On Not Knowing: An Introduction

by Emily Ogden

Unfitness to pursue our research in the unfathomable waters. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

What are the forms of unknowing? Ambivalence. Diffidence. The open mind. The broken mind. The mind faced with the sacred. Deprivation of an education. Naiveté—or is it just youth? Objectivity. Credulity. Amateurism. Anti-intellectualism. Forgetting. Willful forgetting. Receipt of mercy, as when we say, it’s better if she doesn’t know.

Neither good nor bad, neither innocent nor strategic, unknowing in itself belongs neither to the right, nor to the left, nor even to the clueless, privileged middle. Yet forces conspire of late to make unknowing, both posture and reality, look like the exclusive territory of the reactionary guard. I do not think progressives should cede their claim to this common property of ours. For a little while, then—never mind how long; I’m not sure yet—this column will concern unknowing: when and why one might value it.

I am aware of how untimely such a project may seem, may even be. The Trump administration’s aggressive, racialized ignorance has reached literally world-destroying proportions. Seemingly the one kind of expertise toward which the US president does not maintain open hostility is criminal defense litigation, and that’s of necessity. Republican voters take pride in their know-nothingism—see “I’m a Deplorable” bumper stickers—and their critics agree, calling them uneducated, in denial about their white supremacist sympathies, or both.

While campaigns like #bluelivesmatter and climate-change denial weaponize obtuseness, the left assumes a defensive crouch and draws tight the mantle of its enlightenment. What other choice is there? To enter certain conversations—as for example about abortion or rape—unsure of what you think is often to be judged conservative. Only slightly less often, it is actually to be so. And thus knowingness becomes at times an affected signal, and at other times a reliable sign, of progressive politics.

But—but. Aren’t there forms of unknowing one might want to protect, even prize?

Sometimes we put on unknowing as a gracious style, in order to leave space for other people’s necessary illusions (as David Russell describes in his brilliant book on Tact). Sometimes we keep ourselves in the dark to make impartiality possible, as in various forms of blind testing and blind judgment. Sometimes our unreadiness to speak now is the price to be paid for our worthwhile work in the future. None of these forms are pure; none of these flames burn clean. I would like to shelter them from the gale nonetheless.


While my column will range widely among the promising styles and states of ignorance, I’ll begin with unreadiness. Why might we value the backward and the unprepared? Unreadiness is a good place to start because it is, itself, a refusal to start. It hangs back. In commencing the promised work, it lags perpetually. Woefully poky in an age of fast media, unreadiness is still asking who the Kardashians are and why they are famous. It never knows about people’s affairs. Its failures to keep up at the cocktail party are fatiguing to all.

But it may be that unreadiness appears to dawdle only because the world has sped up. In that case, the unprepared mind is of historical value. It can serve as a measuring stick for the times that have outpaced it. By the stake it plants at the flood tide’s height, we can measure the extent of the ebb. So Henry Adams suggested in The Education of Henry Adams. Born in 1838 to a family whose power had peaked in the previous century—he was the direct descendant of the two Adams presidents of the US, John and John Quincy—Adams was “an eighteenth-century child” destined to watch uncomprehendingly as the twentieth century dawned.

In the Education, Adams proposes himself as a “manikin” whose misfit relations with the present will let his contemporaries apprehend their times accurately. He wryly documents just how totally his outdated expectations have been confounded. “At past fifty,” Adams “solemnly and painfully learn[s] to ride the bicycle.” At the Paris Exposition of 1900, he stands in awe before the dynamo, a device for producing electricity from coal, with “his historical neck broken by the irruption of forces totally new.” One knows the impact of these machines by seeing how they bend and shatter him.

Ralph Waldo Emerson calls that person a “poet” who alone grasps and articulates the forces that her own era brings to bear on those who live it—forces under which the rest of us bow, only half seeing the boots on our necks. The poet is a prophet of the present. Adams wouldn’t have pretended to the poet’s lofty role; he would have been more likely to depict himself as one of those who were crushed to the floor. But Emerson, I think, might have seen poetry in the Education (it was published after Emerson died).

Adams’s unreadiness certainly would not have disqualified him. To Emerson, unreadiness is the visible sign of a poetic imagination, the surface chill left behind by the powerful draft of an inner bonfire. A person of extraordinary quickness, even omniscience, the poet nonetheless appears to be slow. Uninformed about economic and political life, lacking sparkle in casual conversations, the poet cannot “be afforded to the Capitol or the Exchange. The world is full of renunciations and apprenticeships,” Emerson continues, addressing the poet directly, “and this is thine: thou must pass for a fool and a churl for a long season.” However churlish and foolish Adams felt, others hung on his words in the Education. He published it privately and circulated it reluctantly during his life. After he died, it won a Pulitzer Prize.

Unreadiness was not a stylish gesture for Adams; it was something he suffered. Many, if not all, of us share his affliction, whether or not we are scheduled to receive the posthumous compensations that came Adams’s way. If there is one thing that worries me more than any other in the left’s adoption of enlightenment as its signature stance, it is that with this posture we place ourselves in opposition to what human being is actually like so much of the time. One has not read, seen, heard, or calculated even a good number of the books, people, and quantities. Judgment staggers as a result. One wishes it didn’t, but it does. If knowingness becomes the price of admission to the left, what can it amount to other than a demand that hobbled ponies pretend to leap?

When we feel the invisible tether hampering our steps, we might, instead, document our halting progress as Adams did. The record of our dawdling may sometimes be the yardstick that the present moment requires. It is even a remote possibility that precisely by lagging behind these times, we may be making ready for the future. Backward to follow, the dunces, perhaps, will be forward to lead.