Vicious Intellectualism and the Reality of the Unknown

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry 21 Comments

There are things that we know. And there are things that we know that we don’t know. And there are things that we don’t know that we don’t know. These last are the “unknown unknowns” made famous in a comment by former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The two originators of the philosophy of Pragmatism – Charles Sanders Peirce and William James – were both very concerned with unknown unknowns. Both realized that human beings find it very difficult to even imagine that there could be things that we don’t know that we don’t know. Sure we know that there are things that we don’t know. I don’t know lots of scientific and cultural facts, the distance to the nearest star, the president of Monaco and so on. But I know there are such facts that I don’t know. (The film maker and columnist Errol Morris has written for the New York Times recently on the concept of unknown unknowns.)

Those things that we don’t even know enough to know that we don’t know lay so far outside of our existing frame of reference that we can’t even imagine them. They are too far out of our box to hold in mind. What endears me to Pragmatism more than anything else is the respect given to the existence of truth beyond our current ability to imagine. James and Peirce both assumed that what we knew about reality (and even what we can imagine to be true about reality) is only a tiny part of the totality of reality. And they envisioned a way of going about philosophy in light of this. They created a form of inquiry and a philosophical attitude that was militantly open ended. “Never block the road to inquiry” was Peirce’s motto. And William James railed against what he called vicious intellectualism.

Vicious intellectualism as James described it was the conscious or unconscious assumption that the affirmation of any truth implied the negation of all other possibilities. As long as we are working within a limited frame of reference this assumption works well enough. So if I look at an object and assert the truth that this object is blue, then it is safe to assume that I am simultaneously asserting that it is not red, yellow, green, or any other color.

(Wilfred Sellers in his essay on “The Myth of the Given” points out that even a simple example like this can cause trouble. What if, for instance, we were to find that  we were looking at the object through bad lighting, and in fact what seemed to us to be blue was actually a dark green? James’ conception of vicious intellectualism is his statement of the myth of the given: The assumption that the way I see the truth is actually what is true.)

The reason James was so bothered by vicious intellectualism was that it tended toward a method of inquiry that resisted stepping outside of its own frame of reference. If we are consciously or unconsciously assuming that what we think is true actually is true and negates all other possibilities, our inquiry proceeds by expanding on what we already know. We focus on what we know and push at the borders creeping slowly out into the vast oceans of unknown that surrounds our small island of known.

James and Peirce wanted our thinking to be free. They wanted to hold on loosely to what we think is true by assuming that whatever we think is true now will yield tomorrow to a much bigger and more encompassing truth. Rather than defend what we know and expand on it slowly they wanted to inquire directly into what we don’t already know by focusing on the anomalies and oddities that don’t fit into our current understanding.

James felt that our attention should be on the outer fringes of what we know. The next big idea doesn’t come from the center. It comes from the dim outer edge where the light of what we currently know fades into the blackness of the unknown beyond. James risked his career and his reputation as a scientist to study things that others thought were absurdities. As the president of the American Psychical Society he studied spirits, mediums, and life after death. Most scientists felt this was worthless, but James felt that it was out there on the fringes that we would find passage ways to new and unexpected vistas of truth.

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Christophe
Christophe
9 years ago

Thank you Jeff.
James and Pierce talked about a new way of seeing life.
It requires humility, boldness, rationality to discover a more integral truth.

Christophe.

Anna Kelly
9 years ago

This sounds a little like the “Grue Paradox” I studied in college.

It is so interesting how more and more and more unfolds and reveals itself when we are interested in that which we do not already know!

Vikram Surya Chiruvolu

Jeff, Nice post — I enjoy how you draw a through-line from James to Rumsfeld in terms of the value of exploring unknown unknowns, and the humility called for to do so. I wanted to add to the discourse by pointing to what I feel is a crucial gap in this meme, one particularly relevant to those interested in the various methods of more fully illuminating individual interiority — meditation, self-inquiry, psychoanalysis, yoga, 12-step. It is this: Rumsfeld brought out three categories: known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns — and most commentators focus on this last one. But there… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
9 years ago

Vikram, Your identification of this catagory of “unkown knowns” is powerful. I agree it deserves more attention and if you take a look at the Errol Morris article I linked to I think that you will find some fascinating food for thought. I will definately think more about this. Thank you, Jeff

Kimberly Blozie
Kimberly Blozie
9 years ago

Awesome Blog Jeff. Love the title and that image too. Really asks us what it means to stand alone, let all of our deeply held beliefs go, (yes, even the ones we think we can’t or shouldn’t let go of) and make room for that which we don’t even know what we don’t know and simply question, look anew at life, at ourselves, at why we are here for and what it all means. It is like the strongest iron (or tree, to keep with your imagery) is that space of inquiry it self, not the conclusions that are drawn… Read more »

Vikram Surya Chiruvolu

Thanks for the pointer Jeff — the Morris series is interesting! He repeatedly refers to Dunning’s book, Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Oneself seems to point to a number of interesting areas as to the mechanism of how people fail to see themselves clearly — dealing mainly with people’s tendency to overestimate their competence and character. I believe there’s a realm beyond these two that I think is even more fruitful to look at — and that is, the realm of perspective. People can be highly skilled and moral in a conventional sense, as I believe… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
9 years ago

Dear Vikram, for the war in Irak, this was in interesting period where as a French I was on the brink to loose 1/2 f my american friends while the there half was ready starting to see “French arrogance” and “French independence” in another way. I am still proud that at the end of the day we didn’t stepped back in and put out veto in the UN despite the incredible pressure the american democracy was putting on us. The Brits have completely betrayed their soul on this occasion, because as the oldest and most successful colonial power they knew,… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
9 years ago

One of the reasons I got so passionate about this blog a few years ago is that I realized that Americans generally don’t know what they don’t know about their own philosophical heritage. It can and has been argued that American philosophy pales in comparison to its European counterparts, but be that as it may American philosophy is a unique perspective on reality. It is the perspective that underlies American thought, it proved incredibly successful at navigating through the twentieth century and I believe it has become increasingly incorporated into the minds of those around the world. I also feel… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
9 years ago

I feel a bit ashamed to have been so completely side tracked with the Irak war, while the subject of the frontier of knowledge is one which is so dear to me … As a matter of apology, I will say that the French are all secretly in love with the USA; for me the offering of the Statue of Liberty, one hundred years after US independence, at the time where France was in one of its most mediocre periods [ the second empire], is really the symbol of True Love. Something like “ thank you so much for having… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
9 years ago

Thanks to Catherine some time ago I bought a book about Fichte’s transcendental philosophy and, very soon after reading I could connect it to this blog…Reading later Catherine’s post it is clear that this is about the Idealists, but what I think is interesting in connection with the blog is the importance he gives to practice, to practical intelligence, to theory and practice; to knowing and doing; to intelligence and will. These are basic to human existence. Fichte is concerned with the acts and objects of that intelligence. He addresses that which is fixed or given in human existence (determination)… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
9 years ago

I would like to come back a bit deeper to the contemplation raised by the blog and also by Vikram and Liesbeth, about “what makes vicious intellectualism so vicious”. When Vikram has put the category of unknown knowns as one of the most important, I felt I side back completely with him. Maybe it is an issue for our post modern culture and its New Age under currents, but on this special topic I feel we are on the brink to loose the sharpness of what modern scientific mind -set has brought to us. I want to illustrate this with… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
9 years ago

Science: The Planck Wall Cosmologists cannot explain the cosmic condition at the very beginning (time = zero), since the Big Bang Model starts at the “Planck Wall,” named for Max Planck (1858-1947), the founder of Quantum Theory: physics on the smallest space-time scales. Though its name suggests that this is a spatial phenomenon, “The Planck Wall” actually pertains to time. It is the earliest moment in cosmic history that astronomers can physically describe. Prior to this “wall,” physical laws break down, or, more correctly, quantum mechanical effects, and the uncertainities inherent therein, are predominant. The Planck Wall occurred a minuscule… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
9 years ago

Dear Liesbeth, I know Andrew doesn’t talk about the same thing, in the same language as Science does. Look he has convinced me , I am completely sure he speaks a deep Truth when he talks about the Origin of Time and the Evolutionary Impulse, and still, I cannot help that he breaks my heart when he equates this Origin of Time with the Big Bang, because for a Scientist, it is just something we don’t know yet. Maybe yes, maybe no, but at the moment the frontier is at the feet of the Planck’s Wall for us. Not at… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
9 years ago

Liesbeth, when you talk about going beyond the mind then you are right. Andrew was so far the only one who has been able to take me a little step in this direction. But I would lovingly criticize scientists [ myself included] for not always embracing wholeheartedly this aspiration to go beyond the mind, and I also would lovingly criticize a spiritual Teacher for sometimes trespassing the Sacred frontier of scientific knowledge. Humanity has everything to gain by uniting Science and Spirituality. It will not be every day easy to do it with anthenticity, but isn’t it a thrilling goal… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
9 years ago

Dear Catherine, Of course you are right telling the truth and pointing towards the edge. Andrew is the first one interested. I have been thinking a lot about this connection. When I read about Einstein I thought he was spiritual, only someone who is able to go so much beyond the mind can do things he did. Spirituality is connected with ‘believing’ which is of course very wide. You are a person who of course is very much on the edge, connecting both and so is Chopra. My idea is that Andrew is first and foremost a spiritual teacher. He… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
9 years ago

Hello Catherine,
Thank you for this comment. And I think with the example of Mike you capture the spirit of American philosophy perfectly. It is an almost impossible combination of “nuts and bolts” practicality with extreme and sometimes even naive idealism. I am so inspired by what you wrote here that I am going to let it act as my muse for my next post.

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
9 years ago

And thank you Liesbeth for that input on Plank’s wall.

Catherine
Catherine
9 years ago

Dear Liesbeth, there are so many things I would like to answer to your last post, but I will focus just on one, the relationship with the Teacher. When I say “it breaks my heart” when Andrew equates the Big Bang with the Origin of Time, it is not a sentimental saying. IT is that this threshold of Scientific knowledge is really Sacred for me, and I wince every-time someone trespasses it. Now if I don’t tell this to Andrew, what kind of position do I take with my teacher. For me it would be something like “ as a… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
9 years ago

I am not the one to say anything about it, it all evolves and I have been away. But this is definitely the place to talk about science, it is absolutely fascinating, thank you, love Liesbeth.

ps. If I was able to draw a cartoon, I would make one of you during retreat: turning everything Andrew says into equations…. I wish you a great retreat!

Moo Briddell
Moo Briddell
9 years ago

Even though I am not a scientist, I am following this with great interest. Thank-you for the great discussion! I tend to agree with Catherine, that it is her duty as a scientist and as a disciple of Andrew, to keep him informed of the threshold of scientific discovery, the Sacred Space on the edge of the unknown!
Wow! Thank-you Jeff for this forum!

Scott Preston
Scott Preston
8 years ago

Excellent article. William James “vicious intellectualism” has another name — “logicism”, which is “the authority of reason” become dogmatic ideology, just as “moralism” became dogmatic ideology following from “the authority of the Bible”. The “Age of Reason” and the “Age of Faith” both follow a pretty interesting, parallel trajectory of rise and fall. What I’ve been able to glean from this curious parallelism is this (some of which was argued in the works of the cultural philosopher, Jean Gebser): the mental-rational structure of consciousness preserves it’s psychic architecture or “identity” based nothing more than the rules of logic — syllogism,… Read more »