On Knowing Enough to Know that You Don’t Know

It takes a long time and sustained effort to learn a subject, to understand the basics, to appreciate its complexity. At some time in this often arduous journey one usually arrives at the point where one begins to understand the immensity of the subject and how ignorant one is about it. Expertise is accompanied with an acceptance that one is now in full view of one’s ignorance. No one is as acutely aware of his own ignorance as the expert.

We are limited beings and comprehensive knowledge is denied to us. At best, given the right circumstances and the right capabilities, we get a glimpse of what lies out there. At best, we can learn a bit about some severely circumscribed aspect of reality. The most important lesson we learn is that we are really don’t know it all. We don’t really know much about anything compared to what is potentially knowable.

So we learn to appreciate our ignorance of the subject when we attain some degree of proficiency in the subject. This is denied to those who have not attained a certain degree of expertise in any specific topic. To those who have put in the effort of mastering (to a certain degree) a subject, it becomes possible for them to appreciate that they themselves are totally ignorant of the innumerable other subjects. Learning any subject well teaches humility.

This I think is one of the more important lessons one learns as one learns any subject deeply: that comprehensive understanding is not possible and therefore we are stripped of the fatal conceit that we know what is good, true and moral. Only the ignorant can maintain and entertain the illusion of knowledge; those who know know that they don’t know.

The knowledge of their ignorance is not available to the ignorant. First order ignorance is not knowing something; second order ignorance is not knowing that one one is ignorant, that one does not know.

Therefore I think that anyone in any position of power should learn some subject deeply. People in positions of power must study some aspect of reality in some detail so that they develop the appreciation of ignorance. If they don’t, they mistakenly believe that they know whatever there is to be known. Their conceit and their hubris is a side-effect, a natural consequence, of their inability to appreciate that they really don’t know.

It really does not matter what the subject is as long as it is some aspect of reality ( and not some pseudo subject like astrology or palmistry.) One can study history, or psychology, or high energy physics, or anthropology — or even economics. At some stage of their intellectual development, the person will realize that their limited understanding is all that they are capable of. And thus come to understand that they are totally and irremediably ignorant of all the other subjects. This realization will prevent their falling into the trap, the fatal conceit, that they can rely on their own understanding. Then they will become capable of seeking the advice of those who know.

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I know enough about economics to appreciate how little I know of economics. I have waded far enough from the shore into the waters to appreciate that the ocean must be very deep–a realization denied to those who have not dipped their toes into the ocean. Most of the people I meet are non-economists and I am often surprised (although I should not be) that they really don’t know the first thing about economics. However I do marvel at how convinced they are about how the economy works and how it should be managed.

These kinds of encounters have a salutary effect on me. I realize that just as they don’t know about economics, my ignorance of all the thousands of other areas of study must also be very profound. I know something and that helps me understand that I don’t know much about many other important things.

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In India — and in many other countries in a similar state of development — politicians are chosen by some democratic process. These political leaders are generally not educated in any subject area. They gain their position merely because they are good at getting elected, based on positions they take on matters that concern the electorate.

Given that they have not had any meaningful training in any area of human knowledge and inquiry, they are almost completely incapable of appreciating how ignorant they are. They believe they know it all. And that’s where all trouble begins. They could take the advice of those who know but they are incapable of even entertaining the idea that they need advice and counsel.

I know this is a crazy idea but I think that aside from the usual conditions such as being of sound mind and being above a certain age to be a candidate for high office, one of the conditions should be that one has attained a degree (PhD, perhaps) in some subject from some reputable institution.

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I think of Shri Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The man was a consummate politician. Lawyer by training, he did not have deep knowledge of any subject. Not knowing enough, he could easily slip into the delusion that he knew it all and therefore could command obedience from all on all matters — economic, social, moral, ethical, scientific, etc., etc. There was no subject on which he did not have an opinion and no area in which he hesitated to demand compliance with what he dictated.

His protégé, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, was naturally enough created from the same mold: not being master of any subject, he fancied himself to be the master of all subjects. Most unfortunately for India, he thought he understood history, economics, education, technology and science. He dictated without the least hesitation. He was never burdened with self-doubt or aware of his all-encompassing ignorance.

The problem with India is that all of its political leaders have been fundamentally incapable of understanding the limits of their own knowledge and understanding. This is neither good nor sustainable.

7 thoughts on “On Knowing Enough to Know that You Don’t Know

    1. If you check my record, you’d notice my principal motivation was to see the end of the Nehru-Gandhi-Maino clan and its personal fiefdom the Congress party. Modi has delivered on that, and that is sufficient. One’s demands must be modest.

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  1. Sorry to hear Mr. Dey that you did not get the position in this government which you were aspiring for. Only talent is not required to move ahead in life. Right connections and little bit of sychophancy is also must. You will continue lamenting if you don’t acquire these traits.

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    1. Do let me know “the position in this government” that I am supposed to have been aspiring for. Then your regret that I did not get that position would be appropriate.

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  2. While I agree that for those who have put in the effort of mastering a subject they begin to appreciate complexities/nuances and that it might teach them humility but the inverse statement that all those who don’t have expertise in at least “some aspect of reality” are “completely incapable of appreciating how ignorant they are” is unsubstantiated for at least two reasons –

    1) My definition of “some aspect of reality”, especially for those in power, includes and may be even at the top of the list, social sciences. Being an economist yourself I am sure you can appreciate the complexity of human interaction. It is a challenging and rewarding skill.

    2) You have ignored, at best or considered unimportant, at worst, the effect culture has on humans. If you come from a culture where the main tenets are based on an acceptance that you are one among many and empathy being a core value humility will be implicit in your thought process. If however you come from a culture that believes the world is your oyster and your prosperity even at the cost of other’s misery (as long as it is legal, even if it isn’t it will depend on influence and connections) no matter how many PhD you have along with any other honorifics it will result in exceptionalism and we all know how that turns out.

    I would be more than happy if people in power have better qualifications but I will accept a high school dropout with good intent over narcissism and malice any day.

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  3. “one of the conditions should be that one has attained a degree (PhD, perhaps) in some subject from some reputable institution.”

    When you have governments like the one in Rajasthan that has tried to enforce a minimum educational qualification to stand for elections, while closing down thousands of schools, condemning the students to a lifetime of illiteracy, such ideas will only ensure that the elite few who have had the privilege to acquire an education will continue to stay on in power. Some studies have shown that the move of the Rajasthan government ensures that over 90% of rural women and 75% of rural electorate will be disqualified. In such a scenario, imposition of a minimum level of education to stand for elections is totally against the spirit of democracy. When education is made available to all, we can think about having minimum qualifications to stand for elections.

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