The Personalist Project

Accessed on July 03, 2022 - 1:46:00

Questions, Answers, and Mystery

Michael Healy, Jun 29, 2012

I conceive of the role of the teacher as a helper to the student so that the latter can see some real truth(s) on his own.  The classical root of this conception, of course, is Socrates describing himself as a midwife, helping the other to bring to birth in his own mind a genuine understanding of reality.  This involves a process of discovery requiring a broad openness to questions, challenges, readiness to make modifications, etc.  It requires humility, i.e., an attitude fundamentally acknowledging that reality is transcendent to the mind and that, as Augustine says, the mind is below truth, not above it. 

Nevertheless, it is sometimes the case that anyone who claims to know something—anything—with certainty is on that account accused of arrogance, as if the supposed “knower” is simply asserting himself proudly against reality and against other people.  Or, as if the “knower” is refusing to acknowledge any gray areas in life.  He is accused of “needing” certainty as a sort of psychological crutch; otherwise, he can’t live his daily life.  Everything has to be clear, cut and dried, or he can’t function.  Thus the supposed “knower” is accused of immaturity, even infantilism, because of his inability to grow up and face the complexities of life.  For such reasons, all “certainty” is treated as psychologically suspect. 

Now these charges might be understandable if the person in question claimed to know everything, as if all was clear to him as it really only is to God.  This would be proud, arrogant, infantile, psychologically suspect, offensive to others (who might see something one misses), and disrespectful to reality (which might really be more mysterious than anything dreamt of in one’s own philosophy).  Yet, these charges are brought forward sometimes even when limited but real knowledge is claimed. 

Thus some professors—I had not a few of these in my undergrad college days—seem to think that it is their mission in life to disabuse young undergraduates of all “certainties” as a way of helping them grow up.  If this leaves the students disoriented, confused, perhaps even threatened with despair, great!  They are finally facing things!  Mission accomplished!  Now, it is true that to be led out of false “certainties”—i.e., what one might think is certain based on the vagaries of one’s upbringing, culture, tradition, prejudice, limited experience, ignorance, etc.—is indeed a liberation.  Living as if x is true when in fact it is false is very dangerous; it is a blindness one does not know one has and thus can lead a person and others around him into a ditch.  But, for a teacher to convince a young impressionable student that there is no truth (notice the contradiction here), that all claims to certainty are false, that there are no answers to anything, wipes out the entire foundation for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and certainly wipes out any foundation for education itself.  It destroys false conceptions of reality without replacing them with anything deeper.  This is exactly the opposite of the Socratic notion of education—of being lead out (e-ducare) of the darkness of the cave into the light, into increasingly deeper understandings of how things truly are.  Granted that this is a never-ending process as we journey through this life, nonetheless it is a process based in hope. 

So Socrates says that philosophy begins in wonder—in wondering and marveling at the heretofore unexpected beauty, depth, seriousness, and importance of things we have previously taken for granted, overlooked, or grown accustomed to.  St. Thomas later adds that this is what makes the poet and the philosopher alike—this experience of wonder.  Albert Einstein extends the same theme to science and mathematics, saying that he who can no longer wonder and marvel at reality is intellectually deadened.  But notice that wonder begins in discovery—you have to see something (know something) in order to marvel at it.  Only then you can be led toward acknowledgement of depth and mystery and, in consequence, toward a deepening awareness of the limits of your own mind.  Thus genuine discovery of truth does not lead to arrogance or pride or the danger of the “know-it-all.”  It leads rather to humility.  It also leads to hope, as already Socrates witnesses.  Aristotle too says that out of wonder comes joy—at this unexpected depth and beauty of reality itself. 

So answers (truth) go together with discovery of mystery and lead to further questions, but all in the context of some ability to know some truths (and be on the way to more).  This is the hopeful and joyful aspect.  Yet all this is lost in the approach of those who simply try to undercut all knowledge.  In that worldview, rarely fully acknowledged, there is only emptiness and ultimately despair—hardly a helpful state to try to lead others toward.  Unless, of course, the emptiness and despair are really a “true” response to reality; yet, the latter (any true knowledge) is denied by such skeptics.  And, of course, the deepest problem here is what good is it to help students face their despair when all the teacher in question has to offer is more despair?  This is the difference between thinkers like Kierkegaard and Pascal (who certainly try to make us face our misery and despair, but in order to drive us deeper toward answers—ultimately into the arms of our Savior) compared to Sartre and Nietzsche (who leave us alone in darkness and encourage us to be proud of it).