Thinking outside the Box 2
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Thus speaks Hamlet to his good friend at the end of Scene V, Act I of Hamlet. They have just encountered the ghost of foully slain old Hamlet. Young Hamlet has just got his friends to swear an oath upon his sword that they shall never breathe a word of what they have heard and seen to anyone.
“O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!” These last were the words of Horatio that called forth Hamlet’s famous and often quoted riposte. There are so many famous quotations from this stark and engaging tragedy that one could fill many a page with commentary thereupon. I mention this one in particular because it is one of my favourite quotes of all time. Why? Well, it’s philosophically sound. No one can comprehend everything. The days of “Renaissance Man” are long since gone. This is as good a place as any to start a disquisition on the philosophy of knowledge which is called by the horribly pretentious term “epistemology”.
Another good quotation to use as a spring board in epistemology is: “I know nothing except my ignorance.” This was uttered by the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Obviously from here one can begin one’s journey into the infinity of knowledge. [I owe this quotation to an excellent philosopher who taught me way back in the autumn term of 1976. Fr Patrick Carmody, M.A., M. Phil. (Louvain) – he was and is possessed of a brilliant mind. He also taught me classical Aristotelian logic. He is now Parish Priest of Celbridge, Co. Kildare]. Speaking of the infinity of knowledge, I was always quite taken with Karl Popper’s comment that “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.”
I have also been taken in by that classical symbol of perfection, namely the sphere. My personal concept of the theory of knowledge is to let the sphere (no matter what its radius is, obviously) represent the total of known facts. Then, it follows, that all that “empty” space that lies outside its bounds represents the infinity of unknown facts. As humankind learns ever increasing facts quite obviously the sphere grows, leaving an ever greater surface area in contact with the unknown. Hence, here we have a beautiful metaphor for the increasing nature of knowledge. Also, it is a graphical representation of that often quoted contention that “the more we know, the more we know that we do not know!”
St Augustine of Hippo used a beautiful phrase, obviously inspired by Socrates through Plato and Aristotle. He praised what he called a “docta ignorantia” as a starting point not alone in knowledge of facts, but also in wisdom, and as an approach to knowing something of the Creator of the universe, namely God. I’m obviously not presenting here any partisan contention as to whether the latter exists or not. I am merely quoting Augustine’s contention from the fifth century A.D. [I owe this quotation to Rev Dr Gervase Corcoran, OSA who taught me theology way back in 1983-4. I don’t know if Gervase is still alive, but he was a marvelous classical scholar (Greek and Latin) and was steeped in Patristics – that is, the study of the early Greek and Roman Fathers of the Church.]
Over the long history of theology (which owes much to Greek philosophy within the Roman Catholic tradition especially and this latter has only quite lately shaken off some of the influence of Greek categories. More of this in another post) there have been many learned books and tracts called “De Docta Ignorantia.” It is beyond the scope of this post to say anything about them. Should the reader wish to pursue knowledge of this arcane area all he/she need do is google this Latin quotation.
I will finish this post by a quotation from Plato which balances and expands on the tenor of Hamlet’s riposte to Horatio which I began with. It goes thus: “You are young, my son, and, as the years go by, time will change and even reverse many of your present opinions. Refrain therefore awhile from setting yourself up as a judge of the highest matters.” [Dialogues, Theatetus, Greek author & philosopher in Athens (427 BC - 347 BC) ]