Friday, May 28, 2010

Chet Raymo, "Sic Et Non"

"Sic Et Non"
by Chet Raymo

"I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing,
and that is that I know nothing."

- Aristotle

"Richard Capobianco's explanation of what philosophers do - or should do - strikes me as on the mark. So, to put it simply, good philosophy keeps our unknowing in view, and therefore keeps us thinking, keeps us questioning, keeps us wondering. Good philosophy keeps us unsettled in our knowing.

Yes, it would be good to have a department in every college and university whose function is to remind us of the limitations of our knowing. There is enough dogmatism to go around, enough pompous posturing, even in philosophy departments. Maybe the "wisdom" we should all learn to "love" is the possibility that we might be wrong, and that the answers to some questions might be beyond our grasp.

Legend has it that the 12th-century philosopher Peter Abelard's last words were "I don't know." He was best known in his time as a charismatic teacher and provocative thinker who was not adverse to challenging the smug certainties of the establishment - and his rambunctious young students cheered him on. Systematically applied doubt was his "master key to wisdom." Eventually he stirred the wrath of that other great charismatic of his time, Bernard of Clairvaux. Their epic confrontation* in 1121 can be taken as a classic expression of the tension that still resonates in our culture between dogmatic belief and doubt. The controversy, for all of its theological nitpicking, came down to a matter of temperament. Bernard liked answers. Abelard liked questions. I take it that Professor Capobianco stands with Abelard."
* "Peter Abelard wrote that he wished to provoke his young readers to the greatest exertion in the search for truth. Saint Bernard was convinced that the ‘dialectical method’ was a complete challenge to the teachings of the Church." For the tale of their famous confrontation please go here:

"Peter Abelard: Discoverer of Individuality in the Feudal Age"

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