A disposition for action and reliance on patience

Epistemological modesty is the knowledge of how little we know and can know.

Epistemological modesty is an attitude toward life. This attitude is built on the awareness that we don’t know ourselves. Most of what we think and believe is unavailable to conscious review…

Not fully understanding others, we also cannot really get to the bottom of circumstances. No event can be understood in isolation from its place in the historical flow – the infinity of prior events, minute causes, and circumstances that touch it in visible and invisible ways.

And yet this humble attitude doesn’t necessarily produce passivity. Epistemological modesty is a disposition for action. The people with this disposition believe that wisdom begins with an awareness of our own ignorance. We can design habits, arrangements, and procedures that partially compensate for the limits on our knowledge…

The mind wants to make instant judgments about all the sensory details it receives, file new data away with some theory. People hate uncertainty and rush to judgment…

But the wanderer endures uncertainty. The wise wanderer holds off and restrains, possessing what John Keats called negative capability, the ability to be in ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

The more complicated the landscape, the more the wanderer relies on patience. The more confusing the scene, the more tolerant his outlook becomes. He not only has an awareness of his own ignorance, but of his own weakness in the face of it…

He is on guard against his weaknesses. He pays attention to the sensations that come up from below. He makes tentative generalizations and analyses and focuses on sensations anew. He continues to wander and absorb, letting the information marinate deep inside…

Wisdom, Berlin concludes, ‘is not scientific knowledge, but as special sensitiveness to the contours of the circumstances in which we happen to be places; it is a capacity for living without falling foul of some permanent condition or factor which cannot either be altered or fully described and calculated; an ability to be guided by rules of thumb where rules of science do not, in principle apply. This inexpressible sense of cosmic orientation is the “sense of reality,” the “knowledge” of how to live.’

EXCERPT FROM THE SOCIAL ANIMAL BY DAVID BROOKS

PASSAGES FROM PAGES 245-250

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