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Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry

Ignorance is not bliss

Ignorance is bliss. I truly dislike that statement. First I’ll start by decomposing it. Is it in this case ignorance as in lack of knowledge or lack of awareness that there is knowledge that one has not yet acquired? And how can it create bliss? A word that is used to define enjoyment or pleasure. It may prevent unhappiness from not knowing what we are missing however lack of unhappiness does not mean that one is happy.

If a starving person is locked in a room, even if that person has no idea that outside of that room there is a feast being held, and is therefore ignorant, it does not change the fact that the person’s stomach will be hurting and gurgling from hunger. It is highly unlikely that the person will be happy.  Some may argue that even if the person knew about the feast, because he or she was still locked in the room it would just lead to greater unhappiness. However now the door simply represents an obstacle, the person can choose to pick the lock, knock down the door and resolve his or her hunger. Absence of knowledge of something better does not mean someone is content. Otherwise governments that censored information to it’s people would have always stayed in power.

Lack of knowledge makes it hard to create something new, be it a new point of view or an actual invention or one may even waste the time trying to create something that already exists! Personally I am quite glad that so many have studied in order for me to live in a nice heated home instead of a stone cabin, that technology has evolved so much that I am typing this instead of handwriting it (which at least in my case since I my hand writing is almost illegible, it also increases the number of people that can read this).

In the end I don’t actually believe “ignorance is bliss”, is always an untrue statement, but it is also very far from an absolute one.



10 thoughts on “Ignorance is not bliss

  1. “…lack of unhappiness does not mean that one is happy.” This is particularly devastating piece of your argument that I think links nicely to what Jen is writing about in her post “I cry when I do Math…” in that the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment one feels upon achieving something difficult, perhaps after much discomfort and/or failure, often gives us an actual sense of happiness that ignorance could never truly provide.

    I always find these sorts of ‘rewards’ (like feeling good about ourselves after acing a math test or singing at the top of our lungs to our favourite song) interesting from an evolutionary perspective because it means that things that others might write off as frivolous – laughing at a joke or singing in the shower, maybe – are what make us *us.*

    What survival mechanism do you think might be attached to us gaining satisfaction from moving beyond ignorance?

    Posted by Bryan | September 24, 2012, 4:12 am
  2. Mariana,

    I agree with you on several points – especially “Absence of knowledge of something better does not mean someone is content.” But what about absence of knowledge of something worse? What if the person locked in this room chooses not to open the door, and unlock it, because they fear worse outside their confines? They may be locked up an hungry, but they do not suffer torture, persecution, or death. Would this then represent fear of greater knowledge?

    Or, in another thought – what if the person did not know there was a door? If they had been locked in this room for a lengthy period of time, they might rationalize their hunger, and deem it “normal”. Don’t you think this is something we commonly do, in today’s society?

    Consider this person is does not realize what they can or cannot lose. In ‘The Good Brahman’, a poor woman is content with her life, for she does not have the burden of knowledge or critical thinking. She does not worry about the world, but only herself. And she is satisfied, because she does not carry a burden greater than her hygiene (having a bar of soap).

    Jonathan Toews (in the eyes of Jeremy Bentham)

    Posted by jonathantoews | September 24, 2012, 5:10 am
    • Mariana,

      I concur completely – ignorance is in no rational form bliss. I would encourage you to dig deeper though – your analyzation shows a situation in which one desires knowledge due to current pain. Both in your analogy of the man in the prison, and in your analogy of the people overthrowing a government, they desire knowledge because they know it is the gate to freedom, of one form of pain.

      I believe it is not only physical pain or false freedoms that cause people the desire to know. I believe that your analogy may even work in an opposite direction. I feel that people desire knowledge to such extent, that they would be willing to sacrifice food, in order to find out what it is like inside that prison, which contains a starving man. I feel that humans desire knowledge to such extent that they would be willing to sacrifice all comforts and pleasures in order to gain knowledge or understanding.

      I enjoy your writing – It is well-structured, methodical and easy to understand. I would love to see another post of yours, outlining ignorance in light of possible loss, rather than solely potential gain.

      Jonathan (in the eyes of John Stuart Mill)

      Posted by JonathanToews | September 25, 2012, 4:26 am
    • Interesting point on person inside the room being safe from torture, however if they didn’t know about the torture outside they would still be bothered by their hunger and if they did know about it, they could be happy to be inside the room only suffering from hunger.

      Even if we deem something normal, I deem normal that I cannot sleep all day, that does not necessarily make me happy.

      Still I truly do not wish to say that knowledge always brings us happiness, I mean only to say that “ignorance is bliss” is not always correct. That’s all.

      Posted by 113marianag | September 26, 2012, 6:22 pm
      • True, they would not be happy due to their terrible hunger. But once again, would they rationalize it?

        You said: “Even if we deem something normal, I deem normal that I cannot sleep all day, that does not necessarily make me happy.” But that analogy lacks reason. Lets say scientists rationalize that sleeping 8 hours a day is ‘healthy and normal’. You, being a specific individual, may require more or less sleep than that, due to having a different body than everyone else. Though this may be the case, sleeping 8 hours a day is not something you would worry about, or think about too often, because it is culturally coined as ‘normal’. Therefore, you may be perfectly content with your 8 hours of sleep, though it could benefit you much more to have more hours of sleep.

        In this way, we could rationalize pain (lack of sleep, tiredness) as normal, and not worry too much about it. And we could very well be happy with ourselves, and the extra time those hours of sleep gives us, while ignoring the need for more sleep.

        Jonathan Toews (in the eyes of Jeremy Bentham)

        Posted by JonathanToews | September 27, 2012, 6:12 am
  3. Your argument seems commonsensical, and yet there are many philosophers and traditions that would not agree. Perhaps the most famous philosopher of ignorance was Friedrich Nietzsche – there have been books written exploring what he meant saying “It is not enough that you understand in what ignorance man and beast live; you must also have and acquire the will to ignorance. You need to grasp that without this kind of ignorance life itself would be impossible, that it is a condition under which alone the living thing can preserve itself and prosper: a great, firm dome of ignorance must encompass you.”

    Similarly, you have Eastern traditions like Buddhism that argue that suffering itself comes from attachment, especially to thought-forms, and that the real knowledge is to see these as illusory (I’d stretch to call this “ignorance,” I actually prefer the term “ignore-ance” to describe this practice of being in the world and yet not of it.)

    Cheers, Scott Leslie

    Posted by nessman | September 26, 2012, 9:28 pm


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