Ignorance. An interesting word. Yet often times associated with negative connotations.
I think people generally identify ignorance with low intelligence or stupidity and with that, foolishness and idiocy. At the same time, we’ve all heard the phrase “ignorance is bliss”. But what does that really mean?
Thomas Gray is well known for his phrase, “where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise”. It is probably one of the most misunderstood phrases in English literature. As it was written, Gray was reminiscing about his innocent youth — a time when he was “permitted” to be ignorant. He was not promoting ignorance. Yet I would like to suggest that we do.
When you look up the word “ignorance” in the dictionary, it is defined as “the condition of being uneducated, unaware or uninformed”. Yet when I think about the definition of ignorance, words that immediately come to my mind include: inexperience, uncertainty and unfamiliarity. These are words of power – especially in Dialogue, because…
With inexperience, there is innocence.
In uncertainty, you develop trust.
And in unfamiliarity, there is newness.
Innocence. Trust. Newness. These are compelling qualities. They are also necessary conditions for Generative Dialogue and what can be created through it.
Anthony Blake, author of The Supreme Art of Dialogue, says it beautifully:
In Dialogue, “there is a profound openness – a reaching for something further. This conforms to the requirement of ignorance. It also points to another essential characteristic of Dialogue which is that it operates in the present moment. This means that the process is open to the unexpected and that Dialogue is by its very nature creative.”
American physicist, Dr. David Bohm, felt Dialogue to be one of the most effective ways to investigate the crises facing society, human nature and consciousness. This process of free exchange of ideas and information was felt by Bohm to be of fundamental relevance “for transforming culture, freeing it of destructive misinformation, so that creativity can be liberated.”
And the most essential quality in Dialogue?
“The outcome of Dialogue is more a growing realization of ignorance than any attainment of smart ideas that look good to other people.”
Intellectual humility is essential to higher-level thinking.
Intellectual humility is the understanding that you don’t know everything. You don’t know what you don’t know. There is always more to learn. Humility therefore requires having knowledge and acceptance of our ignorance. In this you become aware of your assumptions, preconceptions and the limiting beliefs that you hold. In short, intellectual humility is the awareness of ignorance and essential to higher-level thinking.
Understanding your ignorance improves your thinking in multiple ways. You gain knowledge of false beliefs and assumptions and begin to challenge them. In challenging them you realize self-imposed limitations. And there is an opening where you begin to entertain opposing views. Through this, you begin to understand what you don’t know. And with that understanding, the desire to know it all begins to fall away.
Our human tendency is to learn a little and then think we know a lot. We then generalize from what is limited information – accepting much of what we hear and read with without skepticism – especially when it agrees with passionately held beliefs and ideals to which our identity is attached.
“Fullness of knowledge always and necessarily means some understanding
of the depths of our ignorance, and that is always conducive to both humility
— Robert A. Millikan
In conversation, discussion and debate, people usually speak from what they know – or what they think they know. In Dialogue, ignorance is the starting point.
Through understanding the depths of your ignorance, you foster humility – something not only essential to Dialogue; but essential to human flourishing. In humility there is wisdom. From this wisdom, new knowledge is born.
If we can be vulnerable to accept and understand our inexperience, uncertainty and unfamiliarity, and in that ignorance embrace the world with innocence, trust and a sense of newness, we reach for something further – opening ourselves to a world of possibility beyond anything we can imagine in this moment. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; but in the expert’s mind, there are few.” ~Shunryu Suzuki
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