Thinking For Yourself (Admitting Ignorance)

In modern day life we are viewed as idiotic if we admit that we do not know exactly what we are talking about. In common parlance we are told to “take a stab at the answer”, “have a guess” or “have a go at it”. In performance tests (at school, university and work) we are given a zero if we leave a space blank, instead of being rewarded for acknowledging our individual lack of knowledge. Politicians are condemned if they utter the words “I don’t know” in interviews, and are instead expected to duck and weave around the utterance of the phrase. This is all very unusual, given that several of our most celebrated, enlightened thinkers of the past have insisted that we should admit our fallibility, our ignorance, flaws, etc and that these admissions are the key to acquiring wisdom.

Perhaps our politicians are merely unwise, because they do not acknowledge themselves to be unwise?

    To consider this, it is important to ask: what would John Stuart Mill say?

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty dealt in part with the suppression of ideas and thoughts by political powers. Mill believed that the suppression of disagreeable points of view prevented individuals from reaching the truth in arguments. Unless capable of being challenged, people would remain locked in their own belief systems, even if their own views were in some way objectively incorrect. Only if ideas are free to roam, Mill argued, can truth ever be reached.

For our own purposes, Mill explains how one can reach truth in argument. Mill argues for admitting our own fallibility – the fact that we can be wrong or ignorant in our central beliefs. Once this is admitted, we can all become more open to the ideas of others, who may in fact be correct (or at least, more correct than ourselves).

He also suggests that we roundly condemn those who make assertions without any actual knowledge of the subject matter at hand.

In the section extracted below, Mill closely mirrors the thoughts of two previous heavyweight thinkers, Confucius and Socrates, who each said:

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” – Confucius
“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing” – Socrates

Acknowledging your own fallibility is therefore a starting point in acquiring knowledge and wisdom in the eyes of all three: Mill, Confucius and Socrates.

John Stuart Mill, Of The Liberty of Thought and Discussion:

Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to be set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them….

Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it.

Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand.

In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognisant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers—knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter—he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process

There is a class of persons (happily not quite so numerous as formerly) who think it enough if a person assents undoubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion, and could not make atenable defence of it against the most superficial objections. Such persons, if they can once get their creed taught from authority, naturally think that no good, and some harm, comes of its being allowed to be questioned. Where their influence prevails, they make it nearly impossible for the received opinion to be rejected wisely and considerately, though it may still be rejected rashly and ignorantly; for to shut out discussion entirely is seldom possible, and when it once gets in, beliefs not grounded on conviction are apt to give way before the slightest semblance of an argument. Waiving, however, this possibility—assuming that the true opinion abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument—this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.