Quote of the moment, Daniel Boorstin channels Kin Hubbard: Pretension to knowledge more dangerous than ignorance


Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress, Information Bulletin January 2003

Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress, Information Bulletin January 2003

In an earlier post I asked about the origins of this quote, and a reader capable of searching well gave us a good enough citation:   Daniel Boorstin, the late historian and former Librarian of Congress, wrote:

I have observed that the world has suffered far less from ignorance than from pretensions to knowledge. It is not skeptics or explorers but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress. No agnostic ever burned anyone at the stake or tortured a pagan, a heretic, or an unbeliever.

Boorstin wrote that in an essay in  a book published in 1990, “The Amateur Spirit,” in the update of 1935’s Living Philosophies (edited by Clifton Fadiman).  You can see a more complete version of the quote here.

Isn’t that eerily similar to Kin Hubbard’s observation?  From Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress, it carries the heft of more academic language than Hubbard’s version, but it clearly echoes the idea, doesn’t it?

Below the fold, the statement in greater context of the duty of historians.

Tip of the old scrub brush to j a higginbotham.

Boorstin wrote:

    Artists and writers, I believe, have a special role, creating new questions for which they offer experimental answers. We are tested, enriched, and fulfilled by the varieties of experience. And as the years pass there are increasing advantages to being a questioner. Answers can trouble us by their inconsistency, but there is no such problem with questions. I am not obliged to hang on to earlier questions, and there can be no discord – only growth – between then and now. Learning, I have found, is a way of becoming inconsistent with my past self. I believe in vocation, a calling for reasons we do not understand to do whatever we discover we can do.

      I have observed that the world has suffered far less from ignorance than from pretensions to knowledge. It is not skeptics or explorers but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress. No agnostic ever burned anyone at the stake or tortured a pagan, a heretic, or an unbeliever.

      If our knowledge is, as I believe, only an island in an infinite sea of ignorance, how can we in our short lifetime find satisfaction in exploring our little island? How can we persuade ourselves to be exhilarated by our meager knowledge and yet not be discouraged by the ocean vistas?

      There may be ways to accommodate ourselves to our ignorance while enjoying our common exploring. What might they be?

      In history. Since it is my vocation to be a historian I am tested every day. For history is a world of dark continents. Any historian worth his salt knows that the unknown past – enlarging every moment – will always be incomparably vaster than we know or we think we know. And current events become widening currents of ignorance. So every day I work at finding a sensible soul-satisfying compromise with the unknown. What are the terms of my everyday treaty? How much am I allowed to know or can I expect to know? How can I avoid being or seeming a charlatan by pretending to offer too much?

      My first refuge is honesty. I am on solid ground so long as I do not pretend to offer the only or the final explanation for anything – the voyages of “discovery,” the settlement of America, the American Revolution, the works of any artist or writer. I am a charlatan when I say anything about the past that excludes the probability of our always learning more or when I stop listening to new voices.

      Another refuge is to exploit and enjoy the little that we really seem to know. This means luxuriating in the cosmic significance of trivia. What do we learn from the appalling increase in packaging in our country? What can we learn from the fact that the “public” theatres in Elizabethan England offered open-air afternoon performances, while we go to the movie in encapsulated darkness, or are newly segregated by our personal TV sets and VCRs? While their problem, even in their candle-lit indoor “private” theatres, was to find enough light, ours is to create enough darkness. What a wonderful iridescence there is in any fact! So we must love facts indiscriminately without professional or conventional snobbery, and be grateful for them all. We express our gratitude by finding surprising meanings.

      When we make our history into literature – with the genius of a Shakespeare, a Parkman, a Joyce – we find refuge from the discouragement of the vast ocean. Making our history into literature becomes a way of confessing the limits of our knowledge, of expressing our hope to find some meaning in experience, and of playing on the frontiers.

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2 Responses to Quote of the moment, Daniel Boorstin channels Kin Hubbard: Pretension to knowledge more dangerous than ignorance

  1. [...] Quote of the moment, Daniel Boorstin channels Kin Hubbard: Pretension to knowledge more dangerous th… (timpanogos.wordpress.com) [...]

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  2. [...] Quote of the moment, Daniel Boorstin channels Kin Hubbard: Pretension to knowledge more dangerous th… (timpanogos.wordpress.com) [...]

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