September 28, 2007
The Art of Browsing
Posted by Jeff Lipshaw
A week or so ago, I referred to an essay by the Israeli philosopher, Joseph Agassi. As I sit here (procrastinating) with a stack of nine books (not articles) I want to read, not including Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, which just came out and is almost 900 pages, but which I have yet to order, I take some heart from Professor Agassi's advice in his essay, Scientific Literacy, on the art of browsing, which I recommend browsing. Except when you are browsing, don't skip the introductory paragraph from this student of Karl Popper:
The central end of all my research activities was the effort to break down the walls of the academy. The wall is defended by the idea that not only do experts possess knowledge beyond the ken of lay people, which is trivially true, but that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the two. The aim of this presentation, then, is to discuss the possibility of building a bridge between the ordinary educated citizen and the expert.
This is apropos to legal academia, in particular, for three reasons: (1) the issue of walls and the breaking (or construction) thereof implicit in "law and..." disciplines; (2) the particular position of legal academia between scholarship (the expert?) and professional training (the ordinary educated citizen?), and (3) the fact that most of us, experts and ordinary educated citizens alike, are in fact simple ordinary educated citizens with respect to MOST of what we know, as almost any Tuesday or Thursday law school faculty lunch presentation will demonstrate.
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And then there's the fact that, "as the surrounding circle of light expands, so too does the surrounding circle of darkness," in other words, the more one learns (or 'knows'), the more, at least in theory or principle, one does not know, although how one becomes intimately apprised or aware of this ignorance is another problem altogether: "One of the most problem-strewn regions of inquiry relates to knowledge about our own ignorance. [....] The reality is the even knowledge about the *extent* of my ignorance is unavailable to me" (Nicholas Rescher). This is a cognitive situation shared by both the expert or specialist and the educated layperson. And thus both can come to appreciate "the ironic (although in some ways fortunate) fact...that one of the things about which we are most decidedly ignorant is our ignorance itself. Learned ignorance is as a matter of being learned *about* our ignorance--of having a well-informed view about the prospects for knowledge and the inevitability of ignorance. It takes a sagacious person to form a reasonably realistic appreciation of the extent and nature of his or her own ignorance--and to know what to do about it. For it is clear that the sensible management of ignorance is something that requires us to operate in the realm of practical considerations exactly because the knowledge required for theoretical adequacy is--by hypothesis--not at our disposal. We have no rational alternative but to proceed, here as elsewhere, subject to the basic pragmatic principle of having to accept the best that we can do as good enough" (Rescher).
Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 28, 2007 9:29:36 AM