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How Ignorance Made Modern Science

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I have in my dayes seene a hundred Artificers, and as many laborers, more wise and more happy, then some Rectors in the university, and whom I would rather resemble.1

Michel de Montaigne

Cover image of Sandrine Parageau’s new book, used with the permission of Stanford University Press

Montaigne’s celebration of ignorance and simplicity in his erudite Essays (1580) may seem paradoxical at first, but such praises were not uncommon in the early modern period. Montaigne’s friend, Pierre Charron, made similar claims two decades later in his widely read treatise Of Wisdome (De la sagesse, 1601; trans. Samson Lennard, 1608), in which he presented ignorant farmers and laborers as paragons of wisdom and virtue. Later in the century, in his unfinished dialogue The Search for Truth by Means of the Natural Light (1684 in Dutch, 1701 in Latin), Descartes featured the “conceptual persona2 of the Idiot, Eudoxus, who, he held, could more safely steer the uneducated gentleman Polyander towards truth than Epistemon, the traditional scholar.

Title page of Montaigne’s Essayes, translated by John Florio: The Essayes, or Morall, Politike, and Millitarie Discourses of Lo: Michaell de Montaigne … Now done into English by … John Florio (London, 1603). Source: The British Library

In England, experimental philosophers, such as John Locke, also praised the ingenuity of artisans and their ignorance of classical learning, which allegedly made them more reliable observers of the natural world, while their plain style was a further guarantee of their intellectual honesty and greater proximity to truth. Thus, in his Essay concerning Human Understanding, first published in 1690, Locke wrote: “… it was to the unscholastick Statesman, that the Governments of the World owed their Peace, Defence, and Liberties; and from the illiterate and contemned Mechanick, (a Name of Disgrace) that they received the improvements of useful Arts.”3 Claims of intellectual humility were also expressed through the modesty topos, whereby authors pretended that they were ignorant of—or at least not experts on—the subjects they addressed in their books. This practice was often found in the works of one of the most prolific and respected experimentalists of the Restoration, Robert Boyle, who put great emphasis on his “naked way of writing.” His almost systematic disclaimer that he was writing from “loose papers,” and that the texts he published were therefore necessarily imperfect, was obviously an attempt to undercut accusations of dogmatism. In the last decades of the seventeenth century, experimentalism required that its practitioners be “sober and honest men.”

Such praises of ignorance are the subject of my book, The Paradoxes of Ignorance in Early Modern England and France. More specifically, I argue in this book that these commendations paradoxically contributed to the emergence of new ways of knowing. Using the methodologies and tools of intellectual history, history of philosophy and science, and epistemology, I analyze the interpretations of the notion of ignorance that could account for its rehabilitation in England and in France from Montaigne to Locke (c. 1580–1700), while it had been mostly perceived as a sin in the Middle Ages. Further, I identify and study three main virtues of ignorance conveyed in early modern philosophical and religious discourses in detail. First, ignorance could be seen as conducive to wisdom and self-knowledge. In such interpretations, it was perceived as a quality or attribute associated with wisdom, mostly because it implied humility, simplicity, and self-knowledge, leading to the model of the ignorant man or woman as the true philosopher. Second, ignorance could be understood as a condition that induced a spontaneous and immediate access to truth. Indeed, a number of philosophical and religious writers, both in England and in France, assimilated ignorance with the internal light or regarded it as a necessary condition for this inner light to shine. Third, many natural philosophers construed ignorance as an epistemological instrument that could help elaborate new methods of discovery. According to this interpretation, ignorance was not personally experienced by the truth seeker; rather, it was presented as a hypothetical state or a fiction that enabled one to discern a representation of human faculties.

That there were praises of ignorance in the early modern era is both surprising and expected: surprising because ignorance was (and still is) commonly seen as a disease, a flaw, or a deficiency that should be suppressed, not encouraged; and expected because of the well-known revival of skepticism and the many expressions of anti-scholasticism at the time. The vast scholarship on early modern skepticism has led to the idea that it was omnipresent, and that all reactions to scholasticism and attitudes toward knowledge in general could be justified in a variety of skeptical stances inherited from the conjunction of the rediscovery of ancient skepticism and the religious crisis. The Paradoxes of Ignorance does not deny the pervasiveness of skepticism at the time, but it contends that a focus on the notion of ignorance may provide a better understanding of attitudes toward knowledge. Moreover, while some of the praises of ignorance must be interpreted in the context of the revival of ancient skepticism, others drew upon different doctrines, in particular, mystical traditions, such as the docta ignorantia of Nicholas of Cusa, the negative theology expressed in The Cloud of Unknowing, and the topos of the illiterate Idiotus.

Should early modern praises of ignorance be taken seriously, or are they not merely ironic, devised to denounce and mock scholasticism by illustrating and promoting, in an excessive gesture, the exact opposite of vain erudition? Among the authors—both canonical and “minor”—studied in the book, some used the paradox of ignorance as a topos in their denunciation of scholasticism, not actually calling for ignorance, while others undoubtedly aimed to praise ignorance as a form of wisdom or because it was an instrument enabling one to devise new ways of thinking. In addition, as the French historian of literature Michel Jeanneret effectively argued, the idea of divesting oneself of all previous knowledge to make a new birth (of knowledge and of the self) possible is admittedly a myth, yet it is no less than “the founding myth of modernity.” The posture of the ignorant philosopher was indeed required for renewed ways of thinking to emerge as it offered new epistemological impetus:

There will always be half-wise men to say that this posture is an illusion, that ignorance is only a ruse of the learned, or a mere rhetorical stratagem. Admittedly, there is no erasing knowledge; one cannot start again from scratch. But this ruse is stimulating and sometimes necessary.… The postulate of ignorance aims to free the intelligence and give new impetus to the search.… There are occasions when, in order to save the mind, a tabula rasa is a salutary ruse. The topos of ignorance may be naïve, but it is also a spiritual necessity, and, for the intellect, a vital reflex.4

The Paradoxes of Ignorance attempts to demonstrate Jeanneret’s argument that the role of ignorance—understood as a topos, a myth, a ruse, a stratagem, and an instrument—in the elaboration of new ways of thinking should be taken seriously.

Allegory of ignorance. Source: Cesare Ripa, Iconologie, ou Explication nouvelle de plusieurs images, emblèmes et autres figures hierogliphiques des vertus, des vices, des arts, des sciences, des causes naturelles, des humeurs différentes, & des passions humaines, ed. Jean Baudoin (Paris, 1643), 160.

I pursue three main objectives in The Paradoxes of Ignorance. I just presented the first—and most obvious—one above: the book aims to demonstrate that ignorance paradoxically played an important part in the emergence of modern science and modern ways of thinking. The strong rejection of scholasticism by many early modern thinkers probably encouraged a redefinition of ignorance; in this context, ignorance likely appeared preferable to vain erudition. Their rejection certainly rendered erudition suspicious, prompting calls for humility and modesty instead, thereby reintroducing ignorance in a more favorable light. But, above all, the book shows how ignorance was rehabilitated, by whom, and in what forms, that is, it elucidates the values attributed to ignorance so that it could become a superior mode of wisdom and lead to the development of scientific inquiry. I describe past doctrines that inspired the praises of ignorance to show, as mentioned above, that medieval doctrines of ignorance should be regarded as powerful influences well into the seventeenth century. Finally, because it aims to demonstrate the role played by ignorance—initially a flaw, a limit to man’s understanding—in the emergence of modern science, the book takes up and develops Peter Harrison’s argument in The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (2007) that, contrary to what one might expect, and to what has often been written, “modern” experimental science was founded in the seventeenth century on the recognition and acceptance of the limits of man’s knowledge, not on a belief that man’s understanding was all-powerful or that man could become nature’s master and possessor.

The book’s second key objective is to show that the rehabilitation of ignorance took different forms in England and France. It demonstrates that, in both countries, ignorance was included in the discourse promoting the advancement of knowledge, but its definitions and treatments varied.5 This does not mean that the French conception of ignorance was entirely different from the English one, but rather that the general tendencies were different, and that each country had its own distinct proposal for building new knowledge after the rejection of scholasticism. In a nutshell, the book argues that, in France, ignorance was rehabilitated as a personal quality and a form of wisdom that enabled one to reach truth. Truth seekers were thus encouraged to make themselves ignorant, that is, to induce and experience ignorance personally. In England, by contrast, such encouragements to make oneself ignorant, even as a preliminary and temporary condition, were rarely found. Instead, strong condemnations of ignorance were voiced. Yet, the book shows that, even though ignorance was rarely praised as a personal quality in England, it was also cast as something positive in the use of fictions of ignorance as thought experiments: imagining the naked mind or the understanding in a state of complete ignorance could shed light on the process of thinking. In this case, ignorance was not praised as a personal quality but became useful as an epistemological instrument. Of course, others expressed conceptions that differed from these two general tendencies both in England and in France. The book also analyzes some of these, including the examples of the Quakers, who associated ignorance with inspiration, and of the libertins érudits, whose conception of ignorance was emphatically distinguished from the Cartesian one. Accordingly, the binary opposition presented here is rendered more complex.

Third, the book indirectly inquires into a possible secularization of ignorance in the early modern period. Ignorance was probably more central in England in the religious context of the country’s adoption of Protestantism and its subsequent insistence on learning and education, but the theological dimension of ignorance factored in to early modern theological writings in France, too. Now if, as this book argues, ignorance was progressively included in the scientific discourse and given an epistemological role, does this mean that it was also progressively secularized at the time? This is Cornel Zwierlein’s argument in his introduction to The Dark Side of Knowledge (2016). Zwierlein explains that ignorance, often perceived as a sin in the Middle Ages, came to be redefined in the early modern period so that it might be included within the epistemological reflection on the new science. The Paradoxes of Ignorance contends that there was indeed a shift in the understanding of ignorance over the period, and that recognition of man’s inevitable ignorance did paradoxically lead to the elaboration of modern methods of scientific inquiry. Yet here, too, the book renders the picture more complex by showing that most early modern philosophers did not divest ignorance of its religious or mystical dimension so that it was not entirely secular or scientific.

In sum, more than a century after Montaigne claimed ignorant “laborers” were “more wise and more happy” than learned men and women, natural philosophers in England and in France built on this conception to make the knowledge of ignorance a moral and cognitive requirement. Paradoxically, ignorance itself became the foundation of science.

Sandrine Parageau is Professor of Early Modern British History at Sorbonne University and a Fellow of the Institut Universitaire de France. The Paradoxes of Ignorance was published by Stanford University Press in March 2023.

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