How to become an “antischolar” in a culture that treats knowledge as “an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order.”
“It is our knowledge — the things we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning,” Lincoln Steffens wrote in his beautiful 1925 essay. Piercingly true as this may be, we’ve known at least since Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave that “most people are not just comfortable in their ignorance, but hostile to anyone who points it out.”. Although science is driven by “thoroughly conscious ignorance” and the spiritual path paved with admonitions against the illusion of thorough understanding, we cling to our knowledge — our incomplete, imperfect, infinitesimal-in-absolute-terms knowledge — like we cling to life itself.
And yet the contour of what we know is a mere silhouette cast by the infinite light of the unknown against the screen of the knowable. The great E.F. Schumacher captured this strange dynamic in the concept of adaequatio — the notion that “the understanding of the knower must be adequate to the thing to be known.” But how do we face our inadequacy with grace and negotiate wisely this eternal tension between the known, the unknown, the knowable, and the unknowable?
That’s what Lebanese-American scholar, statistician, and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb explores in a section of his modern classic The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (public library) — an illuminating inquiry into the unknowable and unpredictable outlier-events that precipitate profound change, and our tendency to manufacture facile post-factum explanations for them based on our limited knowledge.
Taleb uses legendary Italian writer Umberto Eco’s uncommon relationship with books and reading as a parable of the most fruitful relationship with knowledge:
The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.
Eco himself has since touched on humanity’s curious relationship with the known and the unknown in his encyclopedia of imaginary lands, the very existence of which is another symptom of our compulsive tendency to fill in the gaps of our understanding with concrete objects of “knowledge,” even if we have to invent them by the force of our imagination. Taleb adds:
We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.
Noting that his Black Swan theory centers on “our misunderstanding of the likelihood of surprises” because we underestimate the value of what we don’t know and take what we do know “a little to seriously,” Taleb envisions the perfect dancer in the tango with knowledge:
Let us call this an antischolar — someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device — a skeptical empiricist.
Complement The Black Swan, which is fascinating it its totality, with astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in a culture obsessed with certitude, philosopher Hannah Arendt on how unanswerable questions give shape to the human experience, and novelist Marilynne Robinson on the beauty of the unknown.