Reflections on philosophy and culture

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Joy of Not Knowing

Jacques Lacan is famous for having said that desire is the desire to go on desiring. I often think that this thought appeals to philosophers because it is an apt description of a deeply rooted but secret impulse to which philosophers are prone: to hold on to puzzlement, to have the questions we ask continue to go unanswered, or when they are answered, to find new and more perplexing questions to ask.

The obvious joke here would be that this is what keeps us in business. What business is that, I wonder, given the fact that many of us live in relative poverty?

But even if the joke has something to it, there is nevertheless a deeper, ethical impulse I have in mind. I say "ethical" because it concerns the question of how to live. We often pretend we would like to be a Kant: magisterial, with systematic answers to all the most fundamental questions of philosophy. But really, I suspect that many or most of us would really rather be a Socrates: Socrates, who didn't resign himself to ignorance so much as live in joyful ignorance. No matter how vociferously we defend the terribly fragile philosophical views we formulate, we choose to live lives in which we constantly give ourselves and each other vivid reminders of our own cluelessness. Otto Weininger once said - perhaps with such a life in mind - that philosophers are consumed by self-hatred. Maybe I'm wearing rose-colored glasses, but at least for now I prefer to think of myself as someone immersed in the joy of not knowing.*

*Image courtesy of

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