guy.

But on the dumb guy side, Meredith makes a further distinction:

Broadly, they fall into two classes: hubristic dumb guys and epistemically humble dumb guys. Hubristic dumb guys think they know all the answers, and by definition don’t, because nobody does. Epistemically humble dumb guys know they don’t know most of the answers, and don’t mind, apart from the whole not-knowing part, and would like to know more.

You’d think that for your self-image it would be better to be Socrates, but I honestly kinda like being the second kind of dumb guy.

I think this is on the mark. To see why, consider two extreme interpretations of Socrates.

Gadamer provides the classical, idealistic interpretation:

Among the greatest insights that Plato’s account of Socrates affords us is that, contrary to the general opinion, it is more difficult to ask questions than to answer them. When the partners in the Socratic dialogue are unable to answer Socrates’ awkward questions and try to turn the tables by assuming what they suppose is the preferable role of the questioner, they come to grief. Behind this comic motif in the Platonic dialogues there is the critical distinction between authentic and inauthentic dialogue. To someone who engages in dialogue only to prove himself right and not to gain insight, asking questions will indeed seem easier than answering them. There is no risk that he will be unable to answer a question. In fact, however, the continual failure of the interlocutor shows that people who think they know better cannot even ask the right questions. In order to be able to ask, one must want to know, and that means knowing that one does not know.

Socrates is humble, in knowing that he does not know. And curious, in authentically wanting to know. And so he poses questions in good faith, which turns out to require more skill, and serve an even more crucial role, than providing answers.

This is certainly the ideal that Socrates was meant to champion, and has served as an icon for.

But there’s another reading of Socrates, which Meredith covers:

The Socratic method can be a great mode of intellectual exploration when people avoid using it as a weapon. Unfortunately, our role models here are not that great, because Socrates was in fact kind of a jerk, and ultimately he got himself executed for trolling the polis too hard. Indeed, one of the failure modes of the Socratic method is when the questioner uses their role more to show off how great they are (which Socrates did model) than to open new perspectives in the minds of those in the responder role. When this happens, it teaches people to be cautious of open-ended questions, to wonder where the trap is; in groups, no one wants to be the first to open their mouth and say something stupid. If you answer, you’re automatically a Dumb Guy.

Socrates did indeed use it as a weapon, and was often an arrogant jerk, a smug know-it-all carefully crafting his questions to make sure he would always be cast as the smart guy.

The humble dumb guy, by contrast:

If nothing else, it gets the conversation moving. I see it as giving other people the chance to be the smart guy, or at least smarter than that fuckup — sometimes that’s the kick in the ass people need to break the bystander effect and express their opinion. They’re not sure whether their take on a situation is any smarter than Socrates’, and Socrates is being all cagey keeping his cards to his chest, but at least they look smart compared to that rube.

In discussing Meredith’s piece with Daniel Estrada, he pointed out that one of the problems of the Socratic method is that its developers assumed that the interlocutors actually do know the answers to the questions. The role of Socrates is to lead them to recognize it. However, there are clearly things we do not already know. Daniel thinks that an intrinsic weakness of dialectical approaches is that they obscure the distinction between one who really does know, and one who does not.

I see this through the lens of Truth and Method.

The entire expanse of what we already know and what we are capable of understanding can be thought of as our horizon. We can speak, as Daniel tacitly does, of having narrower or broader horizons.

However, it’s also possible for someone with a very narrow horizon to be approaching some book or some idea from a standpoint within that horizon that actually delivers more insight than someone with a broader horizon. It’s not just broadness or narrowness—that is, it’s not just how much knowledge you have, but what knowledge you bring to bear in a given situation, that matters.

And so a more ignorant person can better understand a situation if they are drawing on the most appropriate of their knowledge, and a more informed person can completely misread the situation.

Dialogue, and dialectic, are better suited to honing your ability to make the best use of what knowledge you have. Pedagogically, the most valuable contribution that the more knowledgeable person can make to the less knowledgeable one is to help them see how big the holes in their knowledge are. How what they can understand points and what is lacking in their understanding.

Because human beings are fundamentally a species that understands—but incompletely.

So where does that leave Meredith’s smart guy, hubristic dumb guy, and humble dumb guy taxonomy?

Humility is an important virtue, in general and in intellectual matters. It is important to recognize our finiteness, that what knowledge humanity has cumulatively is too vast for any one of us to grasp in its entirety, and that even those more ignorant than us are capable of grasping specific insights more concretely than we do.

Curiosity is also a virtue. Paired with humility, curiosity makes life a never ending adventure, in which the excitement of having something new to learn never fades.

Meredith’s humble dumb guy has these virtues, but also a kind of generosity. He accepts the role of the ignorant one asking dumb questions and giving clumsy answers, and gives others the opportunity to save face and look more knowledgeable than they perhaps are. In so doing he opens up the opportunity for all involved to learn from one another, broadening their horizons but also refining the application of what they already know.

We still need authorities on particular topics for it to be possible to learn a great deal about that which we do not already know. But we shouldn’t underestimate the value of learning how to use that knowledge once we have it, how to make it your own.

I have known too many people who have read enormous quantities of books but seem unable to internalize much of it. To be sure, they can summarize most of them. But it often feels like something is just out of their grasp. I don’t think this hole can be plugged by simply reading more books.

I suppose it is the difference between knowledge and wisdom, a valley I could not begin to tell you how exactly to bridge.

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