Camus and the wisdom of not knowing

By Martin Vogel


“Democracy, said Camus, is the system that relies on the wisdom of people who know that they don’t know everything.” This observation, by Philip Collins in The Times (£) this morning sent me scuttling to consult Camus’ reflections in more depth.

Collins was giving a very measured response to the day of infamy which saw the murder of the Labour MP, Jo Cox. I hadn’t heard of Jo Cox before yesterday. But in our age of political disenchantment, it seems especially poignant that she appears to have been – as my friend, Simon, who broke the news to me, put it – a fabulous advert for everything we all want: an engaged, democratic, local, committed politician.

Collins put his finger on a characteristic of our political culture that has been worrying me for some time: a dearth of the wisdom of not knowing. And not just in our political culture. The construct of leadership that we prize generally – in how businesses present themselves, how the media engages with leaders – puts a premium on knowing. Of course, we find it in our hearts to laud the expansive leadership of the likes of Nelson Mandela, those who can engage in dialogue with their opponents and embrace difference of view. But mostly, if we don’t exactly celebrate the arrogance of certainty, we incentivise it.

Camus was no stranger to the violence that can accompany politics. He observed Europe’s struggle against fascism, the Communist left’s embrace of totalitarianism and the brutal conflict of the Algerian civil war. He recoiled from the certainties and dogmas of those who convinced themselves that they knew what was best for humankind:

“The democrat is modest. He admits to a certain degree of ignorance and recognizes that his efforts possess characteristics that are in part risky and that he does not know everything. And because he admits that, he recognizes that he needs to consult others, to complete what he knows with what they know.”

Camus recognised that democracy cannot function without a principled civility. Writing in 1947, Camus said a democrat is:

“A person who admits that his adversary may be right, who therefore allows him to speak, and who agrees to consider his arguments. When parties and people are so convinced by their own arguments that they are willing to resort to violence to silence those who disagree with them, democracy no longer exists.”

In another context, the philosopher, Daniel Dennett, has also insisted on the necessity of criticism to be grounded in civility. He has proposed four steps to successful critique:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, ‘Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

We did not need the events of yesterday to appreciate how far our culture has strayed from these principles. There are good reasons why people have become disaffected by the elites who struggle to run the country. But we all collude in fetishising the arrogance of knowing which can cause those who lead us to reach for post-truth narratives and discourses rooted more in contempt than civility.

Sometimes our contempt for authority is wide of the mark. At the heart of our political system, elected representatives dedicate themselves to the unglamorous slog of public service. To strike an MP in the exercise of her constituency surgery is not simply to attack when she is most vulnerable, it is to target the very contract of democracy. Fraser Nelson reminds us of this:

“It’s a popular myth that Britain’s MPs soon become out-of-touch, sequestered away from the world with little idea of the lives or problems of their constituents. The British system makes this impossible. Most MPs hold surgeries every week, and half the time of the average new MP is spent on constituency work. It’s a strange facet of the British system that a Cabinet member can be dealing with affairs of state on a Thursday, and the tiniest of constituents’ problems in a Friday. But this intimacy comes at the expense of security. At work, they may have plenty of safety. But none in the isolated church or community buildings where constituency meetings are held, usually with just a young caseworker… The advice from the House of Commons for MPs in their constituencies could not be more basic: they are advised to ‘position a desk between you and your constituent’ or ‘have someone else present at meetings so they can assist or call for help if necessary’. It’s a way of saying that, once the MP is back on home turf, beyond Westminster, they are on their own, entirely unprotected.”

“Democracy,” said Camus, “Does not defend abstract ideas or a brilliant philosophy. It defends democrats, which presumes asking them to decide how best to guarantee their defence.” One way we can do this is by, as many are doing today, expressing our solidarity with elected representatives. Another might be by checking, in our daily encounters, our impetus to certainty and playing with the possibility of not knowing.