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The Wisdom In Knowing Nothing
- April 16, 2015
- Posted by: admin
- Category: Faculty Lecture
“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge[i].”
Edward Bond, Washington Post, 29 January, 1984
There is a sense in which I can say I came to philosophy knowing nothing; well not knowing anything per se, but knowing nothing about philosophy as an academic discipline. Although, I had occasionally heard people make use of the term in both formal and informal communication, I really did not know that philosophy was a course being studied at the university level. In a bid to dispel my ignorance, I searched for introductory books on philosophy and became somewhat confused when I came across one of the works of Professor A.N. Galloway, himself a philosopher, who defined philosophy as a discipline that deals with nothing! In this work, the text of a lecture given before the Philosophical Society at the University of Ibadan in 1956, Professor Galloway boldly described and tagged philosophy and other humanities disciplines studied in the university as “the useless disciplines[i]” because they seem not to have any relevance to material reality. After reading this work, I was both astonished and curious to know more about the nature of philosophy in order to determine whether to commit my life and destiny to such a purportedly “useless” enterprise.
But it was until I attended my first class on introduction to philosophy that my confusion and ignorance started to clear up. My teacher[ii] in the introductory class told me that philosophy in its etymological definition is derived from two Greek words: Philo and Sophia literally translated as “the love of wisdom.” So I became aware that philosophers are lovers of wisdom; they are individuals who search for knowledge in various fields of human inquiry in order to gain wisdom. I have since come to believe this proposition about what philosophers do as an indubitable truth which explains why, in this lecture, we are searching for what wisdom there is in knowing nothing.
The title of this lecture: “the wisdom in knowing nothing” suggests an apparent paradox which should be clarified – the paradox of knowing. The term “wisdom” literally has to do with the ability to know and application of such knowledge in an insightful way to different situations. However, by the term “knowing nothing” we refer to ignorance which is seen as negative, especially the absence of knowledge such that a person who knows nothing about a given subject matter is said to be ignorant. Thus, it is evident that both wisdom and ignorance seem polarized conceptually; one talks about possessing knowledge, the other talks about lack of knowledge. However, this lecture focuses on investigating the sense(s) in which somebody who knows nothing can be accorded wisdom by attempting to answer this question: what wisdom is there in knowing nothing? It also attempts a philosophical examination of the concept of ignorance (knowing nothing) from a Socratic standpoint showing how the knowledge of one’s ignorance provides two important virtues for knowledge acquisition. The important virtues that we want to identify from the paradox of Socratic wisdom in this lecture are intellectual humility and self-awareness.
[i] See. Galloway, A.N., “The Useless Disciplines,” A lecture given before the Philosophical Society, University College, Ibadan, 1956.
[ii] This notion was also corroborated by other introductory text books on philosophy I consulted at that period; I should however mention one reference material that was extremely helpful to clear my initial confusions and ignorance about the nature of philosophy: Paul Edwards (ed.) Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I-XXX Vols. New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1968.
 This remark is originally attributed to Daniel J. Boorstin in The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know his World and Himself, New York: Random House, 1983; the citation provided here is an emendated version by Edward Bond.
 See. Galloway, A.N., “The Useless Disciplines,” A lecture given before the Philosophical Society, University College, Ibadan, 1956.
 This notion was also corroborated by other introductory text books on philosophy I consulted at that period; I should however mention one reference material that was extremely helpful to clear my initial confusions and ignorance about the nature of philosophy: Paul Edwards (ed.) Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I-XXX Vols. New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1968.