Kirkus Reviews QR Code
I DON'T KNOW by Leah Hager Cohen


In Praise of Admitting Ignorance and Doubt (Except When You Shouldn't)

by Leah Hager Cohen

Pub Date: Sept. 12th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-59463-239-6
Publisher: Riverhead

A noted author’s short but pointed meditation on the difficulty human beings have in admitting their own ignorance.

The fear of exposing our lack of knowledge is universal. Cohen (The Grief of Others, 2011, etc.) suggests that the reason for this is that doing so “could cost us the human company we desire [and] evict us from our place around the hearth.” Indeed, the inability to understand the cosmos could threaten something even more fundamental: our very existence. Drawing from a variety of scientific, linguistic, literary and philosophical sources, Cohen examines both the human urge to conceal ignorance and its ramifications. The anecdotes are both illuminating and disturbing, and they are from personal experience as well as from the many informal interviews she conducted with people from different walks of like. The stories, which deal with family, friendships, school, work, social injustice and sexuality, reveal how factors like race, class and gender play into our need to dissemble when we do not know something. Cohen recognizes that “fakery is a vital currency in our social discourse” and that it often facilitates the expression of good will. At the same time, she points out that it can lead to the moral irresponsibility and emotional inhibition that can, ironically, endanger the very human connections we seek to cultivate and preserve. True empowerment, Cohen argues, comes from being able to take the chance we fear and confessing ignorance. Doing so opens us “to receiving information, ideas and perspectives from beyond the borders of the self” and reinforces relationships through honesty. Even more importantly, it helps us come to terms with the fact that the world can never be fully known and can only be appreciated for its “inexhaustible mysteriousness.”

Refreshingly wise and open-minded.