As comparable to the Shakespearean proverb: ‘A fool thinks

As both an artist and scientist, Goethe was well-placed to
make this statement; being cognisant of multiple knowledge areas. The sense of his
quote is comparable to the Shakespearean proverb: ‘A fool thinks himself to be
wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool’. Goethe, too, articulates that
the more knowledge we gain, the greater awareness we have of what we don’t yet know.
The connotations of ‘confidence’ and ‘doubt’ are ambiguous, and these words
describe temporary phases in our continuous relationship with knowledge. If
someone knows ‘with confidence’, this could be defined as certainty and
assurance, which implies positivity and optimism. However, Goethe likely intended
this word to suggest a degree of misguided arrogance about our limited initial knowledge.
The word ‘doubt’ could have pessimistic connotations; indicating disappointment
due to a newfound distrust of previous knowledge. That said, ‘doubt’ can also
be perceived as a necessary phase on the route to greater certainty and
understanding of knowledge.  Therefore, ‘doubt’
is not a place where knowledge-pursuers become stuck. Rather, doubt is
responsible for motivating them to refine and improve their knowledge. The
coexistence of confidence and doubt constitutes a significant paradox, whereby it
is feasible to experience confidence and doubt
simultaneously, as they provide encouragement that knowledge is secure and motivate
us to strive for better knowledge. It seems erring
on the side of cynicism to say that we can only be confident in our knowledge
when it is limited.  Wiser, perhaps, to
disagree with the first part of Goethe’s statement and argue instead that
confidence can be attained at multiple stages as we overcome doubt to gain more
knowledge. The latter half of Goethe’s statement can be understood in two
directions; forwards and backwards. Whilst it is true that with knowledge doubt
increases, it can also be argued in reverse: with doubt, knowledge increases.
These issues will be explored with reference to the knowledge areas of history
and science.

 

In History, confidence in knowledge of events makes it difficult
to distrust easy certainties. However, the presence of doubt stimulates ongoing
arguments as historians’ knowledge progresses, causing opinions to change.
Arguably, historians are only as good as the questions they ask, so the best
historians’ inquiries provoke doubt about certain aspects of history that are
often taken for granted. Two ancient historical examples (differing perspectives
on the Crusades and the Roman Emperor Claudius) and one modern example (causes
of the Cold War), drawn from my IB studies and independent reading, provide evidence to agree and disagree with Goethe’s
statement.

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It had long been a historical orthodoxy to assume that the
Crusades were driven by secular factors, such as desire for power and land, and
that Christians used religious doctrines to mask their actual ambitions.
Historian Jonathan Riley-Smith doubted this certainty. His subsequent research
revealed that the desire to recover the patrimony of Christ was a significantly
more important motive. Riley-Smith incorporated doubt into his scholarly method
to challenge an orthodoxy which did less than justice to – in Von Ranke’s
famous phrase – “how it essentially was”. 
Since Riley-Smith’s knowledge was superior to those whose views he was
challenging, we could use this example to agree with Goethe: that we know with
confidence only when we know little. However, these historians were experts in
this field, so they certainly did not know ‘little’. Evidently, Riley-Smith’s
distrust of historical assumptions influenced a greater understanding of the
causation of the Crusades. This supports the counter-claim that Goethe’s statement is true in reverse: with
doubt, knowledge increases. However, Riley-Smith’s doubts only arose after he
had carried out a significant amount of research and study. Therefore, it holds
firm that with knowledge, doubt increases, but it is not untrue to suggest that
this doubt cannot lead to further knowledge.

 

Another historical example of doubt increasing with
knowledge gained, concerns the misconceived reputation of the Roman Emperor
Claudius. The young Claudius was ridiculed due to various physical ailments. He
suffered multiple tremors, walked with a limp, dribbled through his mouth and
nose, and was dismissed as an idiot. Consequently, he was denied various
political roles and positions in the Senate. Yet he was appointed Emperor
following the assassination of Caligula. Claudius’ capabilities and talents
entirely exceeded the expectations of others. Clearly, his family knew very
little about the nature of his disabilities, which influenced their confidence that
he was a fool. However, many historians have questioned whether Claudius really
was the ‘idiot’ that people thought him to be, claiming that Claudius’
condition could have been Cerebral Palsy or Tourette’s syndrome. With this modern
medical knowledge, and symptoms matching Claudius’ infirmities, historians have
created significant doubt that this man was mentally backward. This reinforces
Goethe’s claim that ‘with knowledge, doubt increases’.

 

The example of the evolution of historical perspectives on
the causation of the Cold War undermines Goethe’s claim that we only know with
confidence when we know little, and supports the concept that doubt increases
with knowledge. The first school of interpretation to emerge was the ‘Orthodox’
view, which placed the blame on the Soviets. Historians supporting this view
claimed that Stalin had violated his promises at post-war conferences and forcibly
occupied most of Eastern-Europe. Arguably, this left the US with no choice but
to intervene. However, the ‘Revisionist’ view surfaced during the Vietnam War,
amidst global anti-American sentiment. This perspective criticised the
expansionist ambitions of the US and sympathised with Russia for retaliating. ‘Revisionist’
doubt influenced many ‘Orthodox’ historians to rethink their previous knowledge
claims. Many years later, historians such as John Lewis Gaddis pioneered the
‘Post-revisionist’ school of thought, which was a compromise between the
previous views.

 

Since historians from both perspectives were confident of
their knowledge, this paradox suggests that Goethe was wrong to suggest that we
only know with confidence when we know little. This implies that one can know
with confidence no matter how much or little knowledge you possess. Evidently,
doubt is a prerequisite for enhanced historical. Doubt challenges conventional
beliefs and reveals unexplored aspects, so it is crucial to the continuous
improvement and refinement of knowledge. So it is plausible that with
knowledge, doubt increases, and vice versa.

 

In Science, doubt motivates scientists to strive for
accurate and reliable data to support confident conclusions. As more research
is undertaken, the likelihood of anomalies and experimental errors increases,
so levels of doubt and distrust of the knowledge gained would subsequently
increase. This supports Goethe’s claim that doubt increases with knowledge. A
strong example of this is the Galileo affair.

 

Science and religion have often clashed throughout their
existence, science providing doubt to challenge the confidence created by
religion. Galileo’s case illustrates how advances in scientific knowledge
instigated doubt about Catholic doctrines. Galileo continued the work of his predecessors,
Copernicus and Kepler, who had pioneered heliocentric (sun-centred) solar
system theories, but had failed to convince their adversaries. According to
Patricia Fara, Galileo ‘advertised the importance of instruments for finding
out the true structure of the universe’. He applied modern technology to his experiments,
such as creating his own telescope. This adaptation of existing knowledge to
improve his observations shows how doubt can be a product of increased
knowledge, since Galileo’s ‘physical evidence produced by modern instruments persuaded
many astronomers that Copernicus had been right’. This supports Goethe’s argument
that ‘with knowledge doubt increases’. This also implies that many types of knowledge
can be applied to cast doubt on different knowledge areas. Here, technological knowledge
helped to improve scientific knowledge to disprove religious knowledge.

 

The Galileo affair also supports Goethe’s statement that ‘we
know with confidence only when we know little’. In 1632, the Catholic
Inquisition condemned Galileo as a heretic, due to their determined belief in
geocentric astronomical theories. He was put under house arrest and banned from
publishing his ideas. However, the church may have interfered just to protect
their faith, not necessarily because they were stubbornly confident of their
limited knowledge. Instead, the Church’s response could have signified their
doubt, caused by Galileo’s knowledge claims. Since Galileo’s case was so convincing,
the implications of his claims would have contradicted their faith. Therefore,
the Catholic authorities publicly defied Galileo’s claims, just to maintain
political status. This supports the counter-claim that we can know with doubt,
even when we know little, as the Catholic Church may have understood Galileo’s
claims, which influenced doubt about their geocentric beliefs.

 

The preceding examples provide claims and counter-claims to agree
and disagree with Goethe’s quote. I disagree with first part of Goethe’s
statement, that ‘we only know with confidence when we know little’, as the word
‘only’ presents an issue. Whilst it is true that we can know with confidence
when we know little; it can occur when we know more, if we are still unaware of
what we don’t know. Furthermore, we can know little with doubt, since there are
many stages towards greater knowledge when we feel confident. The Cold War historiography
presents contrasting perspectives formed when historians are confident at
different stages of knowledge.

 

However, I agree with the second part of Goethe’s statement;
‘with knowledge doubt increases’. This section can be read in two directions; that
with knowledge doubt increases, and that with doubt, knowledge increases. The
historical example of Emperor Claudius and the scientific example of Galileo both
imply that with knowledge doubt increases. With knowledge, we gain a greater
awareness of what we don’t yet know and better understanding of previous
uncertainties. However, the example of Jonathan Riley-Smith’s inquiry suggests
that with doubt, knowledge increases. When a pioneering knowledge pursuer
challenges conventional assumptions, they invite the entire knowledge community
to verify, refine and improve existing knowledge.