by Ferdinando Catalano
WHAT DO YOU KNOW?
The awareness of not knowing is a rare virtue.
In the seventh and final proposition of his “Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1921), the great Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (Vienna 1889 – Cambridge 1951) stated: “We must keep quiet about what we cannot talk about.”
This statement’s meaning, which, without careful meditation, could appear a proverb dictated by popular wisdom, lies in what Wittgenstein meant by “what you can talk about,” and that is, a thoughtful and conscious judgment on the words of men. It must be recognized that men at all times, perhaps never as in our own, have tended to move in the opposite direction, that is, to speak of what cannot be said of, be it the unknown, the unknowable, the insignificant, or simply the unknown.
For example, Salamanca’s theologians wrote entire treatises on the language of angels, Maria d’Agreda (a Spanish mystic) recounted in detail all that is not written in the Gospels. In the Middle Ages, the masterpiece of this expansion of the “describable” was that appendix, still today disastrous, of the newborns‘ limbo.
But if theologians have always been exposed to the temptation of believing that they know, because of their natural location at the expressible (frontier zone), science has not been outdone in the course of centuries these injuries. Think, for example, of inventions such as “the quintessence aristotelica”, the “caloric fluid,” and almost a hundred years ago, “the cosmic ether” to invade even the terrain of our literature with the measurement of the devil’s wings in Dante’s commentaries. Not to mention that colossal astrology business …
Even at the cost of making enemies among my readers, I feel like adding another category, recently come to the fore, that would have done well to heart the 7th proposition of Wittgenstein: virologists.
“It’s just a trivial influence.”
“The mask? No need”
“The mask? It’s only for those who have the contagion.”
“It’s not a trivial influence, but it only attacks the elderly.”
And so Dum Romae consulitur, Saguntum expugnatur – While Rome is being discussed, Sagunto is taken (Tito Livio was right)
Should I continue? In the face of this unceasing and illusory increase in knowledge, all the anxiety in the face of what one does not know is experienced as an unacceptable defeat for the human mind. That of virologists (et similia, epidemiologists) is the same anxiety that drives philosophers, theologians, and scientists of yesterday and today to talk about what should be silent and induces ordinary men to imagine.
The corruption of the desire to know, celebrated by Aristotle in the first book of his Metaphysics, undermined entire civilizations to the point of believing that everything could and should be spoken of.
In our encyclopedic civilization, that of the Internet, which is teeming with all-rounders, men have not yet learned to say “I don’t know”. When they finally do it then their eyes will open, the world will appear to them greater and greater God.