The Knowledge of Ignorance

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THE KNOWLEDGE OF IGNORANCE: from Genesis to Jules Verne

Published by Cambridge University Press in 1985

This book appeared in the ‘Cambridge Studies in French’ series, edited by the late great Malcolm Bowie. It was my first book and probably still a little too close to the PhD thesis it emerged from (something like ‘Science, Nescience and Omniscience’). But although it examines the idea of being all-seeing and all-knowing, it doesn’t actually claim to be, despite that ambitious subtitle. It’s an intellectual history, but there are definitely gaps, air-holes, and jokes. And probably a fair amount of ignorance mixed in with all the knowledge.

This is what is says on the cover:
‘This highly original study presents a novel approach to the theory of knowledge by way of various theories of ignorance. It explores the recurrent paradox which equates pure ignorance with perfect knowledge, twin ideals exempt from the impurities and imperfections of discourse.

The author combines the techniques of literary criticism and intellectual history in order to examine the literary, philosophical, theological, and political ramifications of this anxiety about, and ambition to transcend, the limits of the text. Dr Martin begins by tracing a network of interlocking motifs and images – beginning and end, nescience and omniscience, genesis and renascence, savagery and civilization – across a broad spectrum of texts from the Book of Genesis through the Renaissance (in particular the works of Nicholas of Cusa and Erasmus) to Rousseau. The central section of the book translates these temporal oppositions into the spatial antithesis of East and West in the Orientalism of Hugo, Napoleon, and Chateaubriand. Finally Dr Martin draws together these apparently disparate themes in a consideration of the dichotomy of science and literature in Jules Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires.

This book is at once wide-ranging in scope and detailed in interpretation. In offering a provocative analysis of a pervasive intellectual mythology, it will appeal to both scholars of literature and intellectual historians.’

I was studying under Jacques Derrida in Paris at the time I wrote this book, so the writing has almost certainly absorbed a bit of his deconstructive influence. And David Kelley, who was
supervising me, always insisted on us sharing a bottle of Irish whisky every time we met at Trinity, so there is probably a little of that influence too.

The painting on the cover is by Cranach the Elder.

Edward Said (Columbia) wrote a positive review in the TLS. And Tony Tanner (King’s College, Cambridge) wrote another favorable one in the Times Higher Education Supplement.