A satisfactory philosophy of ignorance

If you know that you are not sure, you have a chance to improve the situation.

Richard P. FeynmanThe Meaning of It All, London 1998

When Arlene Goldbard and I planned a second online conversation – which you can see online here – our focus was on how community art could be made in the context of pandemic and social distancing. Since then, the killing of George Floyd has galvanised millions to demand justice and an end to systemic racism. When things fall apart, they do so in every direction, as ancient fault lines open up. We also face daunting economic problems and the climate emergency has not gone away, even if lockdown has shown us that things can change. Does it matter, in this context, that community dance workshops may not be able to resume yet?

I think it does, because community-based art is important to so many people – socially, politically, culturally and economically. It is part of how they cope with the problems life throws up, including injustice, racism, poverty and environmental degradation. As long as people want to make community art, I will do all I can to help make that possible. But the difficulties of how to do it in the world as it is now are huge. And I have no idea how to overcome them. 

When I read Richard Feynman’s words on the value of knowing that you don’t know, it seemed like a vindication of something I’d learned in primary school. Every child knows the humiliation of not being able to answer a teacher’s question, and the condescension of classmates who can. One day the thought came to me (I can’t have been more than six) that there was far too much in the world for anyone, even a teacher, to know everything – so what was wrong with not knowing something? After that, I never much minded asking a question in class. I think this is what Feynman calls ‘a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance’ and it’s been central to my working life. I’ve had opportunities to work in many places, fields and situations of which I was truly ignorant. Each time, my only option has been to say so, clearly and openly, to ask people to explain, to listen with creative attention and to look for connections with what I do know.

One reason why I persist in describing myself as a community artist, long after the term fell out of fashion, is because community is central to everything I do – people coming together, learning together, creating together. It is by pooling what we know, and what we don’t that we discover new ways forward and unexpected solutions to our problems. This evening – or tomorrow morning if you’re reading this in the United States – Arlene, I and whoever else joins us will try to create a community online, for an hour or two, to share our experiences, doubt, pain, hope and questions. No one is expected to come with answers: I certainly won’t. But I know that only when you’ve accepted your ignorance can you start finding them. 

You can now watch yesterday’s conversation between Arlene, me and others here.

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