From the earliest moments of humanity’s search for answers and explanations, we have grappled with the unknowable—that which we are unable or not permitted to know. What does the history of the unknowable look like? What are the questions once thought to be unanswerable that have been answered? Are there enduring unknowables? What are they? Are there routes toward understanding and knowing that are different from those used by scientists, and what is the status of knowledge gained in these alternative ways? Our conviction that this conference addresses a singularly important question is supported by a statement made years ago by our former New School colleague, Hannah Arendt, who said, “I believe it is very likely that men, if they ever should lose their ability to wonder and thus cease to ask unanswerable questions, also will lose the faculty of asking the answerable questions upon which every civilization is based.” (Thinking Without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1958-1975.)
The question of what it is we cannot know is not only an important question in its own right, but has taken on additional importance in light of the recent rise of misinformation and alternative facts. A better understanding of knowing whether something can possibly be known has the capacity to shape the direction of general knowledge, scholarly research, and public education. Furthermore, identifying what kinds of questions are unanswerable is of great intellectual and perhaps even political significance—to wit, Donald Rumsfeld’s now famous statement that “There are known knowns … there are known unknowns … and there are also unknown unknowns,” to which Fintan O’Toole added “unknown knowns.” This conference affords a rare opportunity for scholars from different fields to engage with each other and with the general public on this issue, particularly while we are living in what some might call a post-truth world.
This conference will look at the many ways in which the unknowable figures in multiple areas of inquiry and scholarship. Experts from across a range of academic disciplines will discuss the criteria used to determine what appear to be unanswerable questions in their field and jointly reflect on how and why these criteria may differ across disciplines. We expect that speakers will, where appropriate, address the different ways of knowing that are possible. There are, of course, the scientific procedures that are well established, but there are also other modes of knowing associated with the humanities and the arts and these too will be discussed.
At a time when the distinction between what is true and what is not has become increasingly problematic, focusing attention on how we know what we cannot know has become essential.