Why Ignorance is Bliss
University of Colorado at Boulder
Academia is forever in paradox. The very subjects we seek to explore are not only diminished, but become tainted by our presence, until the ultimate goal of complete definition has been fulfilled. The very word define, or de fine, literally means to kill; and as we break apart the intricacies of the beautifully complex world in which we live, the possibility of putting it back together in harmony moves further from our grasp.
This is not to say that looking deeper than the façade is inherently harmful, for knowing these intricacies contains a beauty within itself—however, the relationship will be eternally transformed. Considering I stand waste deep in this academic quandary, I figure I might as well go deeper into this implication (along with several others whom have begun to tackle the dilemma at stake).
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The basis upon which this analysis speaks finds its roots within Martin Buber’s theory of dialogue, which itself is a mere sprig off the phenomenological tradition of communication. Buber (1955) sought out genuine dialogue, in other words, authentic conversation that considers "the other in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them." Though dense, this makes perfect sense, as what most would consider a ‘healthy’ relationship entails complete respect for the other—as they come—with the hope of fostering that bond into the future. But simultaneously, the difference encountered should not be embedded into your being, but rather be appreciated as an alternative lens with which the world can be viewed. Genuine dialogue stands in contrast with the idea of monologue, which encompasses those interactions where the other is of no importance: although speaking with another, there is no real interest in seeing, let alone appreciating, their unique lens on the world. The man who exemplifies "the life of monologue…is incapable of being ‘real’ in the context of the community in which he moves;" a sophisticated way of suggesting that artificiality in character makes it unfeasible to be truly connected with others (Buber, 1955).
The paradox of Buber’s genuine dialogue, parallel to our greater academic paradox, is that once one becomes aware that genuine dialogue is occurring, the authenticity ceases to exist. True dialogue is indeed distinguished by its momentary nature—though accepting and embracing its fleeting lifestyle heightens the significance when it does occur. So to seek out genuine dialogue is to embark on an impossible journey; it simply must appear. Similarly, the quest for knowledge can be viewed in the same light.
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Awareness comes in varying degrees, in regards to your surroundings: at the extreme end one can be aware to a fault. Of course, knowing the proximity is overwhelmingly beneficial—problems seem to arise when you become meta-aware, or aware that you are overly aware of the surroundings. It is much better to take in what the world has to offer without being conscious of the fact that you are doing so. Obviously, the body is constantly processing sensory information—but it should be treated as our ever-beating heart, and ever-breathing lungs are—it should not be of the utmost concern. And this applies directly to the idea of genuine dialogue, and more specifically the medium in which dialogue exists—language. Echoing Buber, Hans-Georg Gadamer (1977) reflects, "the more language is a living operation, the less we are aware of it" (p.65). The cycle is perfect. The more Buber’s definition of genuine dialogue is fulfilled, the less aware those engaging in the actual dialogue should become.
I would like to apply this thought process to how one experiences the world, which includes the scope of academia as well (though highly specified in a particular area). I believe a dialogue exists, even when there is no sentient being to respond directly—although, many times an experience evokes an internal dialogue that otherwise would not exist. Dialogue resides within the soul, and those who "live the life of dialogue receive…something that is said, and feel approached for an answer…even in the vast blankness of, say, a companionless mountain wandering" (Buber, 1955). These interactions should be felt, as Professor Robert T. Craig stated, "viscerally," meaning they should not require retrospective contemplation to be understood; rather, the emotions aroused at the time of interaction encompass all the understanding necessary. Over-analyzing these visceral experiences fundamentally alters them within one’s mind. To see first-hand the negative effect of meta-awareness, we need not look farther than Mark Twain and his time spent on the Mississippi River: "after he had mastered the analytic knowledge needed to pilot the river, he discovered that it had lost it’s beauty—…when analytic thought is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process" (Pirsig, 1974, p.77). This is the curse of the scholar, or more generally, anyone seeking expertise; for, proficiency comes at the loss of an initial holistic beauty—the first impression—which in truth has only one chance to ingrain itself within a virgin mind. That initial exposure allows the subject to be placed at any point within that individual’s schemata; and further experience can only slightly amend that rooting. In the beginning, a fertile plant can only germinate in the limited area which it has been exposed to, but once it has sprouted it can lean towards the sunlight that provides further life—but it cannot relocate from that initial residence.
All too often, especially in our society, it seems as if the end is enough to justify the means. But in truth, the ultimate end can never really be determined, for all relationships are eternal. It may seem counter-intuitive, but even in death the context in which two persons relate is always changing; while the persons themselves may remain constant, the context in which they reside is fluid. So for an academic to set out to prove a static hypothesis is simply an arbitrary goal, because "the more you look, the more you see"—with each step towards the original hypothesis, more trail-heads become evident, leading to pathways which may have been unconceivable at the onset (Pirsig, 1974, p.109). Furthermore, one cannot say which of these alternative routes suits them best until they are at the doorstep of such. Even Buber (1955) concurs, that "out of the incomprehensibility of what lies at hand…one [path] steps forth and becomes a presence." To have a predetermined path, or intellectual itinerary, is to suppress the unknown possibility of the expansion of the mind. Once an endeavor becomes the primary focus of someone "it is no longer the will of the individual person, holding back or exposing itself, that is determinative. Rather, the law of the subject matter is at issue in the dialogue," guiding the footsteps of the journeyman himself (Gadamer, 1977, p.66). To free yourself of all inhibitions comes closest to being a guide to achieving genuine dialogue. If all dialogue became unconfined in this way, surely the amount of authenticity would increase. To be rigid and unchanging in direction prevents one to wander, in a mental sense, stopping the trails of thought from weaving around in their natural flow. Genuine dialogue occurs when the different walks of life we all stroll parallel one another, as brief as it may be; and though a rigid path can, and will, bring you along side another, the frequency will be much greater if that predetermined path is cast off.
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Certainly, these thoughts will draw criticism—no doubt most attentively from academics themselves. The dialogic and academic paradox is footed in the fact that any deep analysis sharply contrasts the thesis presented in this paper, which itself is in complete contradiction of the very thesis contained within. However, this thesis is in no way perfect or complete. To continue Robert Pirsig’s (1974) thoughts on the analysis of experience, indeed "something is always killed. But what is less noticed—something is always created too…and it’s important also to see the process as a kind of death-birth continuity that is neither good nor bad, but just is" (p.77). Both academia, and the knowledge contained within, have always been a trademark of human-kind’s intelligence. They turn mysticism into rationality, continuously objectifying the world in which we can never know completely. And positively, reflection and deep contemplation have their place; nothing which we are familiar with today would exist without them. Moreover, there are times when the path should not be set free: to wander covers a great deal of ground, but it may not progress nearly as far forward as a singular trail. Those that have gone forth on these forward-oriented trails have brought back knowledge that, now, can be areas to wander for those who choose. Not to mention, it would be extremely presumptuous to say these innovators did not wander into their field of passion. No doubt: exploration, discovery, and invention have perpetuated our species to the place we currently reside, but the question still remains—have we made any ‘real’ progress? Are we any ‘smarter’ than during the eons where man and nature lived harmoniously as one (even if those times did rely on fanciful tales of creation)? These questions stand, and will forever be clinging to the coat-tails of the ones moving into the places that have yet to be journeyed to. It is an insatiable human desire.
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Martin Buber (1955) blazed a trail with his research, and his work opened a door that had previously been locked, but ultimately he found himself deep within the nucleus of this paradox, as the harmony of genuine dialogue within may have never been realized: "the basic unity of my own soul is certainly beyond reach of all the multiplicity it has hitherto received from life." The innovators will never cease to explore—nor should they—but many times the brilliance they perspire came to be through exploration and experience. To be genuine and authentic, the only criterion forms to fit each individual differently: this can only happen when one ceases to analyze every thought and action, to let the journey lead them to their destination.
Buber, M. (1955). Dialogue: in between man and man (R. G. Smith, Trans.; pp.1-39). Boston, MA: Beacon Press
Gadamer, H.G. (1977). Philosophical Hermeneutics (D. E. Linge, Trans.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Pirsig, R.M. (1974). Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. New York: Bantam Books