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How to talk about things we know nothing about

About the author
Keith Kahn-Harris is honorary research fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck College. He is the author (with Ben Gidley) of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today (Continuum July 2010). His website is here

Pierre Bayard's book How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read (2008) has received favourable notices from many critics. The title may promise a cynical "how to" guide, but Bayard's essay is in fact a profound meditation on reading, knowledge and memory. It is also a book that generates interesting questions for those concerned with politics and citizenship in a knowledge-saturated world.

The author's position as a professor of literature at Paris VIII University naturally predisposes him to reflect on questions of cultural literacy. How is it possible to be culturally literate when a) one cannot read everything; b) one forgets much of what one reads and c) one's knowledge of any book is always partial? Bayard argues that a person should never be ashamed of the gaps in her or his literary knowledge, for this knowledge can only ever be incomplete. Talk about books is not inferior to reading books, but is in fact what constitutes literacy. Bayard urges his readers to treat books - read and unread - as the jumping-off point for discussion, for individual creativity, for the examined life itself.

Keith Kahn-Harris is a research associate at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His website is here

Also by Keith Kahn-Harris in openDemocracy:

"The attractions of denial" (13 September 2007)

How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read confines itself to literary fiction, but his book raises difficult issues for readers of any kind of work. There are so many works of literature in the world today that no one - not even the most learned professor - can hope to read more than a tiny fraction; this is even more the case with regard to the corpus of scholarly knowledge in the natural and human sciences. Why has this mismatch between reach and grasp developed, and what is the most fruitful way of living with - and talking through - it?

From globe to parish

The theme of another book offers an interesting light on these questions. Andrew Robinson, in his The Last Man Who Knew Everything, recounts the career of the polymath Thomas Young (1773-1829). Among his many achievements, Young discovered the wave motion of light, made important contributions to medicine and significant advances in the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Whilst polymaths still exist today (the scholar Noel Malcolm and the writer-actor-journalist Stephen Fry are notable examples) the early 19th century was the last time when it was possible for one person to make significant breakthroughs in multiple subject areas. As the universities developed from the 17th century onwards, so fields of specialisation also increased in sophistication. By the end of the 19th century, it had become difficult to become expert in both the natural and human sciences - and equally so to achieve expertise outside one's own narrow field of expertise. The age of the expert had arrived.

The age of the expert is also the age of government, as the state has extended its reach into more aspects of life. Even as understanding the complexity of the social and natural worlds was becoming a task requiring ever narrower expertise, management of this complexity required an ever broader strategic perspective. A division of labour evolved in which experts provided specialist knowledge and elected officials acted on it.

But what happens when experts disagree? And what happens when experts have difficulty explaining complex areas of knowledge? Politics consists in part of choosing which expert to believe and choosing what response to expert knowledge is most appropriate. Take issues as various as global warming, the state of the economy or the Iraq war: in all of these areas experts interpret vast swathes of data in often mutually incompatible ways. Citizens, in whom political sovereignty technically resides, have to make decisions as to whom to trust to best manage this confusion. How is the electorate supposed to decide whose response to expert knowledge is best?

In a world saturated by expertise and conflicting opinions, the ability to judge things we know nothing about is an indispensable one. But the starting-point of this ability should be an admission (to oneself and to others) of the scope and nature of our ignorance. Lack of expertise should not disqualify anyone from participation in important debates, provided that one is honest about the gaps in one's knowledge. Donald Rumsfeld's infamous concept of "known unknowns" is helpful here. We cannot know everything, but we can - if we are humble enough - estimate more or less accurately the dimensions of our ignorance.

The map of knowledge

The tendency of people to make assumptions about things they know nothing about is fed by arrogance as much as (or even more than) mere ignorance. A good example is the scientist and controversialist Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion, which uses his expertise in evolutionary biology to speculate on the evolutionary value of religion in the past and to attest to its complete lack of value today.

The problem with this approach is that Dawkins is ignorant of bodies of knowledge - such as the sociology of religion and critical theology - that have approached religion in very different ways. This ignorance does not disqualify him from writing a book on religion, but what is inexcusable is his apparent ignorance that these bodies of knowledge even exist. His arrogance leads him into making sweeping statements about religion that are over-reliant on his own narrow field of expertise, bolstered with his own prejudices. But the problem here is not that Dawkins is speaking outside his own specific area of expertise - for doing so is in fact essential if knowledge and debate is not to be confined into hermetically sealed compartments - but in the lack of the humility and the perspicacity (in effect, the judgment) to recognise the necessary limits of his knowledge.

This is more than just an attitudinal failure: it reflects a broader gap in our shared understanding of knowledge itself. Knowledge is a complex and demanding system in which the terra incognita is as important (perhaps even more important) than more familiar territory. If we want to draw on or contribute to that system, a cartographic faculty is required - to develop a "map" that, as it explores the contours, moves towards a greater sense of how knowledge is formed and how arguments are made. Knowledge of methodology, of the mechanics of discourse and rhetoric, is a powerful tool that anyone can bring to areas where one is not an expert. Indeed, the most powerful form of knowledge is transferable knowledge - the very knowledge of how to navigate the map of knowledge.

The map is indispensable, for example, in cases where adjudication between claims to expertise and to rightness are involved. In these contexts, "how" things are said is as important as "what" is said. Several current forms of pseudo-science (such as holocaust-denial) illustrate this. Those who deny the Nazi genocide in the second world war tend to bamboozle readers or listeners with a mass of tiny details. When David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt for libel in 2000 over sections of her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing assault on Truth and Memory (1993), several renowned experts had to spend months unraveling the deceptions and half-truths in Irving's work to the extent that allowed Lipstadt to be vindicated (the historian Richard Evans, who testified in the case, wrote a lengthy work exposing his falsifications in forensic detail). But if the trial thus confirmed the value of expertise, it also showed that holocaust-deniers (and those who share similar forms of thought) consistently use certain pseudo-scholarly methods that can be spotted without expert knowledge. In other words, non-scholars can identify bad scholarship - and thus (where partisan and poisonous distortion of the truth is concerned) the bad faith behind it.

A humble radicalism

The example suggests that - paradoxical as it may sound - it is through honesty and humility about what we do not know that we are able to speak with greater authority. If we ignore what we do not know (as Richard Dawkins does) or suppress what we have no desire to know (as David Irving does), arguments that claim to be authoritative collapse under the weight of their partiality. But if we accept the partiality of our perspective we can contribute to knowledge in a more honest way, through constructing arguments that are, in Karl Popper's understanding, "falsifiable". Arguments that acknowledge the possibility of being revised are more powerful, more robust and ultimately more long-lasting than arguments founded on arrogance. Knowledge that presents itself humbly is a firmer foundation for policy-making than think-tank or government reports that claim an unwarranted certainty. Owning up to what we do not know is difficult in our political system, but for better policy-making it is a necessity.

Where overweening and unfounded pretence to wisdom or systematic misuse of sources is concerned, there is a responsibility to engage in public argument on the side of knowledge and indeed reason itself. But in many more routine circumstances, it might be helpful to ask (as of the subject of Pierre Bayard's book) whether it is indeed necessary or beneficial to talk about things we know nothing about.

Here, perhaps the more radical if far less considered approach to knowledge lies in a principled distance from (even refusal to participate in) its production or circulation. The cost - in embarrassment, employment opportunities, social exclusion - would for many be enormous, but that is not the only consideration. Bayard's argument opens up a potentially fruitful conversation about how, in a bewildering world, human beings can balance their inescapable ignorance against the necessity to act. At the same time, there is value in the recognition that areas on the map of knowledge that lie beyond one's understanding should be met by respectful silence - which, in a noisy world, can also be considered a healthily subversive act. It's always good to read. But sometimes, it's good not to talk.

Postcript

I should add that I am aware of the irony that I - a precariously employed sociologist with expertise in contemporary Judaism and in popular music - am speaking outside of my fields of expertise in writing this article. An appreciation of irony, together with a tendency towards self-deprecation, should perhaps be a precondition for contributing to public discussion. In this I have learned from Pierre Bayard, who in his book shamelessly points out those classic works he has not read or has forgotten. My ignorance is certainly no less than his.


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