An important strand in modern philosophy is the attempt to avoid error. Typically, doing so is thought to require a recognition of the limitations of our human intellect and a narrowing of our intellectual interests to what we are equipped to deal with. It’s like the memorable exchange in the movie Jun0: “What is your job title, exactly? I’m an ultrasound technician, ma’am. Well, I’m a nail technician and I think we both ought to just stick to what we know.”
In philosophy, people normally associate this line of thought with Kant–the dreaded phenomena/noumena distinction (yes, I found those words on Wikipedia, and no, I will not explain them). However, this self-limiting tendency is all over the place in modern philosophy, once you start to look for it. Descartes was the true pioneer in this regard, recommending that avoiding error is a matter of limiting one’s judgments to what one clearly and distinctly understands. Even Nietzsche, at least the early Nietzsche, calls for a certain limitation of one’s intellect to whatever is immediately useful for life. In general, modern philosophers believe that the mind is there to rule and organize life in various ways, not to engage in speculative contemplation.
And I like all that. I enjoy teaching it. There seems to be a salutary humility to it.
But I’m beginning to worry that it is not quite right. Consider the case of my almost-three-year-old son, the clarifier of philosophical issues great and small.
My son has a new favorite phrase: “What’s this?” It has several important variants: “What’s this, Daddy?” and “Daddy, what’s this, Daddy?” The question can be posed in regard to a thing, such as his new engine, Stephen (a.k.a. The Rocket). It can be posed in regard to an event, such as my severe chastisement of our golden retriever for stealing the baby’s cookie (again). It can even be posed in regard to an action, such as my cleaning out gobs of retriever hair from the vacuum cleaner (too much information, I know).
The question can even be posed multiple times in a row. Consider the following philosophical dialogue:
X: “What’s this?” A: “That’s your new train.”
X: “What’s this?” A: “That’s Stephen; he’s an engine.”
X: “Daddy, what’s this?” A: “You know what that is. That’s Stephen, your new engine. He is yellow. He has six wheels.”
X: “Sshteben haS FORR weelZZ.” A: “No, he has six wheels. The wheels in front are bigger so they don’t break when he runs over animals that are on the tracks.”
S: “I heard that. Don’t tell him stuff like that because you know he is going to repeat it.”
X: “Daddy, what’s this?” A: “That’s your new engine that you got for Christmas.”
What’s the point of all this? The point is that my son just can’t help himself. He wants to know what stuff is. He doesn’t first ask himself whether it is an appropriate object for his contemplation. The mind doesn’t naturally come equipped with a air brake.
The mind instead comes with an insatiable desire to know. To know what? Well, lots of stuff, but primarily what St. Thomas called “essence”–the “whatness” my son was asking about above. Our human intellects reach out to essence, even when it is beyond our full grasp. And, like my son, our minds reach out to it again and again (or should, if we haven’t stunted them), for there is always something new to discover about things.
So while there is a certain attractive humility in the project of modern philosophy, it does not quite fit what we are as humans. Humility does not consist in only reaching out to what you can fully understand, just as it does not consist in only playing games you can win. True humility is in knowing, but always admitting that there is more to know. It is pride that seeks to hide so as never to err.