How quickly Covid-19 hushed the know-it-alls of the world! Versions of “I/we/they don’t know….” are everywhere, and are a stark admission that a virus–one of the oldest forms of life, although there is debate about the “living” part–is, even without a brain, confusing and outwitting Earth’s brainiac newcomer. We humans have a long history of taking for granted our neo-cortex’s flashy accomplishments, concluding that they give us control over our own destinies as well as an unasked-for leadership role on the planet. But those conceits are quieter now. Suddenly confused and anxious, we are impatient for any answers that confer hope and that quell the fears and griefs pandemics are known for. What can philosophy teach us about living on that fine edge between knowledge and ignorance, overconfidence and desperation, and in that liminal wisdom-space we yearn for?
From its start, philosophy–at least in its Western-Mediterranian variety–engaged the dangerous work of holding in check the human propensities to self-congratulate and dominate others. When a friend asked the Delphic Oracle if there was anyone wiser than Socrates and was told “no,” a skeptical Socrates spent his days wandering the marketplace questioning his fellow citizens about commonplace terms like loyalty, courage, piety, and goodness, hoping to prove that surely there was someone wiser than he. His fellow citizens, though, stumbled in their answers, contradicting themselves and revealing both ignorance and impatience. Socrates concluded that if he was indeed wiser it was because his wisdom derived from the awareness and acceptance of his own ignorance, and a desire to engage others in patient conversation for his and their betterment. It was not that his companions lacked understanding, but that the work of philosophy–the ‘love of wisdom’–begins in recognizing one’s own ignorance and limits, while seeking a broader perspective by which to live well in the world. Socrates encouraged all of his fellow citizens to take this pursuit seriously lest they become like Athens itself: a “great and noble steed” lately become lazy and complacent and in need of a gadfly’s bite of recognition.
While Socrates’ student Plato, and Plato’s student Aristotle, put philosophy on a more systematic and theoretical course, two other Greeks–Pyrrho of Elis and Sextus Empiricus–developed a form of skepticism that encouraged a near-complete suspension of judgment on all matters. Their goal was to help others attain mental quietude and serenity in the midst of societal upheaval and collapse, but at the cost of taking no position on either side of a belief.
There are two dangers to this ignoramus approach to life. The first is that it can prove fatal to those who espouse it. Socrates was condemned to drink hemlock in a prison cell for the crimes of leading the youth astray and causing them to question the wisdom of their elders. Countless thinkers after Scorates lived in fear, fled for their lives or were tortured and killed by authorities who didn’t appreciate all the gadfly questions. The second danger is that such questioning can become an end in itself, destroying beliefs and belief systems that work reasonably well, paralyzing curiosity and the pursuit of ever-clearer forms of knowledge, however provisional or incomplete. On the first day of every semester I would speak from experience when I warned students in my introductory undergraduate courses about the very real potential for philosophical questioning to damage or destroy altogether one’s deepest moorings and fundamental beliefs.
Radical skepticism can also lead to the loss of confidence in the larger systems we depend on, whether in politics, religion, economics, or the sciences. Climate change skeptics, for example, rely on the lack of one-hundred percent agreement in the scientific community to conclude that anthropogenic climate change is therefore uncertain, false, or a hoax. “Fake news” has its roots in the claim that because reporters and news organizations on both sides of the political divide have subjective biases, all reporting is somehow untrue or unreliable.
Add a pandemic to the mix and there is a quickening of false and outrageous claims about causes and cures, while conspiracies grow like mold on forgotten leftovers. Honest admissions of uncertainty open the doors to a free-for-all of claims about the curative powers of bleach and light beams, and to the din of distrust about what science and medicine are telling us because what they are telling us is neither perfect nor complete. But how could their messages be anything but imperfect and incomplete? Viruses mutate and so must our understanding of them, even as we live as best we can with and through the uncertainties, terrors and anxieties.
Scanning my bookshelves for help in these pandemic times, I am naturally drawn to philosophers of the skeptical, armchair variety. I began the pandemic with Albert Camus’ The Plague. Camus studied philosophy in college, but is best known as a journalist, activist, novelist, resistance fighter and editor. Another favorite these days is Alfred North Whitehead, a mathematician who was lured to Harvard to teach philosophy at the age of 63, but was said to have never taken a single course or class in philosophy.
In very different ways Camus and Whitehead speak to the strangeness and surprise of the unexpected, whether in a plague or, for Whitehead, in the very unfolding of the Universe. Both write with humility and honesty about the tragic frailty of the human condition, as well as the courage and resistance in our acts and decisions, however small, uncertain and seemingly insignificant. One of the central characters in Camus’ novel, Dr. Rieux, says “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.” Whitehead acknowledges the tragic, remorseless workings of the universe, but encourages his readers to see philosophy as ‘adventures of ideas’ leading to the ‘refreshment of the imagination’ and a ‘width of view issuing in greater opportunities.’
But it is the work of David Hume that has most caught my attention during these months of uncertainty. An 18th Century Scot (1711-1776), Hume was the very definition of an armchair philosopher. It is said that he did most of his writing with legs up, sitting in a comfortable chair, and would often forego getting out of that chair to check his notes before writing down one of the many details of his popular six-volume History of England. Despite the popularity among academic philosophers of Hume’s first book, A Treatise of Human Nature, and Hume’s inclusion in Monty Python’s Bruces’ Philosophers Song, Hume never defined himself as a philosopher, but rather as an essayist, historian and man of letters. He never held a university position–mostly due to his views on religion–and instead held numerous jobs as merchant’s assistant, tutor, librarian, and Secretary to the British Embassy while living for years first with his mother and then his older brother. Hume was social, gregarious and well-liked by his friends. His sense of humor could even be found in his last will and testament where he bequeathed a case of fine port wine to a friend on the condition that he drink a bottle in one sitting before taking possession of it.
While Hume may have been less than moderate in his appetites for fine food and wine, he came to define a healthy and productive skepticism that helped him weather his own up-and-down literary career, the almost continuous warring between France and Great Britain in his lifetime, and in his later years a long debilitating illness that took his life. He is a good guide for us now.
Like the power of a virus to deceive us, Hume warns us against being deceived by claims that reason alone is sufficient to solve our problems or is the key to unlock nature’s secrets once and for all. Pure reason is a mirage, a magician’s sleight of hand. We want to believe it’s real and we seek it like water in a desert. But wherever we see it in action we find it living inside and alongside slurpy brains and bones, and utterly dependent on sun-powered, cellular motoring. It may seek to get outside of its messy confines, but can never completely or honestly succeed without shriveling up in the process.
Better to accept that all human truth, knowledge and wisdom are embodied, and to welcome reason and skepticism as partners alongside what Hume called “common life:” our daily customs, habits and experiences both of ourselves and with others in the world. When he found himself despairing philosophy’s dismal conclusions about causation or the inability of our senses to provide unambiguous information, Hume would leave his Study to dine, converse and play board games with his friends. He sought a “lively reason” and a middle ground between his doubts and convictions. The chief gift of philosophy, he urged, is its ability to refine our temperament by the constant practice of bending the mind away from abstractions and towards the habits of everyday life.
If his fellow Scot and friend Adam Smith is to be trusted, Hume managed to put his own advice to good use. In a letter to a colleague after Hume’s death, Smith describes Hume’s balanced temper, extreme gentleness and constant pleasantry. Even when Hume challenged and took issue with his companions and critics, he did so without offense and with a quality that rarely failed to please and delight those at which it was aimed. Smith concludes his letter with the observation that Hume’s life approached “as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.”
If this advice proves difficult to begin with, try saying to yourself and out loud “Iwethey don’t know!” Interject the phrase and its odd sounding word into conversations with friends, neighbors, colleagues and (carefully with) strangers. After the initial strange looks and questions, a discussion may arise that surprises and fortifies its participants. Ignorance loves the company. And while it may not always feel like it, such company and the conversations it fosters are the true sources of wisdom.
 “Letter from Adam Smith, LL.D. to William Strahan, Esq.” In David Hume: Essays Moral, Political and Literary. Eugene F. Miller, ed. Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1985.