Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stated that “we know with confidence only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases”. This position describes modernity’s epistemic insecurity which suggests that the quantity of knowledge is indirectly proportional to the certainty that it aims to provide. As doubt is intrinsic to the production of knowledge, von Goethe proclaims that new knowledge “is better at proliferating questions than it is at answering them” (NYU). Preceding the appraisal of this statement, it is critical to analyse what von Goethe exactly postulated. The word “we” in this statement suggests that, all individuals experience this phenomenon, meaning that it is independent of the person.
The consequent doubt is therefore not influenced by prejudices, feelings, or interests, but rather by the facts. Due to this objective authority, it is assumed that the statement appraises the shared knowledge in a particular discipline. Additionally, due to the polysemic nature of the words little and doubt, the interpreted definitions of these terms are integral to our comprehension of this statement. The phrase “when we know little” provides insight on the characteristics of the knower, establishing their expertise and authority in a particular discipline. Von Goethe’s ideology expresses that only ‘beginners’ – individuals that deal with basic, fundamental concepts – are confident in their studied topic, while the ‘expert knowers’ – those who have prolonged or intense experience through practice and education in a distinct field – are more doubtful. Prior to identifying the cause of this contrast, understanding that the level of an individual’s confidence is determined by the quality of their way of knowing, is essential. This approach would make sense to areas of knowledge (AoKs) that employ rather subjective ways of knowing, such as the Arts, due to which their understanding is subject to change when new knowledge is introduced.
Therefore, new knowledge in these types of AoKs challenges the accuracy of pre-existing knowledge, hence creating doubt amongst knowers in regards to the quality of their initial knowledge. However, to AoKs such as the Natural Sciences, that depend on more objective ways of knowing, this ideology should not apply as new knowledge is obtained utilizing the knowers’ understanding of pre-existing knowledge. Therefore, knowers should become less doubtful as they obtain new knowledge, as this validates the quality of their pre-existing knowledge. Von Goethe’s statement, that knowledge is directly proportional to doubt, will hence be appraised through evaluating the different effects that new knowledge has on expert and non-expert knowers in areas of knowledge that employ subjective or objective ways of knowing (the Arts and the Natural Sciences respectively).As was previously mentioned, knowers in the Arts predominantly employ subjective ways of knowing, such as emotion and intuition, to understand the meaning and purpose of the artwork. According to von Goethe’s statement, ‘beginners’ – in this case individuals that lack extensive knowledge about the background of an artwork – will be more confident in regards to establishing its purpose compared to experts. Experts, those with background knowledge of the artwork, will argue that one particular aspect of the work can have more than one possible meaning.
An example hereof is the difference in perception of purpose of the humans in Maurits Cornelis (MC) Escher’s work Relativity. Escher’s work depicts a society whose members live on different planes of existence which defy all conventional laws of physics while using the illogical stairways to travel between them. However, due to the insignificance of the faceless indistinguishable figures to the overall architectural composition, non-experts claim that their purpose is simply to disguise the surreal environment that they live in – through which Escher aims to portray an at-first-sight feasible structure, that would turn out to be impossible upon further inspection (Totally History). However, through extensive knowledge on the background of the artwork, the purpose of these figures changes. Relativity was created in 1953, while Escher lived in the Netherlands (MCE). During this time period, the society within the country was very structured. The majority of the population believed that religion, specifically Christianity, should have a part to play within politics and education which resulted many unwritten societal rules, which were expected to be followed in order for someone to be accepted (Schuyt, Kees). Many experts believe that this societal circumstance was what inspired Escher to shape the figures the way he did.
The faceless humans in Relativity are indistinguishable, they make no unique contribution. They go about their existence in a robotic manner, and when accompanied with their similarity, they come across as boring. From this can be interpreted that through these figures Escher meant to represent the citizens within the Dutch society that he lived in (Totally History).
Due to the societal restrictions that were put upon them, all citizens behaved identical to one another, through which none of the members contributed a unique aspect of themselves to society. From this can be concluded that as the knower becomes more knowledgeable about the artwork, different aspects of the work can seem to possess multiple meanings, creating doubt amongst experts in regards to what the artist originally aimed to portray. Despite the applicability of von Goethe’s ideology to the Arts, it seems rather inapplicable to areas of knowledge that combine reason and sense perception such as the Natural Sciences. In this area of knowledge, new knowledge is obtained utilizing the knowers’ understanding of pre-existing knowledge. Therefore, knowers should become less doubtful as they obtain new knowledge, as this validates the quality of their pre-existing knowledge. An example hereof can be found in the natural sciences, especially with regards to the creation of new cures for illnesses and the phases of medical research that accompany this process. Areas investigated in medical research, such as cellular and molecular biology, medical genetics, immunology, and neuroscience, aim to provide an understanding of the mechanisms that affect human health (AAMC).
This research is conducted in preparation for the experimentation process, during which trials with various treatments are run, with the intent of combating the disease. When trials with the test-cure obtain positive results, then the quality of their pre-existing knowledge is cemented, as the “expert-knowers” were able to create something that worked, utilizing pre-existing knowledge (data obtained from the research phase). This therefore means that as experts become more knowledgeable, they become more certain as well, disproving von Goethe’s statement. Despite this, new, more advanced knowledge generates new unknowns in this particular area of knowledge as well. Over time, the best of theories have been shown to be incomplete. Using basic principles, “experts” may have attempted to explain many phenomena, however through results obtained from future, more precise experiments, a discrepancy between reality and the predictions of these theories was shown. Previous theories were inaccurate, however they were a good approximation of the truth these addressed to understand. An example hereof is the concept of wave-particle duality in Physics.
In 1801, Thomas Young constructed an experiment that allowed two beams of light to interfere with one another prior to reaching a screen, after having travelled different distances (Visionlearning). When the two different beams reached the screen, a pattern of light and dark fringes appeared (where the two beams interfered constructively and destructively).The wavelengths of these two beams were in and out of phase at different points, which is a characteristic that only waves exhibited, due to which scientists believed light travelled in waves (Visionlearning). In 1900 however, Albert Einstein proposed that energy transferred by electromagnetic radiation consisted out of a large quantity of individual amounts of energy, light quanta, instead of a continuous wave, and used this theory to prove the photoelectric effect (SPIFF). This newly obtained knowledge completely contradicted pre-existing knowledge and therefore generated new unknowns and uncertainties with regards to the quality of what experts believed previously.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stated that “we know with confidence only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases”. Von Goethe’s ideology expresses that only ‘beginners’ – individuals that deal with basic, fundamental concepts – are confident in their studied topic, while the ‘expert knowers’ – those who have prolonged or intense experience through practice and education in a distinct field – are more doubtful. Whilst it initially seems unreasonable that one would actually become more doubtful as they become more knowledgeable, this is seen to be the case in most disciplines. The basic principles in a field, studied by ‘beginners’, concern the simple facts.
The clear and undisputed evidence supporting these facts (their way of knowing) seemingly indicates that there is only one correct answer. These facts however, are often conditionalized on a set of circumstances, which ‘beginners’ are unaware of. Due to their lack of experience, these ‘beginners’ are unable to identify the discrepancies in their knowledge, and hence regard their knowledge as the irrefutable truth, causing them to grow more confident in the quality of their knowledge. However as these ‘beginners’ become more knowledgeable of the subject, and grow into ‘expert-knowers’, they start to deviate from these original conditions, and realize that there is not just ‘one correct answer’ but that their knowledge is dependent on contexts of applicability, a particular frame of reference. Therefore, these experts infer that there must be other unidentified conditions that, when discovered, would require a reconstruction of current knowledge, a more complex interpretation. The newly-acquired knowledge of experts consequently challenges the validity of initial beliefs, producing new uncertainties, and therefore creating doubt in regards to the quality of pre-existing shared knowledge.