In 400 BCE, Socrates was not afraid of ignorance. Rather, he recognized the importance of embracing what he did not know. He explained to his fellow Athenians the value of not “thinking they know” that which they “do not know”. If one does this, they are wise. (Plato’s Apology)
Ignorance creates an ambiguous, uncomfortable state, one in which the senses are heightened to taking in new knowledge and the mind is constantly reeling, searching for fulfilling questions. Such a state is optimal for both learning and discovery.
The power of this state, which is arrived at through ignorance, is employed in a popular teaching method called “The Socratic Seminar”. The practice takes its name from none other than Socrates, who famously responded to his students’ questions with more questions, engaging them in a dialogue. In today’s Socratic Seminar, students think critically about a piece of art, commonly a book. Then, the students engage in a dialogue set off by one open-ended question. The Seminars facilitate divergent thinking, the thought process by which creative ideas are generated through the exploration of many possible answers.
In my piece “The Unimportance of the Knowledge Gap” I echo the importance of ignorance and the questioning that it inspires: “[The gap] should not be the focus of my attention. The question should be the starting point for asking what other questions come from thinking about the first question?.. And where do they take me?”
Dr. Stuart Firestein of Columbia University has speaks to the role that ignorance places in the realm of science. In 2012, he published a book called “Ignorance: How it Drives Science.” Firestein wrote, “When I sit down with colleagues over a beer, we don’t talk about what’s known; we talk about what we’d like to figure out, about what needs to be done.” The neuroscientist started a course titled “Ignorance”, which consists of lectures hosting discussions about the ignorance that exists in their respective fields.
Socrates said: “I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.” Today, Dr. William Cohen of Claremont University’s Graduate School of Management cites ignorance as a business executive’s most powerful problem-solving tool. It is my hope that more thinkers will recognize and capitalize on ignorance as a pioneer of progress.