Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Ignorance

You are all ignorant. As am I.

One of my pet peeves, and it is a pet peeve that has been irritated more often of late than it should be, is when people misuse the term 'ignorant' and its cognates. The first and fundamental thing that needs to be recognized is that everyone is ignorant about something. About lots of things, actually; for every single person, the things they are ignorant about vastly outnumber the things they are not ignorant about. So let's stop using 'ignorant' as a pejorative, whenever it does not clearly (and preferably explicitly) mean 'willfully ignorant'; and even that does not mean what some people seem to think it means.

If it were simply a matter of its occasionally being misused in common speech in this way, I wouldn't be too bothered by it. But there are three types of people I have found to be using it this way who have no right to do so if they are to continue pretending to be what they claim to be. They are people who claim to be philosophers, people who claim to be scientists, and people who claim to be progressives. Because of all people, these are exactly the people who should know that ignorance is our common state, and that the source of all progress in knowledge is recognizing our own ignorance (thereby to begin remedying it). It is not a crime, or a sin, or a shame, or even a misfortune, to be ignorant of something. It is merely an opportunity; and if you call yourself a philosopher or a scientist you should know this better than anyone else, because that's what you do: recognize your ignorance and make an opportunity for knowledge out of it. If you consider yourself a progressive, the whole of your position is predicated on evaluating this sort of thing as a good thing -- it's a major element, perhaps the major element, constituting the notion of 'progress' to which the word 'progressive' refers. If you call yourself anyone of these three names, and ever find yourself misusing the term 'ignorant' as an insult, do us all a favor and smack yourself upside the head for it.

Even when we are dealing with 'willful ignorance' the ignorance part of it doesn't constitute any sort of problem at all; when we are criticizing people for being willfully ignorant, we are criticizing them for being obstinate -- and that is all.

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