Docta Ignorantia

6One minor advantage of cultural homogeneity is that it gives you tools to figure out exactly how ignorant a society’s authors and intellectuals truly were. In an era when the pool of books written on any given topic was small, then if someone says something quirky we can eventually, given enough time and coffee, figure out exactly where he got his quirky ideas from.

For example, because of the relatively small number of commentaries and histories of modern philosophy available in 1800, we can be quite confident that the philosopher Schelling (successor to Kant and Fichte, schoolmate of Hegel and Hölderlin) did not read much philosophy. At the time of his groundbreaking philosophical work in the 1790s, he had not read Descartes, he had not read Aristotle, and he had read only an expurgated edition of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Some Schelling-experts take his plans to produce a condensation or epitome of the Critique of Judgment to be evidence that he must have read (or at least skimmed) the whole thing; I draw a different conclusion. The one philosopher he read early, and carefully, was Spinoza; that plus some Plato and one of Fichte’s essays was apparently all that he needed.

From our vantage point in TCY you might be inclined to take this as proof that Schelling was a fraud. But Schelling wasn’t a fraud; he was a brilliant and engaging philosopher who set the philosophical agenda for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Perhaps his contributions would have been even richer if he had actually bothered to read the philosophers his rivals were channeling and responding to; certainly, much dubious Hegel-interpretation could have avoided if he had actually read his old roommate’s work before lecturing on contemporary philosophy to students like Kierkegaard and Engels.

Perhaps. But many of Schelling’s contemporaries were demonstrably much more deeply steeped in the minutiae of Kant’s (and Descartes’, and Leibniz’s) arguments, and have nothing to show for it but dull, pedantic tomes in fraktur type that sit in the basements of German university libraries. Hobbes (who was in fact a voracious bookworm) joked that he wrote better than others because he read less; it is hard to avoid the impression that in Schelling’s case this quip is accurate.

However it may be, Schelling was a genius, and his contemporaries recognized his genius at an early age and rewarded it. For us this may be slightly difficult to parse, at first: how can you recognize the intellectual talent of a man — of a boy, really — who is in fact deeply ignorant of his own field, philosophy? How can you make him a professor and expect him to lecture on what he has only just started to study?

In our already-degenerate culture, talent has become synonymous with grinding. Having no common standards for the good, the beautiful, and the true, we have no easy way to judge whether someone who disagrees with us is far-sighted or short-sighted. (Imagine looking at Monet’s haystacks for the very first time.) With no consensus on the questions that matter, to seek standards for expertise we have no choice but to turn to the things that don’t matter: the raw mass of (relatively) uncontroversial background material that anyone hoping to become an expert on a certain subject would find useful.

I almost wrote: “… would be expected to master.” But that is to prejudge the question. Because we only expect experts (and promising beginners) to master this background material if they have some need to signal to us that they are experts. Learning the raw mass of background material, no matter how useful it could be, will never be the only useful thing. In a healthy culture, the proof of mastery is the masterwork.

If you can produce the masterwork, you’ve proven the value of your apprenticeship. But if there is no one there to judge the masterwork and recognize its merits, then ordinary people start to take the sorts of things an apprentice would normally do (like “three years experience sweeping the floor of the workshop”) as a substitute for the true evidence of mastery which they would be incompetent to judge even if it smacked them in the face.

That’s how we get into our current predicament. No Schellings in TCY. Schelling, if I recall correctly, was famous at 19 and had been appointed to a chair in philosophy by 21. Likewise, Goethe had published his Werther by the age of 25. I don’t mean to fetishize the achievements of children and young adults (the way the Cathedral will occasionally trot out a fourteen year-old who can parrot back his lessons); my point is that if Goethe had been born in the twenty-first century, he would still be participating workshops under the watchful eye of some shriveled cat-lady at an age when he would have been… writing.

And as bad as it is for art and poetry, it’s a thousand times worse for scholarship.

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