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.

I do not mean to denigrate everyday knowing. Without the heuristics, or mental shortcuts, that enable us to impose meaning on the data that our minds are constantly processing, we would barely be able to function in the world. As Daniel Kahneman demonstrated, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, our everyday cognition is good enough to enable us to navigate reality quickly and efficiently most of the time. But it is nonetheless prone to errors. It prefers a plausible story over an accurate one. This intuitive, unconscious thinking, that Kahneman calls the mind’s System 1, needs to be supplemented with System 2 thinking, which processes things in a more rational and logical way, reaching more accurate conclusions. System 2 is more costly in terms of energy expended, so we tend to avoid it if we can get away with it.

But even System 2 thinking can lead us into a cul-de-sac-of knowing from which unknowing can rescue us. When we analyse things from a rational, logical perspective, the mind is sorting what it finds into categories and concepts that impose an orderly sense of reality on the world we inhabit. We tend to reach for abstract nouns which seem elegantly to elucidate things, but which actually distract us from intuiting what it is that we’re dealing with.

The duality of System 1 and 2 is a metaphor for how the mind works. But there is another duality, which takes physical form in how the brain is structured into left and right hemispheres. As Iain McGilchrist characterises it, in The Master and His Emissary, the mind that likes to categorise things is largely generated by the work of the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere, meanwhile, is more holistic. It deals with the raw data that we apprehend through all our senses, and comes to more contingent conclusions. We need the contribution of both hemispheres. But, McGilchrist argues, Western culture has come to privilege the left hemisphere’s way of seeing, so that our sense-making is unbalanced. Our knowing has become dangerously disconnected from values, emotions and other sensibilities, leading to a civilisation of easy certainties that finds it hard to deal with the complexities it creates. See, for example, climate change.

We need to step back from our habitualised ways of knowing, to create an opening to more holistic forms – which let in the knowing that is often bracketed out from our tendency to recognise.

The way I use the term unknowing is not wholly without precedent. The OED has a definition for the verb to unknow, which captures the sense of intention to which I am reaching:

To cease to know (a thing, person, fact, etc.); to remove (knowledge, information, etc.) from the mind or memory; to forget.

This still has too many connotations of ignorance for my liking. But then the OED also offers this, regarding unknowing as a noun:

Theology. The action or process of setting aside reason or learning in order to be open to God; the state of having done this.

This brings us to a sense of unknowing as an intentional act of letting go to facilitate a deeper level of knowing.

The earliest citation in the OED’s definition of this usage is a 14th Century text, The Cloud of Unknowing, by an anonymous author. This is a work of Christian mysticism, a guidebook to contemplative prayer seemingly written to a young student, perhaps by a monk or priest. It was written in Middle English. I like Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s modern translation. This passage captures the sense of unknowing as a relinquishing of one’s attachment to rational cognition, the better to bring one’s whole being into apprehension:

Forget what you know. Forget everything God made and everybody who exists and everything that’s going on in the world, until your thoughts and emotions aren’t focused on or reaching toward anything, not in a general way and not in any particular way. Let them be. For the moment, don’t care about anything… The first time you practice contemplation, you’ll only experience a darkness, like a cloud of unknowing. You won’t know what this is. You’ll only know that in your will you feel a simple reaching out to God. You must also know that this darkness and this cloud will always be between you and your God, whatever you do. They will always keep you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your intellect and will block you from feeling him fully in the sweetness of love in your emotions.

To my atheistic mind, the darkness that stands before an understanding of God is comprehensible in a way that the author perhaps did not intend. But that is me imposing my knowing from the stockpile of categories by which I understand the world. From a different perspective, I can approach the idea of God as a metaphor for something bigger than ourselves and see an affinity between the author’s practice of unknowing and the construct of not knowing in Buddhism and secular mindfulness. Buddhism emphasises the inevitability of change and, with it, the futility of imagining a fixedness to how we experience the world. We live only in the here and now. The past is an abstract construct. The future is unknown. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing offers this:

Here’s how we know time is precious. God, the giver of time, never gives us two moments simultaneously; instead, he gives them to us one after another. We never get the future. We only get the present moment.

One of the author’s sources of inspiration, it seems, was an earlier Christian mystic, Dionysius, who also explored unknowing as a pathway to knowing. But I’m also struck by how Carmen Acevedo Butcher locates The Cloud of Unknowing in a time of extraordinary dislocation:

(It was) written in England sometime during the last half of the fourteenth century, an age of pandemic. The bubonic plague reached the island in 1348, raged through 1349, reappeared several more times before century’s end, and returned haphazardly for hundreds of years… Most victims were gone in under five days; others lasted less than twenty-four hours. Millions caught it. Roughly half of England’s population died. Meanwhile, compassion suffered a slow death also… In the introduction of the Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio describes the inhumanity of that time: ‘Neighbors never helped neighbors, and even relatives shunned each other. Brother deserted brother, uncle left nephew, sister forgot brother, and sometimes wife neglected husband. Worst of all, parents abandoned their children, as if they didn’t know them.’

Just as today, pandemic was not the only cause of dislocation. Carmen Acevedo Butcher notes that the plague arrived in the midst of the Hundred Years War between England and France. And the period also included the Peasants’ Revolt in which commoners rampaged through counties, “opening prisons, attacking monasteries, sacking stately manors, killing every lawyer they could find, and burning whatever they could get their hands on.” We hear the echoes of these rages today in the looting of cities and the storming of Washington’s Capitol.

Unknowing may seem an abstruse idea. But it is perhaps easier to grasp when one realises that it arises in response to barely comprehensible upheaval and intractable challenges.

T. S. Eliot was drawn to the idea of unknowing during the years preceding and during the Second World War. In his play, Family Reunion, he refers directly to “a cloud of unknowing”. More memorably, in the Four Quartets, writing during the Blitz in an England consumed by “tongues of flame”, he explores the ineffability of experience and the ebb and flow between knowing and unknowing.

This is from East Coker:

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

And this is from Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.

The Four Quartets have a theological dimension, but they speak to an audience beyond religion. In my view, this is because they are an urgent voice from a time of crisis, contemplating the nature of existence when the familiar world is ruptured, when we have to begin to know afresh the very ground on which we have lived hitherto.

This opening to unknowing as a response to dislocation is having a moment in our own era. In 2007, the composer Francis Pott produced a choral work called The Cloud of Unknowing, dedicated to Margaret Hassan, an aid worker who was taken hostage and murdered in Iraq, and to “all innocent lives lost in or beyond Iraq”. In the same year, the folk musician James Blackshaw – who plays the 12-string guitar – released an album called The Cloud of Unknowing which, to my ears, is a meditative and shape-shifting work that rewards contemplative attention.

In November 2016, political commentators reached for the metaphor of the cloud of unknowing in relation to Brexit. Neal Ascherson spoke of the government’s “inner weakness” and Theresa May’s state of “panic” as she led Britain into “the black cloud of unknowing that covers Brexit negotiations, the trembling economy and the future of the United Kingdom itself.” Matthew d’Ancona observed that the cloud of unknowing into which Britain was heading was creating a future that was “less predictable than at any point since the crash – perhaps further back.” These references seemed less an embracing of unknowing as a means to fuller knowledge, and a cry of anguish at the insecurity that the referendum earlier that year had set in train.

Since then, of course, the Covid pandemic has caused us to unknow what we held familiar in our lives and relationships. Suspensions to society and the economy that many scarcely thought possible in February last year were implemented in March, and now we argue about whether and how we will ever escape them. And with the unknowing, Covid brought its own form of knowing too, as we rushed to become armchair epidemiologists and public health experts, conjuring new certainties out of recently grasped concepts such as herd immunity, lockdown scepticism and virus suppression.

Most of the population seem to be adjusting to dislocation more phlegmatically than some excitable politicians who rail against restrictions and demand the right to book a summer holiday. The latter sound, as Professor Devi Sridhar eloquently put it, “like a child having a tantrum because they want a unicorn for their birthday and no-one can give them a unicorn.” Their knowing that a normality exists to which we can return is futile because we do not yet know how the pandemic will evolve nor yet what the impact of vaccinations will be.

My sense is that, despite widespread stoicism, people are finding lockdown harder now than at the start of the pandemic. Then, our not knowing helped us. Assisted by a glorious spring, we could engage with the situation’s novelty and with hope that our confinement would be short-lived. A year on, and in a cold winter, being stuck at home creates monotony, loneliness and inactivity – all of which can be adverse for both mental and physical health.

To my mind, this is where we feel the edge of unknowing. There is an inevitable grief for what we have lost. Grief is best met by being gentle with ourselves. But in our hankering for life to be more like what we knew before we diminish our ability to cope elegantly with what life presents now. This hankering is the rational mind becoming stuck in obsessive loops and hoping for easy solutions. Those excitable politicians, after all, are seeking to make capital out of a yearning that is real. If we can let go of these thought processes, there is the possibility of opening to more sustaining ways of experiencing our confinement, of finding novelty in our repetitive routines, being at peace with what is currently possible. It would be a good idea to use lockdown to build this muscle. When this particular ordeal is over, we will still have to deal with the impacts of climate change and mass extinctions, to meet the challenge of social justice and to breathe new life into our faltering democracies (among other things). Is the height of our aspiration really just to return to the world we knew before?

6 thoughts on “The etymology of unknowing

    • Thanks, Simon. I’m comfortable with being a spiritual atheist. What makes me allergic is the ossification that often seems to accompany organised spirituality and religious orthodoxy.


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