The archetype of ignorance

You should already have been victimized by the situation of having to answer a question whose answer you should be familiar, and yet you had no idea how to respond. It is also possible you have thought about things related to the question, but none that could be useful to construct a response. This is an situation that we all experience sometimes for life. This shows how ignorant we are about many simple things around us. If, on the one hand, the experience can make us more modest before the world, on the other hand, it may give a certain arrogance on the part of those seeking to understand everything. Often we attributed a certain authority to our good scientists, which seems to allow some to use the insignia of arrogance. This is due to the stereotype of the scientist who has an explanation for everything. How does we developed this stereotype? it is a projection of reality? are the issues of this text.

In Jungian terms, there are certain archetypes that inhabit the collective unconscious. That is, if you was asked to design the picture of anyone wise, your brain immediately seek a man which is old, possibly with a long beard and, who knows, inhabiting a mountain in Tibet. This seems to be an image collectively shared, which means that for every group on the planet will have some individual that think this way. Far from being based on rational criteria, the image of the wise is indeed the product of a logical failure. What does this mean? Jung himself explains that archetypes emerge through repeated experiences over many generations. It is as if the collective unconscious were adapted to inductive logic, that which is through the generalization from the repetition of particular cases, but in this case, with a massive number of observed events.

The image we have of the scientist who never fails and always has an explanation for all questions that usually we don’t know the answer is built the same way. Although not a classic Jungian archetype, the comparison serves well for explanatory purposes. The collective unconscious gives an authority to the scientist (Cf. post “The robes of authority“) that seems to require omniscience in return.

In fact, the brain of the scientist is not trained to know everything, but instead are trained to be highly specialized and concerned about certain minutiae. What actually makes us more restricted in relation to knowledge. Unlike the collective unconscious, the deductive reasoning is prevalent in the scientific groups. In literature, a character that better represents the personification of science is Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In one of the conversations between Holmes and Watson, Watson is surprised by ignorance of Holmes regarding the composition of the solar system. Holmes did not know that the Earth revolves around the Sun and, after Watson explain, says: “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it” Then explains the reasons as follows:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that the little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones (A study in scarlet).

Holmes explains the situation well and, particularly, I must admit that I never learned to differentiate between months that have 30 days from those with 31 days. Ignoring all the explanations so far offered I insist on not knowing. It’s not about intelligence, but to filter what is important to your life. The archetype of the scientist originates from a logical failure of the collective unconscious, and finds no correspondence in reality. So, the next time you don’t know the answer, no worry. Naturally we don’t know many things that are apparently common to a large number of people.


Arthur C. Doyle. Um estudo em vermelho.

Carl G. Jung. Os arquétipos e o inconsciente coletivo.

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This work by Alison Felipe Alencar Chaves is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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