2. “We know with confidence only when we know little; with knowledgedoubt increases” – JW von Goethe Word count: 1150 words Thepursuit of knowledge is the one thing that drives humanity to move forwardintellectually. We pursue knowledge because we want to know our past, ourpresent and our future as curiosity is a large part of the human nature. Wewant to know what caused our existence, what is happening around us and whatwill happen in the (near) future. This has caused governments and individualsto invest great amounts of resources into the pursuit of knowledge. Althoughthis has greatly benefitted humanity as a whole, it does lead to two questions:when can we be certain that something we say we ‘know’ is really true anddoesn’t our certainty of ‘knowing something’ distract us from the actual truth?These two questions become more obvious when our pursuit of knowledge has leadus to theories that are contradicting our current theories about a specificsubject.
When a contradicting theory is found, experts on that subject aren’tso sure which theory should be accepted as ‘the truth’, until further evidenceproves or disproves the contradicting theory. This is what Johann Wolfgang vonGoethe argues too in his statement “We know with confidence only when we knowlittle; with knowledge doubt increases.” Therefore, this statement will bereviewed using the areas of knowledge that are the Natural Sciences and Historyas these two areas of knowledge show two sides of the argument given by vonGoethe. The perspectives of these two areas of knowledge will show that thestatement made by JW von Goethe is true for some cases, but not for all.
First of all, in order to trulyunderstand the statement given, some of the terms from the statement must bedefined. The first term to be defined is ‘knowingwith confidence’. Knowing withconfidence means knowing something, while being certain that that specificthing is true, and that there aren’t conflicting theories. ‘Knowing little’ at the other hand literally means knowing littleabout a specific topic. It means that there isn’t much known about thatspecific topic, that there are little known facts and that there is no realclarity of knowledge.
The phrase “withknowledge doubt increases” means that when there is more knowledge about aspecific topic (there are more known facts), it then becomes less clear what isactually true about that topic. In the natural sciences, it isquite normal that there is relatively little known about certain subjects. Thiscan be seen clearly in nuclear and quantum physics, where many theories havebeen accepted because of consensus among expert physicians. In the case of thenatural sciences, the statement of von Goethe is true, though up to a certainextent. It is true, until the point where there is so much known about a topicthat all of that knowledge leads to the agreement that the theory based on thatknowledge will be accepted forever. However, in many topics related to thenatural sciences, this is not the case.This can be seen in the history ofthe atomic theory.
The atomic theory is the theory about what the shape of anatom looks like and what matter the atom itself consists of. In the very earlydays of society, in Ancient Greece, Aristotle argued that matter was made of aninfinite number of infinitely small particles. (Born) The ancient Greek peoplebelieved Aristotle and his atomic theory, as he did experiments using thescientific method. However, he could never definitively prove it, as he couldnot look into the infinitely small parts of matter himself. The lack oftechnology at the time was basically stopping Aristotle from proving histheory. However, because of that lack of technology, his theory was theaccepted truth. Because of Aristotle’s credibility, people believed him eventhough he could not definitively prove his theory. At the time, the people ofAncient Greece knew with confidence due to the lack of knowledge about theatomic model.
In the 19th century,many more models were proposed by scientists like Rutherford, Thompson andDalton that would contradict each other. They had more knowledge about thesubject as they had the possibility to use newer, better technology in order todo much more thorough experiments than the classical Greek philosophers wereever able to do. This allowed them to gain more knowledge, and also moredeveloped theories about the atomic model and its structure.
However, since allthese scientists were now developing their own atomic model, which contradictedeach other, it now became unclear as to what theory was the right one, and ifone of them was even the right one. Later on, it would of course be discoveredthat, unlike what the 19th century scientists thought, the electronis not the smallest particle there is, as the protons and neutrons of the atomscan be divided up further into quarks. This theory however, is especiallystrange as it involves lots of quantities and values that are unique to thestudy of quarks (such as baryon number, strangeness etc.). In short, these new theoriesin the natural sciences lead to more questions than answers, they also lead tomore confusion. In the area of knowledge that ishistory however, the given statement does not apply as much as it does to thenatural sciences. This can be seen from the events around the ‘Marco PoloBridge Incident’ in 1937. The Marco Polo Bridge Incident is an incident betweenthe Japanese and Chinese military that eventually lead to the start of theSecond Sino-Japanese War.
What basically happened was that the Japanesemilitary was doing exercises near the Chinese border, without informing theChinese authorities. Eventually, shots were exchanged between Chinese andJapanese soldiers, and after some bad communication between Chinese andJapanese authorities Japan declared war on China. (Szczepanski, 2017) At thetime, it was very unclear as to what had happened exactly. However, as timeprogressed and more became clear about the incident, people started to find outthat it was probable that Japan intentionally started the incident in order tohave an excuse for war with China. This changed the way the incident was viewedby the public and the whole situation became clearer. In other words, in thecase of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the more knowledge was gained, theclearer the situation became and doubt was decreased. Therefore, this examplegoes against the statement made by von Goethe. In conclusion, the statement madeby von Goethe is true up to a certain extent, as it can be applied to thenatural sciences, as shown by the development of the atomic theory.
At theother hand, it isn’t always true as shown by the example of the Marco PoloBridge Incident, where more knowledge about the subject actually decreased thedoubt about it. Therefore, Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe was right to a certainextent when making his statement.Works Cited Born, Kristin. “Early Atomic Theory: Dalton, Thomson, Rutherfordand Millikan.” Study.com, Study.
Szczepanski, Kallie. “What Was the Marco Polo BridgeIncident?” ThoughtCo, 18 Feb. 2014,www.thoughtco.