Being Okay with Not Knowing

Experiment: writing about the connection between philosophy and my own view on research.

At the end of a long day last week, I encountered a particularly challenging section of a book. I left myself this note, so that I would remember that it was not just a normal bookmark.

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Having totally forgotten about it, I opened the book again this week. And it suddenly meant more than I could ever have guessed. This phrase may be applicable to all research, to a PhD, to life even!

Coincidentally, the section of the book that I just couldn’t comprehend on a Friday afternoon is on the topic of knowledge. The author, Elizabeth Gross, describes feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray’s views on “proper” knowledge.

Irigaray’s argument is that historically, in the fields of philosophy and language, men emptied themselves of their masculinity to make observations about the world. We all played along that it was possible to take up a position of objective, purified, uncontaminated, outsider analysis. This position judged the world, but is subject to little judgment or criticism. In essence, this is the scientific view of the world, a view that assumes it is possible to remove yourself and coldly observe occurrences, experiments, and behavior (Gross, 1986).

Within this exalted world is randomized control studies, “hard” data, and “legitimate” forms of research. The accepted and proper “ways of knowing” are constrained to the types that claim to be created from this pure, objective view.

Irigary refuses the existence of a bright line between the exalted world (associated with the masculine) and the world of objects (associated with the feminine). She says that “where such boundaries occur, they are a result of forms of fixation which attempt to regulate the inherently ambiguous, polyvocal nature of languages. The products–knowledges–of this form of male self-distance are thus  isomorphic with male sexuality and alien to a femininity defined in its own terms” (Gross, 1985, pp. 136-147).  In other words, objectivity is constructed to clear up the messiness of everyday life. It ignores the fact that men have also historically injected their own bias into research and knowledge as normal human beings. The objective view is not a natural way to analyze messy, human relationships, discourses and structures. The problem occurs for people who recognize the ambiguity of the world and then cannot fit into the pure, objective view. But maybe not fitting in is okay too!

Objective data and research assume a clean, easy world and maybe the people who rely on it are adverse to not knowing. Nuance looks weak when phrases like “failing schools” and “thugs” seem so clear.

For those of us who realize that there are really interesting things out that there we don’t get quite yet, there is always next week 🙂 Let’s be okay with not knowing.


Gross, E. (1986). Philosophy, subjectivity and the body: Kristeva and Irigaray. In C. Pateman & E. Gross (Eds.), Feminist Challenges: Social and Political Theory (pp. 125-143). Boston: Northeastern University Press.

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