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Part of my philosophy is not knowing Posted on November 17th

a book by its cover

Recently, in response to being accused of “not knowing what I was talking about,” I shot back that “an essential part of my philosophy is not knowing.” After I said it, I laughed–how could a part of my philosophy be to not know? Wasn’t the whole point of a philosophy to know, or at least try to?

 Yet for artists in particular,  there is a great benefit in not knowing, in not being informed, in letting yourself misunderstand. Not knowing allows free play over a range of subjects, it allows conjecture and imagination to reign, and it prevents an artist from sinking down into the infinite void of minutia that every subject contains.

I think some of the most interesting thoughts I’ve had have been about things about which I only had partial knowledge. I’m sure everyone’s had the experience of looking at a book’s cover, and imagining, based on the title and the design, what the book might be. I often imagine a plot and a tone for the book that’s brilliant and fascinating and far beyond what I can do. “What a triumph this book probably is. The plot probably moves from the mother to the son in languid, melancholy waves, and the novel probably leaves you feeling like the present is a bittersweet memory of your future self.” Then I open the book and read a blurb: “A wonderfully moving account of how a mother and son, both heroin addicts, kick the habit through latch hooking. A story of loss, redemption, backsliding, more redemption, more loss and finally a house-sized cozy.”

Inevitably, I wish I never opened the book. But the act of imagining what something might be is often richer than actually finding out what something is. Knowing something for sure shuts down the often inspiring play of conjecture. Incompleteness–snippets of conversations, forms seen from the corner of the eye, echoes and shadows apart from their source–this is the stuff of inspiration.

Not-knowing also prevents a common problem: knowing something (or believing you know something) too well. For instance, I know a lot about riding horses. I can talk about it all day, every day, for the rest of my life and still not tire of all the infinite details that forever reveal themselves the deeper I get in. I talk shop with such relish that no irony, no broader comment on humankind’s relationship to animals, and no insight could possibly break through. Basically, I am incapable of seeing horses and riding dressage from the vantage of anywhere else but inside. When someone knows too much about a subject, they can only move down further into the abyss of specifics. Good art however, succeeds because it can freely move from the minute to the epic, from the universal to the idiosyncratic, from deep within to far without. Expertise is the death of art.

A final defense of not-knowing comes from a far more respected source. I was listening to a Radio Lab piece about the mind’s relationship to the self. After interviewing and talking to neuroscientists and cognitive researchers, the last scientist interviewed simply says that we will not discover the mind’s relationship to the self because humankind isn’t designed to know everything. The mind is not meant to know itself.   The mystery is far more fruitful than any fact that could undo it–does anyone really want to hear that a cluster of neurons, or an electrical impulse, or any other assorted brain goo holds makes up the self?    If it were true that the mind is only one of those things, might not it be better to be wrong and believe something else?  

The arts could be seen as humankind’s most eloquent misunderstanding of the world. To err is human, to err beautifully, art.

P.S. (hypocrite alert?!)

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One Response to “Part of my philosophy is not knowing” :

  1. “The Cloud of Unknowing” was one of the most influential “books” I ever read. Actually, the title was quite enough. Unknowing eliminates many distractions from direct contact with art. You are on target, McFawn.

    The new look around here is stimulating. Congrats.

    Commented catfish on November 18th, 2007.
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