A free pass at ignorance

A few weeks ago there was released an interview with Brian Leiter, the philosopher behind the surprisingly influential philosophy blog, Leiter Reports. Leiter has been known for various things, one of which is his reluctance or annoyance to acknowledge an ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ distinction in philosophy. The comment that comes to mind is the following:

There are real dividing lines in the history of philosophy, but the one between the “analytic” and the “Continental” isn’t one of them, though it’s interesting today from a sociological point of view, since it allows graduate programs in philosophy to define spheres of permissible ignorance for their students.(Leiter, 3AM magazine)

I was thinking about this cultural phenomenon of how philosophy has been taught, and the phrase ‘permissible ignorance’ seems much more relevant to a wider range of fields than I thought. So often we hear of self-proclaimed experts in various professions, or in the media, but many of which are hardly master practicioners or theoreticians of the art in which they are addressing.

A good electrician is one who knows what they are doing when it comes to aspects of their craft. Likewise, a notable expert would be one with a background in their art or at least knowledgable enough to be pioneering, innovative or at least the most able person in the room in a great many situations.

Permissible ignornace seems to take place in a variety of ways. When people handwave about scientific studies for instance. Another interesting one is when academics in research are unfamiliar with the methodological problems of their research. In particular, a lack of awareness of cognitive bias or social biases is so prevalent in industrial and scientific research that it is shameful.

Some fields have become so autonomous and specialised that not all aspects of its specialism need to be known. A good electrician doesn’t need to know the equations concerning alternating current and direct current. Likewise, I suspect that most software engineers wouldn’t really need to know much mathematical logic.

Wilful ignorance is something that perplexes me. Many times I’ve been in job interviews when I realise some of the professionals haven’t done a literature review. Other times i realise that many so-called experts that I come across are full of shit. I’m reminded of something that Machiavelli says in The Prince, which is also repeated in Grayling’s book of ‘Lawgiver’ in ‘The Good Book’ (which probably is an allusion to Machaivelli). The notion is that a leader should be seen in solidarity with their subjects, and to gain credibility is not only willing to do the things that they themselves ask of their people, but to be exceptional at it.

In recent weeks, I have been weight training with a couple of friends of mine, including Sinistre. I recall saying something to them before I was showing them my routine. I said to them in an almost disingenuous prophet like fashion: I will not ask of you that I cannot do myself. My point was that I can’t claim to be any expert unless I can show what I’m doing to them at least as well as they could do it.

In a few proficiencies, there is no possibility of having a wilful ignorance. Presenting to a crowd of philosophers for instance, who have a background in logic and can comb through inconsistencies and logical tensions, if not any outright contradictions. Likewise the art of live performance, especially when recorded, emphasises every inferiority a performer has, some may be endearing for the performing legends, but for anybody else they are judged in the most harsh way possible.

The fear of judgment is something which keeps a practicioner such as a philosopher, a musician or even a bodybuilder to account. Being accountable to a higher set of standards, competing with people who may be above one’s ability and where one’s flaws or gaps in knowledge and performance are emphasised by the presentation of self to peers really determines what it means to ‘keep a person honest’. This kind of accountability and competition is one way to force away the disingenuous false idols.

By contrast, the dynamics of nepotism and peer enforcement, social advancement and social clades is antithetical to intellectual openness. The virtue of magnanimity is suffocated by the other side of peer review, when one’s peers have a pre-determined vision of their success or a notion of expertise.This is hardly an appeal to higher standards but an exercise in conformity. Wilful ignorance would occur when practicioners operate in social clades. I thought it interesting that Leiter’s sociological point about analytic and continental philosophy is potentially wider. It makes me imagine that social clades as a form of enforcing a status quo of temperament is a means of control by a Nietzschean last man.


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