I’m reading Isaac Watts’ The Improvement of the Mind. His first chapter is titled ‘General Rules for the Improvement of Knowledge.’ He grounds improvement of the mind first in sober self-reflection. He urges his readers to first consider how much misery could have been avoided in their lives had they properly exercised their rationality and made sound judgments. The beginning of understanding is to face the chastening reality that some things could have been better for me had I paid closer attention. This indeed is sobering, but sometimes truth stings. He does not propose to solve the philosophical problem of the reality of evil or why some people suffer unjustly. This rule is only a few lines. He simply calls upon his readers to face facts that some bad things could have been avoided with sharper analytical skills, wider awareness, keener perception, and precise reasoning. In popular parlance, life is hard, but it’s harder when you’re stupid. Like I said, sometime truth stings. He’s not wrong, you know. His next rule is to consider the “weaknesses, frailties, and mistakes of human nature.” In other words, if life is hard, and if it’s harder when you’re stupid, think about much worse it is when everyone else is also stupid. Seriously, ponder this truth and consider how we have collectively made it much worse for ourselves. Watts does not offer a balm for the stupid, as if taking solace in a community of fools is much solace at all. Rather, he grounds any effort at improvement in a theological and ontological frame. We’d best begin at the reality of the fall. Not just you, it’s me, too. And not just me, but you also. Me, and you, and us. I should say that this book follows his Logick, albeit by many years, and that book is really the beginning point for this one. But I digress. Begin with a sober analysis of the fall.
Now that the ground is tilled, we are ready for the third rule, which is to “acquaint yourself with your own ignorance.” And what is coming here in a few lines is the paragraph that struck me. Watt’s begins with what is a familiar refrain: We don’t know what we don’t know. And this is the upshot of Watts’ book: to help us think through how to improve. No small wonder then that he begins by forcefully calling readers to grapple with ignorances, deficiencies, blind spots, prejudices, and errors. If you’re not willing to do that, stop kidding yourself with any attempt to improve and go back to whatever it is you were doing fifteen minutes ago. Now, he presents these rules in brief fashion, but I do not read him as presenting them casually or expecting you to tick them off like filling up the cart at the grocery store.
So then, under this heading he has some sub-points. The first is to urge readers to rehearse the wide, wide range of human inquiry: behold the breadth of the disciplines! How vast and wide! Next, consider the wide variety of questions and problems and intellectual real estate within the one area in which you are most expert. Watts is inching us along toward greater self-awareness. From the big picture of all the disciplines of learning, he moves us to our speciality, our focus, our majors, our own little area of training and expertise. This, of all branches of learning, ought to be where we are most familiar, and out of that familiarity we are perhaps in the best position to take stock of our limitations. His third sub-point presses this a bit further, taking an example from geometry.
“Spend a thoughts sometimes on the puzzling Enquiries concerning Vacuums and Atoms, the Doctrine of Infinites, Indivisibles and Incommensurables in Geometry, wherein there appear some insolvable Diffi-[p. 9] culties: Do this on Purpose to give you a more sensible Impression of the Poverty of your Understanding, and the Imperfection of your Knowledge. This will teach you what a vain Thing it is to fancy that you know all Things, and will instruct you to think modestly of your present Attainments, when every Dust of the Earth, and every Inch of empty Space, surmounts your Understanding, and tramples over your Presumption.”
I. Watts, The Improvement of the Mind… 4th London edition, 1761, pp. 8-9.