Afraid To Ask

A very serious student with whom I regularly discuss ideas and literature, and who is typically a fount of excellent and productive questions, recently wrote to me to explain the frustrating uncertainties that have caused her to hesitate in formulating some of her thoughts concerning the literary and philosophical themes we have been encountering lately. 

She formulated the problem this way:

If I have 80% understanding and 20% ignorance about a topic, then I think it will be easy to form questions about my ignorance, but in this case, I think I have 10% understanding and 90% ignorance, so it is not easy to even form a proper question, because I’m not sure if it is a good question to help my understanding.

My reply is as follows:

If you have 80% understanding about a topic of any importance, then you are the wisest human being who ever lived, and your questions will be far too difficult for anyone else. That other condition you described, 10% understanding and 90% ignorance, is a closer depiction of human nature at the best of times, and everyone fortunate enough to be in that condition (a small minority of the species, I would say) is merely struggling to come a little closer to 11%.

The most distressing and difficult part of this predicament is that we often do not even know which 10% we understand. The great challenge for a thinking person is to reach the point where you feel that you may indeed know which 10% you understand, so you can begin to focus well on the 90% that you don’t. The wise man will never be the one who believes he can see the goal of complete understanding before him on the horizon — the “90% type” — but rather the one who is prepared to look at the foggiest horizon, face up to the 90% that seems completely beyond his current vision, and still embrace the long, slow journey that lies before one who knows that he does not know. In other words, the wise man is he who can identify his 10% well enough to use it effectively as a starting point or springboard for moving onto the other 90% — which requires, first of all, the courage and humility to accept the complexity and risk of walking through life with such inescapably poor visibility.

To avoid asking questions on the grounds that you do not know enough to say whether the questions you would ask would be useful, would be to declare defeat and stop trying to learn altogether. After all, if you do not ask those “10%” questions, how can you expect to gain a firmer grasp even of the 10% you now possess, let alone to make any progress toward greater understanding?

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