WHAT IS THE STANCE OF UNKNOWING?
Welcome to my personal website, dedicated mainly to my blog and philosophical writings. These often have a critical flavour intended to provoke thought. New thought requires that old thought be provisionally set aside. Hence, the title of this site: The Stance of Unknowing. One must be able to “un-know” some things in order to make space for new ideas.
No matter how smart we get and how much information we accumulate, there is always an Unknown beyond the horizon of knowledge. Ignorance is always possible, and some degree of uncertainty is unavoidable. Refusal to admit this can spell trouble, especially when we count on information that is not reliable. There is something just as valuable as the positive skills that bring us knowledge. That is the negative skill to live without certainty, the ability to not have to know. Ignorance is a state of not knowing, which we typically view as a liability. But when that state is deliberately embraced as an attitude toward experience or information, it becomes a stance that is actually an asset. I call this willing suspension of belief the stance of unknowing.
This is not a mystical concept but a practical maneuver. I do not propose to abandon reason and positive knowledge, only to temper them with something else. I will not try to precisely define what that is, which would be hopelessly paradoxical. Language and thought are oriented toward definable things, so talking about undefined things is a matter of talking around them. Yet, an indirect approach can be effective, just as black holes can be detected indirectly through their influence on visible things. The Unknown is the invisible companion of the known, and the stance of unknowing is the much-needed complement to the quest for certainty, like a soft gaze compared to acutely focused attention. If we identify the characteristics of definite knowledge and the quest for it, we can at least know what the stance of unknowing is not. These include: certainty, prediction, control, utility, objectivity, and detachment of subject from object. Despite the appeal of certainty, we control very little in life. Reality can always surprise us. This alone should tell us there is room for a different approach: one that accepts uncertainty as the natural condition and takes subjective experience as a fundamental point of departure.
I call this approach a stance first of all to evoke responsibility. The stance of unknowing is a way of looking that involves the opposite of the qualities involved in the search for reliable answers. A stance is a deliberate posture. Knowledge involves a knowing agent, and so does any effort to bracket knowledge or suspend belief. Someone stands somewhere, both in regard to knowing and not knowing. What are the characteristics of this posture? First of all: to suspend what is already known or believed, and to resist the temptation to prematurely reassert what is already known or believed. To tag knowledge as belief is to disengage from it enough to not be swallowed up in it, crippled by dogma. One must step back from the obvious desirability of certainty in order to see it as the biological need of an organism. One must step back from apparent truth in order to see it as mere belief. One must step back from the perceptual window on an objective world to see it as a brain’s construction. While this means questioning appearances and one’s “truths,” it does not necessarily mean abandoning them. The stance is a provisional measure, a voluntary act, an experiment. It poses the question, “What if I set aside what I think I know?” The answer cannot be predicted.
This suspension of belief or bracketing of knowledge creates a void. We want to see what may enter to fill it. So, a prerequisite is curiosity. Without creating this emptiness, one simply remains blinded by one’s current certainties, which eclipse all new information and ways of looking. If one has complete confidence in one’s knowledge, then there is little reason to perform this exercise. Hence, another prerequisite is doubt. One must doubt, and even doubt one’s doubt! Such skepticism is challenging in an accelerating society based on decisive action. Of course, there are real emergencies and things that must be dealt with in a timely manner. But there are also false emergencies and decisions that would better be made without haste. We live in an age of short-sighted goals and pressured decision-making—which looks ever more like the very lack of wisdom. There is a valid place for doubt, and for remaining in a phase of suspended judgment for as long as it takes to come to a wise decision. There is a place for the lengthy debate required for consensus, including debate within oneself.
So, further prerequisites are patience and discipline. One needs discipline to resist the compulsion to come prematurely to a conclusion; one needs patience to abide the uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty. These qualities serve a commitment to a bigger picture and a longer-term view, which are not readily achieved. That could mean actively seeking more information or it could mean doing nothing at all, which is extremely difficult in a culture based on restless activity and distraction. Above all, it means taking responsibility for the processes of perceiving, knowing, judging, and deciding that we normally take for granted.
The stance of unknowing is similar in intent to the concept of brainstorming developed in the 1940s and popularized in the 1950s. Brainstorming originated as a group creative process to solve problems of product development in corporations. It involves the key ingredient of deferring judgment in order to come up with as many creative suggestions as possible. Yet, the stance of unknowing differs from brainstorming in several ways. It is not restricted to collective processes. It is not aimed at problem solving or any pre-specified goal. While it may result in new knowledge, that is not the intention behind it. It is not a tool to serve a given purpose, but a temporary relaxation of purpose. It resembles skepticism as an attitude of doubt or a withholding of judgment. However, it is not a philosophical theory that denies the reality of the world or its knowability. It is not a theory at all, but a strategic retreat from speculation. My blog and other writings are filled with speculation as well as skepticism. Behind both, however, is always the intention to treat all ideas as provisional, a willingness to take the stance of unknowing.