The etymology of unknowing

The word “unknowing” does not generally have positive connotations. It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as an adjective (though also used as a barely distinguishable present participle) meaning:

Not knowing; not possessing knowledge or understanding; ignorant; ill-informed; naive.

The sense in which I’m using it is almost the opposite of this. I’m talking about a letting go of the knowing that paradoxically makes us unaware and unwitting – that is to say, the knowing in which we reside most of the time. The words “unaware” and “unwitting” that I used in that last sentence to describe “knowing” are taken from Chambers’ definition of “unknowing”. What we’re dealing with is not a binary between ignorance and knowledge but an ebbing and flowing between knowing and unknowing, the boundaries between them hard to discern.

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The age of ignorance

We are, says Tim Harford, living in an age of ignorance. He refers to the work of Robert Proctor, a historian of science, who coined the term “agnotology” to describe the study of ignorance. Proctor’s insight, arising from his analysis of the tobacco industry’s efforts to create doubt about the adverse impact of smoking, was that ignorance is often culturally induced. “Ignorance is not just the not-yet-known,” he says, ”It’s also a political ploy, a deliberate creation by powerful agents who want you ‘not to know’.”

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Nobody knows anything

I’ve been trying to write something about the crisis for some time now. But every time I gather my thoughts, I realise that the sense I have made of things is lagging behind the pace of change. I am trying to figure out how to be useful while confined at home. But much of my energy is curiously consumed with the busyness of simply sustaining life. I could fill my calendar with well-intentioned Zoom calls from dawn until bedtime. But to do so feels like displacement. So I’ve spent the past couple of days deleting all such invitations the better simply to be with what is.

I’ve noticed that the day ends badly when I allow the evening to be consumed with news. Monday’s announcement that the Prime Minister was in intensive care followed this pattern. There were complex feelings. Much as I hold no brief for Boris Johnson, I wish him well as a human being, as the father of an unborn child and as the leader of the nation’s response to Covid. Beyond that, as Dominic Raab steps blinking into the pitiless spotlight, I reflect on the misfortune that the virus strikes at the time when the UK Government is in the hands of the most mediocre bunch of ideologues to inhabit Whitehall in living memory. Nonetheless, I have sympathy for these people who rose to power encouraging a belief (and perhaps believing themselves) that complex challenges could be met by vacuous slogans. You can see the fear in their eyes and the fatigue on their faces as they do their best to respond to destiny’s call. Who would want to be in their shoes? I have confidence in their intentions. But I wish Britain weren’t starting from here.

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Check your privilege

One thing that worries me about our attachment to knowing is that our knowing is outpaced by its impacts.

The systemic complexity of our world seems to be slipping beyond the wit of Homo sapiens to manage. This was evident in the financial crash of 2007, when it was revealed that those in charge of the banks had no understanding of the complex derivatives for which they were responsible. Google and Facebook have no real means to manage the uses of their networks by bad actors. In fact, their incentive to keep enabling malevolent uses of their networks pushes Google and Facebook themselves into the category of bad actors. And in Brexit, the UK Government is managing a process the consequences of which it seems unable to understand, still less contain. We shall see.

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