As both an artist and scientist, Goethe was well-placed tomake this statement; being cognisant of multiple knowledge areas.
The sense of hisquote is comparable to the Shakespearean proverb: ‘A fool thinks himself to bewise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool’. Goethe, too, articulates thatthe 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 wordsdescribe temporary phases in our continuous relationship with knowledge. Ifsomeone knows ‘with confidence’, this could be defined as certainty andassurance, which implies positivity and optimism. However, Goethe likely intendedthis word to suggest a degree of misguided arrogance about our limited initial knowledge.The word ‘doubt’ could have pessimistic connotations; indicating disappointmentdue to a newfound distrust of previous knowledge. That said, ‘doubt’ can alsobe perceived as a necessary phase on the route to greater certainty andunderstanding of knowledge. Therefore, ‘doubt’is not a place where knowledge-pursuers become stuck.
Rather, doubt isresponsible for motivating them to refine and improve their knowledge. Thecoexistence of confidence and doubt constitutes a significant paradox, whereby itis feasible to experience confidence and doubtsimultaneously, as they provide encouragement that knowledge is secure and motivateus to strive for better knowledge. It seems erringon the side of cynicism to say that we can only be confident in our knowledgewhen it is limited. Wiser, perhaps, todisagree with the first part of Goethe’s statement and argue instead thatconfidence can be attained at multiple stages as we overcome doubt to gain moreknowledge. The latter half of Goethe’s statement can be understood in twodirections; forwards and backwards. Whilst it is true that with knowledge doubtincreases, it can also be argued in reverse: with doubt, knowledge increases.These issues will be explored with reference to the knowledge areas of historyand science.
In History, confidence in knowledge of events makes it difficultto distrust easy certainties. However, the presence of doubt stimulates ongoingarguments as historians’ knowledge progresses, causing opinions to change.Arguably, historians are only as good as the questions they ask, so the besthistorians’ inquiries provoke doubt about certain aspects of history that areoften taken for granted. Two ancient historical examples (differing perspectiveson the Crusades and the Roman Emperor Claudius) and one modern example (causesof the Cold War), drawn from my IB studies and independent reading, provide evidence to agree and disagree with Goethe’sstatement. It had long been a historical orthodoxy to assume that theCrusades were driven by secular factors, such as desire for power and land, andthat Christians used religious doctrines to mask their actual ambitions.Historian Jonathan Riley-Smith doubted this certainty. His subsequent researchrevealed that the desire to recover the patrimony of Christ was a significantlymore important motive. Riley-Smith incorporated doubt into his scholarly methodto challenge an orthodoxy which did less than justice to – in Von Ranke’sfamous phrase – “how it essentially was”.
Since Riley-Smith’s knowledge was superior to those whose views he waschallenging, we could use this example to agree with Goethe: that we know withconfidence only when we know little. However, these historians were experts inthis field, so they certainly did not know ‘little’. Evidently, Riley-Smith’sdistrust of historical assumptions influenced a greater understanding of thecausation of the Crusades. This supports the counter-claim that Goethe’s statement is true in reverse: withdoubt, knowledge increases.
However, Riley-Smith’s doubts only arose after hehad carried out a significant amount of research and study. Therefore, it holdsfirm that with knowledge, doubt increases, but it is not untrue to suggest thatthis doubt cannot lead to further knowledge. Another historical example of doubt increasing withknowledge gained, concerns the misconceived reputation of the Roman EmperorClaudius. The young Claudius was ridiculed due to various physical ailments.
Hesuffered multiple tremors, walked with a limp, dribbled through his mouth andnose, and was dismissed as an idiot. Consequently, he was denied variouspolitical roles and positions in the Senate. Yet he was appointed Emperorfollowing the assassination of Caligula. Claudius’ capabilities and talentsentirely exceeded the expectations of others. Clearly, his family knew verylittle about the nature of his disabilities, which influenced their confidence thathe was a fool. However, many historians have questioned whether Claudius reallywas the ‘idiot’ that people thought him to be, claiming that Claudius’condition could have been Cerebral Palsy or Tourette’s syndrome. With this modernmedical knowledge, and symptoms matching Claudius’ infirmities, historians havecreated significant doubt that this man was mentally backward.
This reinforcesGoethe’s claim that ‘with knowledge, doubt increases’. The example of the evolution of historical perspectives onthe causation of the Cold War undermines Goethe’s claim that we only know withconfidence when we know little, and supports the concept that doubt increaseswith knowledge. The first school of interpretation to emerge was the ‘Orthodox’view, which placed the blame on the Soviets.
Historians supporting this viewclaimed that Stalin had violated his promises at post-war conferences and forciblyoccupied most of Eastern-Europe. Arguably, this left the US with no choice butto intervene. However, the ‘Revisionist’ view surfaced during the Vietnam War,amidst global anti-American sentiment.
This perspective criticised theexpansionist ambitions of the US and sympathised with Russia for retaliating. ‘Revisionist’doubt influenced many ‘Orthodox’ historians to rethink their previous knowledgeclaims. Many years later, historians such as John Lewis Gaddis pioneered the’Post-revisionist’ school of thought, which was a compromise between theprevious views. Since historians from both perspectives were confident oftheir knowledge, this paradox suggests that Goethe was wrong to suggest that weonly know with confidence when we know little. This implies that one can knowwith confidence no matter how much or little knowledge you possess. Evidently,doubt is a prerequisite for enhanced historical. Doubt challenges conventionalbeliefs and reveals unexplored aspects, so it is crucial to the continuousimprovement and refinement of knowledge. So it is plausible that withknowledge, doubt increases, and vice versa.
In Science, doubt motivates scientists to strive foraccurate and reliable data to support confident conclusions. As more researchis undertaken, the likelihood of anomalies and experimental errors increases,so levels of doubt and distrust of the knowledge gained would subsequentlyincrease. This supports Goethe’s claim that doubt increases with knowledge. Astrong example of this is the Galileo affair.
Science and religion have often clashed throughout theirexistence, science providing doubt to challenge the confidence created byreligion. Galileo’s case illustrates how advances in scientific knowledgeinstigated doubt about Catholic doctrines. Galileo continued the work of his predecessors,Copernicus and Kepler, who had pioneered heliocentric (sun-centred) solarsystem theories, but had failed to convince their adversaries. According toPatricia Fara, Galileo ‘advertised the importance of instruments for findingout the true structure of the universe’. He applied modern technology to his experiments,such as creating his own telescope. This adaptation of existing knowledge toimprove his observations shows how doubt can be a product of increasedknowledge, since Galileo’s ‘physical evidence produced by modern instruments persuadedmany astronomers that Copernicus had been right’.
This supports Goethe’s argumentthat ‘with knowledge doubt increases’. This also implies that many types of knowledgecan be applied to cast doubt on different knowledge areas. Here, technological knowledgehelped to improve scientific knowledge to disprove religious knowledge. The Galileo affair also supports Goethe’s statement that ‘weknow with confidence only when we know little’. In 1632, the CatholicInquisition condemned Galileo as a heretic, due to their determined belief ingeocentric astronomical theories. He was put under house arrest and banned frompublishing his ideas.
However, the church may have interfered just to protecttheir faith, not necessarily because they were stubbornly confident of theirlimited knowledge. Instead, the Church’s response could have signified theirdoubt, 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 maintainpolitical 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’sclaims, which influenced doubt about their geocentric beliefs. The preceding examples provide claims and counter-claims to agreeand disagree with Goethe’s quote.
I disagree with first part of Goethe’sstatement, 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 confidencewhen we know little; it can occur when we know more, if we are still unaware ofwhat we don’t know. Furthermore, we can know little with doubt, since there aremany stages towards greater knowledge when we feel confident. The Cold War historiographypresents contrasting perspectives formed when historians are confident atdifferent 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; thatwith knowledge doubt increases, and that with doubt, knowledge increases. Thehistorical example of Emperor Claudius and the scientific example of Galileo bothimply that with knowledge doubt increases. With knowledge, we gain a greaterawareness of what we don’t yet know and better understanding of previousuncertainties. However, the example of Jonathan Riley-Smith’s inquiry suggeststhat with doubt, knowledge increases. When a pioneering knowledge pursuerchallenges conventional assumptions, they invite the entire knowledge communityto verify, refine and improve existing knowledge.