Maybe someone should write the history of ‘Who Knows’.
THESE words circulate, often in whispers, whenever people feel alienated from the world—when Death, Famine, Hunger and Plague come, the Four Horses of the Apocalypse.
The virus now spreading from place to place is entirely different in scale to contagions of times past, but once again ‘Who Knows’ resurfaces. Let us take a look: Marchionne di Coppo Stefani’s notes on the terrible plague that attacked Florence in 1348 are an indelible expression of it.
At the time, the plague was virulent and so fast that in stricken houses those caring for the sick would die from the same illness. Almost everyone who contracted the illness would be dead in under four days. Neither healers nor medicine had any effect. There seemed to be no cure, either because the sickness was previously unknown, or because the physicians had never studied it…
Over those terrifying days, the epidemic decimated Europe, and when Who Knows broke out, people stopped it with a horrible conclusion: Stop the Who Knows. The answer is right here: it was the Jews who brought the plague!
The Jews, so the rumor went, were spreading poison from frogs’ entrails mixed with oil and cheese. The Christians concurred with this ‘explanation’. Even though the Pope forbade violence, on February 14 in Strasbourg, 2,000 Jews were stripped and beaten. In Mainz, 3,000. But the Who Knows kept returning, as did all kinds of efforts to stifle it.
Until, that is, the arrival of the modern era, when Who Knows was eased out. What had given rise to undefined fear began to be replaced. Anxiety started to have explanations. Stories were discarded, superstitions cast aside. And the Enlightenment concluded: humans can and must have the courage to free themselves from what Kant called selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit, self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is marked by the lack of courage to use reason, the intellect, and one’s own wisdom. People are immature because they always need the structures of society, religion and authority. People are immature because they do not seek their own ways of dealing with Who Knows.
Commencing in the ‘long 18th century’, Europe began this spirit of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason.
This is not to say that it was only countries around Germany, France and England that operated Sapere Aude! Dare to know! and placed reason in an important position in their lives. The Greeks of the pre-Christian era and the Islamic world in the 8th century had already shown the way of liberation from Who Knows—also concerning contagion. The physician Al-Majusi (933-1000), for example, described contagion in his Kitab al-Malaiyy, the Complete Book of the Medical Art. He saw that the cause of contagion was ‘the sick air’ (hawawab’i)—not any conspiracy of the Devil or the Jews.
The ability to analyze cause and effect—the ability to reason—was important in confronting Who Knows. People move forward from unknowing. What is unknown turns into a problem: something cast into the future for people to solve and break through.
But this does not always work, or always last—and it does not always improve life. ‘Reason’ develops in solving problems. Problems not only transform the Unknown, but also constrict it, just as reason is change that makes the faculty of reason laser-like: clear, strong, efficient—but narrow. It controls the-Other, what is not itself.
The modern world and reason are both life with all kinds of things made accountable. With this comes efficiency in achieving ends. With this too, competence can be collected in a progressive way, increasing over time. Capital, technology, military force, political power.
It is no coincidence that after Kant welcomed the Enlightment in Europe, it was also Europe that built the imperialism that oppressed other nations—which Kant did not include in his calculation. There was no acknowledgement that after reason ruled, it would no longer be aware that there was something beyond its reach. The neglected Who Knows.
Hegel—approaching arrogance—was sure that the rational fused with the wirklich, the real, ‘the rational alone is real’. He was convinced that all reality can be expressed in rational categories. When Hegel declared that the State must be treated as a ‘powerful architectonic structure’, as the ‘hieroglyph of reason’, he forgot that the Who Knows cannot be identified by the State.
In the political constellation, the Who Knows are those who are not taken into account. There are the ‘accounting mistakes’, which Rancière called le tort. Those outside the fence—the fence constructed by the State, the fence constructed by science—demonstrate that they escaped the drag of the net of reason.
In other words, the history of Who Knows is not over yet. In the plague of the 14th century we could hear it in Marchionne di Coppo Stefani’s notes. In the 21st century, we are witnessing it in the fact that there are still no solutions to new illnesses, new conflicts and new injustices.
Science and religion both claim: ‘I am the answer’. But they forget what the questions are. They forget the Who Knows.