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Intellectual Patience

Lynn Underwood


Dr. Lynn Underwood considers intellectual patience with oneself as a starting point for humility in discourse with others.

Senior Research Scholar, Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University
June 6, 2019

In the midst of debate or heated discussion, we want to feel like there is solid ground under our feet, and that we are masters of the situation. I love feeling like an expert. Maybe you do too. It feels so good to know more than other people and share that in discussion; about a political situation, a medical issue, or even the best places to hang out in your town or the music of a particular band. This may be one of the reasons that people specialize so much in academic settings, in teaching and research. Daniel Brown,1 the lead author of a research project on thriving, writes that thriving appears to come down to an individual experiencing a sense of development, of getting better at something, and succeeding at mastering something. I don’t agree completely with his definition of thriving, but we definitely love to have that sense of mastering something.

Mastery, however, is elusive. In What We Cannot Know: Explorations at the Edge of Knowledge, mathematician Marcus du Sautoy wrote, “The knowledge of what we are ignorant of seems to expand faster than our catalogue of breakthroughs.” Facts and interpretations of those facts are continually increasing. Theoretical descriptions and practical applications are out there in books, on the inter-web, and in the minds of others. Yet a comprehensive picture remains out of our individual reach.

The theologian Karl Rahner2 defines intellectual patience as “patience with the limitations and unpredictability of our knowledge.” In an essay called On Intellectual Patience with Oneself, Rahner writes:

If ‘we’ today know immeasurably more than ‘we’ did, then you fall at once into a terrible problem when you ask who this ‘we’ is…. It’s not me; no individual persons these days can embody this ‘us’ who knows such an enormous amount. We have had to stop trying to be universally competent and knowledgeable. The cleverest persons are condemned to be idiots beyond our own specialization and remain that way…. You can learn the tricks you need in order to act as though you can join in any conversation without betraying your ignorance. But all this in the end is no use whatever.

Don’t we all have ‘tricks’ we can use to join in conversation without betraying our ignorance? Learning a few key words and concepts can be ‘just enough to be dangerous,’ but it does not give us the depth of knowledge needed to truly engage with the topic. Neil deGrasse Tyson recently wrote Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.3 He is an astrophysicist, so he really does know a lot about his topic. But if we read his book, and then have the illusion that we, too, understand this deeply, we are in trouble. 

Specialization gives a sense of security

When I was doing research on malignant melanoma, a skin cancer, in the 1970’s and 80’s, it was possible for me to keep up with all the research relevant to my work in epidemiology, genetics, cancer research, clinical medicine and even the interface with psychosocial factors like stress. After doing the initial research, each week I read the relevant journals, skimmed the table of contents of general journals, and I checked the hard copy of Index Medicus monthly for anything new that was relevant to my research and practice. I was working in a relatively narrow area, and I was able to be an expert. But during the following years, in my desire to better understand messy human beings, I began to explore psychological, social, and spiritual factors in health and well-being, and also stepped into interfaces of my work with the humanities – ethics, theology, and the arts. It was no longer possible to ‘keep up’ in any thorough way. And with the advent of the widely accessible Internet of information, the gap between what it was possible to know, and what I knew about the various fields I was working in, got larger and larger. The languages and ways of working in different specialties such as the social sciences, statistics, medicine, immunology, neurology, theology, philosophy, and religious studies are so different.

The secure feeling of conversing with those in a narrow specialty is irresistible and comforting – you feel like you are on terra firma. I have continued to do my multi-disciplinary work, but it is increasingly challenging and definitely does not have that cozy secure feeling. Working in interdisciplinary areas requires that I be willing to sound stupid and ask questions that reveal to others what I do not know. It requires intellectual patience with myself. We all tend to overestimate the value of our own disciplinary methods and language, and undervalue that of others. As I try to communicate with those who are fluent in the language of another area, I have to accept my grappling for words and struggling with the ‘grammar’ and the vocabulary. I have to accept the gap between what I would like to know, and what I know.

This discomfort can produce good fruit

But this kind of discomfort can produce good fruit in us. It is a reminder of the true state of things. If we only deal in the comfort zone of narrow knowledge we are not living in the real world. Rahner wrote: “The person in us, the person we really are, finds confrontation with the person we want to be painful…. We are now living on the way; we are living between a past and a future that are both in their different ways out of our control. We never have it all together.” He encourages us to have the courage to face this dissatisfaction and allow it to confront us, give it its due and accept it.

Rahner sees intellectual patience with ourselves as a way to God. He urges us to realize that around the pathetic little island of our knowledge there spreads out “an unending sea of the mystery without a name.” He writes that it can be a blessing if we can move out onto the sea beyond this island, and allow there to be an Unknown, to see Truth as beyond knowledge expressed only in a way that breaks it up into many individual statements.

Rahner also sees implications for tolerance and respect. He does not argue for complacent relativism, but he urges us to realize that our sentences and concepts intrinsically involve reference to what is unknown.

Our limited sentences, uttered at a particular point in history should—even when they remain true—exclude much less of what other people try to express as truth. I taught a class that looked at a variety of topics—the self and the nature of time and love—through two lenses. The first was the birds-eye lens of science, with its attempt to be objective, and the other was the view through our own personal lens, inspired and informed by what we know and learn and are and our personal experiences. We are passionate about our stance, and that is good, but we always need to be open to learning more beyond our own perspective, folding that in.

Intellectual patience with oneself is a virtue

Rahner sees “intellectual patience with oneself” as a virtue:

In the old days people were convinced that knowledge, in its own right, was not just a matter of developing technical skills; in this very sphere of knowledge there were states of mind that could be described in moral terms, in other words virtues—however paradoxical this sort of statement may seem at first sight. Our own time is largely blind and can see in knowledge only a capacity that is ultimately value-neutral and therefore in some way without responsibility—not a virtue. Generally, therefore, it notices only too late the disasters that this approach to knowledge that is blind can bring about.

I see the value-neutral error, for example, in the vast growth in knowledge of the brain and subsequent development of various neuroscientific technologies. We need ethical reflection and awareness of the complexity of cognitive neuroscience in order to deal with the wild possibilities now available to us. If inhaling oxytocin can enhance prosocial behaviors, can we question this down to its bones—What kind of prosocial behaviors? In what groups? Are there unwanted side effects?—before we start to use these kinds of interventions for what is being referred to as ‘moral enhancement.’ Do ethicists and theologians and those in the arts have useful input? Can we listen to them? Intellectual patience can allow us to see what we do not know, and what can inform the burgeoning knowledge in this area.

When we do not have intellectual patience with ourselves we can easily slip into the comforts of dogmatism. I know many scientists and scholars and religious people who are dogmatic. Dogmatism has been defined as the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others; it is sticking to a viewpoint or system of ideas based on insufficiently examined premises. It is so much easier to be dogmatic than to ask questions, to be intellectually patient. How do we hold on to what we know, yet remain open to learning in a way that attempts to understand the world truly demands?

If we do not have “patience with the limitations and unpredictability of our knowledge,” as Rahner describes intellectual patience, we are less likely to be willing to listen to others, and learn. We will feel the need to defend our little fortress of knowledge, guarding it, and shooting out the occasional arrow to demolish the enemy, those who do not use our language, have our expertise—strutting our stuff to reassure ourselves of our intellectual prowess, our status, and avoiding facing our true ignorance on so many fronts.

This attitude of intellectual patience with myself comes into full flower in conversation, especially in interacting with others who are also being intellectually patient with themselves. We can each enjoy being experts in small areas, mastering things, and sharing that knowledge with others. But we can also ask questions of each other that reveal our ignorance, opening us to input from one another. Mutual respect can flower in this environment rather than knowledge one-upmanship. This may also end up making us feel a little more at ease in our own shoes because we are not pretending, to ourselves and others, to know more than we do.

How can we develop the virtue of intellectual patience so that we have it in the heat of debate? Can intellectual patience with yourself as you explore the world each day give you a foundation for this?

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