A Short Piece Featured in The Fate of Beauty
The Unknowable and the Unknown
The Problematic Legacy of Modern Thought, and How Philosophies of Unknowability Forsake Philosophy’s Role in Cultivating Wonder and Intrinsic Motivation, Contributing to “The Meaning Crisis.”
The last few centuries of philosophy have emphasized what’s unknowable. Famously with Kant, we established that we can’t know what is beyond the noumenon, which is perhaps an unsurprising legacy following Descartes and his “radical doubt.” The efforts of Fichte were deconstructed by Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorem,” Richard Rorty and similar Neo-Pragmatists started laughing at the idea of truth, and Deconstructions and Post-Modernists also worked to “clear out” the “groundless” so that something new might emerge (for which we are still waiting) — all of this stresses “unknowability,” which in one sense is good, for it generates humility and resists “dreams of objectivity” which can fuel totalitarianism, but there are also numerous problems with what I will call “The Philosophy of Unknowability.”
What do I mean? I meant that Philosophy has spent a very long time talking about how the world is unknowable, a sentiment that has also been stressed by scientists and Physicists trying to discover how the universe works. We just can’t observe quantums like we must if we are to make Quantum Mechanics something we study like gravity and other phenomena, and the universe also seems way bigger and more complex than humanly comprehendible. Yes, we’ve made progress, but it also feels like we’re reaching limits to what we can know. At the same time, “The Singularity” lurks on the horizon, suggesting a day will come where AI far outpaces human cognition — what then?
All this stresses “unknowability,” which, again, is in one way very good, for humans need to be humbled. We have a tendency to believe we can “know everything” and can carry ourselves accordingly, leading to trouble. David Hume provides us with a philosophy that attempts to defend “common life” and argue it must be “unknowable” to those who are not part of the “common life,” precisely to defend it from outsiders who might they can control a given community “from afar.” In this way, using “unknowability” for good, Hume tries to combat totalitarianism and place limits on power. Considering this, please do not mistake me as saying “unknowability” is always bad; in fact, it can help if not save us.
However, like everything, we can go too far, and I fear the great stress on “unknowability” has contributed to “The Meaning Crisis,” mental illness, and the loss of intrinsic motivation. If we can’t know anything, then it makes sense to focus instead on how we feel, and Capitalism provides us infinite ways to “feel good.” We hence rationally become consumers and spend our lives searching for feelings and experiences. If we can’t know the truth, we can still at least know that we’re feeling good, and thus that becomes the “reasonable” center of our focus (suggesting that we cannot escape philosophy: it’s only a matter of how we use it).
If I look at you and say, “The nearby mountain range is ‘unknowable,’ ” then you might look at it, say a few things, and then go about your day. What else can you do? But if, instead, I said to you, “The nearby mountain is ‘unknown’ ” — well, that sounds like an adventure is in order. The entire way I am “toward” the mountain thus transforms, and perhaps we could say it’s “being” strikes me in an entirely different way (in “suchness,” suggesting Heidegger). The mountain is suddenly full of mystery, grandeur, beauty, terror, hope — a single description will not do, which is to say something much more complex and “full” is in order. What is “unknown” is a frontier, while something “unknowable” is a wall, an event horizon — a blackhole.
Why should I care about something that is “unknowable?” After all, I can’t even know I care about it, ultimately, and there is no hope for my efforts to be rewarded. Motivation to engage with the “unknowable” is limited, and here we can begin to glimpse how and why “Philosophies of Unknowability” have contributed to mental illness, boredom/inaction, and “The Meaning Crisis.” Life entails change and movement, and where there is no motivation, there will be little change, little movement, and hence little life. Hence, what contributes to a loss of motivation can contribute to a loss of life, for a difference between survival and life is engagement.
What is “unknown” might also be “unknowable,” but (at least every now and then) we must try to find out: there is room for adventure and motivation. And the counter is understandable: life is “ultimately unknowable,” it could be claimed, and hence though it would be nice to engage in “Philosophies of the Unknown,” that’s simply not an option. Fair enough, and certainly there have been philosophical efforts to unveil “unknowability” that are hard to deny and that we should appreciate (say in Gödel). But I personally think there is plenty of room for “Philosophies of the Unknown” versus (a monopolistic presence of) “Philosophies of Unknowability.” Why exactly is a central case and effort of all of O.G. Rose, from focuses on Aesthetic Philosophy to reorientations away from “certainty” in favor of “confidence,” to defenses of Conditionalism to A Philosophy of Glimpses — all of these are efforts to defend and explore a “Philosophy of the Unknown” versus see everything in terms of a “Philosophy of Unknowability.” And in my opinion, the shift from “Unknowability” to “Unknown” is can entails a Heideggerian shift to a “New Kind of Being” and “way in the world”: the shift from “unknowable” to “unknown” is a matter of “care.”
Now, before we assume the “unknown” is good while “unknowable” is bad, a few points of clarification are in order, points which hopefully make clear that we are dealing with “different investment strategies,” per se, versus “difference ethics,” and notably “an unknown strategy” can create value precisely because it entails risk. This is because “The Unknown” is a term that can both be associated with “The Real” of Lacan and “The Beatific Vision” of Christianity: it can suggest terror or sublimity, be a source of “the meaning of life” or death — we cannot approach or consider “The Unknown” simplistically. All at once, we deal with the subjects of Lovecraft, Dante, Flannery O’Connor, Freud, Jung, Hofmann — to stress and emphasize “The Unknown” radically changes the nature of the world we live in, it’s point, and it’s potential. To stress “Unknowability” protects us from all this danger (it’s a “less risky investment strategy”), but that means we may also be protected from life itself, because life is dangerous. Where there is no danger, there is no life. Risk creates life, and so, despite what we might tell ourselves, life might not be something we want.
“The Unknown” is risky, while “Unknowability” is safer, but the safety of Unknowability comes at a high price. Where we are safe and there is little risk, there is little possibility, and that means it is hard to cultivate motivation, except in terms of stimulation, pleasure, consumption, and the like. Hence, Capitalism benefits from Philosophies of Unknowability. Capitalism does not like Philosophies of the Unknown, for people who think and spend most of their time talking philosophically are poor consumers, and since the Unknown can prove motivational, this means Capitalism doesn’t like “intrinsic motivation” very much (at least to the degree it cannot absorb it into a “a model of experiences” which cost money to undergo). This is another topic, but this is deeply ironic, for we argue in O.G. Rose that Capitalism ultimately self-destructs without “intrinsic motivation,” which would suggest that Capitalism, even if it’s the best socioeconomic system we know of, is fundamentally ironic. Personally, I believe this is the case, which means avoiding socioeconomic disaster entails correcting “the irony-drive” of Globalization.
“Philosophies of Unknowability” can contribute to a loss of motivation, while “Philosophies of the Unknown” can contribute to motivation. Where motivation is lacking, I believe mental illness will worsen, social structures like family and the community will suffer, and worse. Life is hard, and relationships are complex and messy, and if we lack motivation, it will be hard for us to “see them through.” We’ll likely become hopeless and even self-destructive — after all, what’s the point? Why not vent and burst and get angry and scream? And so relationships will suffer too…
It is a topic elaborated on in O.G. Rose, notably (Re)constructing “A Is A,” but “being” is an effacement while “becoming” is a negation/sublation, and I fear “unknowability” contributes to a life of “being,” for “what we could become” is impressed upon us as being “unknowable,” and so a waste of time. We may also come to associate change and “becoming someone else” with “unknowability,” and so give up the effort. And all of this can contribute to hopelessness.
“The Unknown” could be that which is “yet to be known,” while “The Unknowable” is “that which can’t be known”: the first can motivate us, while the second will likely demotivate us. To look around at things and say, “They are Unknowable,” perhaps inspired by Kant, is to easily fall into a despair that we can only correct perhaps through feelings and consumerism, while looking around and saying, “The things of life are Unknown” is a radically different “towardness.” Everything can suddenly becomes wondrous and full of possibility, while saying, “Things are unknowable,” practically transforms them into illusions and things “not even there.” Well, they might as well not be “there,” which begs the question: “Why should we be here?” From “unknowability,” no answer readily arises.
When the world is “unknown,” there is something to do: we have a source of motivation, a reason to “care” and engage in a “kind of being” that makes life worth engaging in and enjoying. But when life is “unknowable,” what’s the point? There is no foundation for “wonder” or “care”: after all, life is unknowable. Heidegger stressed the need for “care” and “wonder,” but the Modern stress on “unknowability” has undermined those efforts. Worse yet, if we “rationally” conclude the world is “unknowable,” then it’s arguably moral not to try to know it, for to try would be to deny the conclusions of philosophy and rationality. This means ethics and “rationality” would lead us to focusing on “feeling good,” which again plays right into Capitalism. In this way, “Philosophies of Unknowability” have perhaps contributed to Deleuzian “capture” (which suggests an irony if the ontology of Deleuze contributes to an “essential difference” that increases “unknowability,” but that is another topic for another time). Despite all the philosophers who emphasize escaping Capitalism. in emphasizing “unknowability,” those philosophers may have also contributed to the system they sought to overturn.
Alright, so what am I suggesting? Well, to use a Capitalistic metaphor to show that I’m not entirely against the system, let’s put it like this: whenever we study or create a “Philosophy of Unknowability,” we should go then and “balance our life portfolio” with a “Philosophy of the Unknown” — we shouldn’t get too overly-infested in one or the other. We should diversify so that we conspiracies and wastes of time without also losing our motivation to life, for it’s indeed best to treat a conspiracy as “unknowable,” for example, but it’s bad to treat our spouse the same way. We must choose well what “event horizons” we draw for ourselves, but we must also be careful to draw none less we cannot tell where blackholes end and the mysteries of life begin.
In closing, there is an ancient and longstanding emphasis on “philosophy as cultivating wonder,” but I fear that has mostly been forgotten behind the notion of “philosophy as cultivating skepticism,” which is a logical practice if the emphasis is on “unknowability” (for we should be skeptical of anyone who thinks “they know”). And indeed, we’ve so mastered skepticism that we’re no longer even convinced that life is worth living (we’re committed to following skepticism to wherever it might lead). We have followed skepticism faithfully, and, tragically, we are not afraid, for we are too skeptical that we even exist to fear. In my opinion, “The Meaning Crisis” is to some degree a result of stressing and defending “Philosophies of Unknowability” at the expense of “Philosophies of the Unknown,” which is to say that the birth of new meaning will require the birth of new mysteries. Where mystery is born, Geist might prove adventurous.