Sunday, January 15, 2017

Que sais-je?

We live in some strange times.  Especially with a demagogue who repeatedly tells us that he is the only one who knows how to fix all the problems and that he alone is to be trusted because everything else is nothing but fake.  He was supported by tens of millions of my fellow citizens, including the college-educated.

Que sais-je?
“What do I know?” was Montaigne’s beloved motto, meaning: What do I really know?
The demagogue, and his boot-lickers, do not ever worry about that motto.  "“What do I know?” is not what they worry about; after all, they know it all.  With certainty, it seems!  Of course, whites are superior to everybody else. Of course, Mexicans are rapists. Of course, ...

In the special, one-time, course that I taught last term, I emphasized to students the importance of intellectual humility.  The contrast between the classroom content and discussions versus the outside world of the demagogue and fake news and bullshit was stark.  Depressingly stark.  I am sure the students saw that too.

I remembered reading about Montaigne a couple of years ago.  Google helped me out:
It’s been said — by Bakewell, with reservations, and others — that Montaigne was the first blogger. His favorite subject, as he often remarked, was himself (“I would rather be an expert on me than on Cicero”), and he meant to leave nothing out (“I am loath even to have thoughts which I cannot publish”).
Yes, that was the one.  You can see why that made an impression on me--a blogger, who often uses autoethnography to understand this world and his place in it.
[The] distinctive mark of Montaigne is his intellectual humility. Like Socrates, Montaigne claims that what he knows best is the fact that he does not know anything much. To undermine common beliefs and attitudes, Montaigne draws on tales of other times and places, on his own observations and on a barrage of arguments in the ancient Pyrrhonian skeptical tradition, which encouraged the suspension of judgment as a middle way between dogmatic assertion and equally dogmatic denial. Montaigne does often state his considered view, but rarely without suggesting, explicitly or otherwise, that maybe he is wrong. In this regard, his writing is far removed from that of the most popular bloggers and columnists, who are usually sure that they are right.   
I am confident that Montaigne and his Essais are not what the demagogue and his minions care about!

But then, Que sais-je?!

2 comments:

Ramesh said...

I would have loved to be in your class that focused on intellectual humility. I would suggest that it is a fundamental trait that is extremely important to all of us. The day we lose it, we stop learning and stop making progress.

I think scientists have this in abundance. Even if they have giant sized egos, many are constantly seeking to understand what they don't know. And if you don't admit that you don't know a lot, there isn't much hope.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, I too would have enjoyed engaging with you on the content ... you not as a student, of course--you are way informed a thinker and, hence, you would have been more like a guest-lecturer/speaker in that course. In fact, you will be quite a bit of a resource as a guest-speaker in my intro to geography course which is all about economic geography.

Yes, we will all benefit from intellectual humility.

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