Since I joined Public Discourse a year ago as an editor, I’ve found myself perplexed on many occasions. I’ve read and edited hundreds of essays on a wide range of topics: farming, philosophy, and finance, for example. I’ve learned a lot from encountering such various kinds of knowledge, but, most significantly, I’ve realized how little I know. The more widely I read, the more limited my own learning appears.
Retired tutor Mark Sinnett’s May 2022 commencement address at St. John’s College explored what it means to be perplexed. His speech has generated some attention: Joseph Keegin wrote an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education that briefly praised the speech, then a recent George Will column admired both Keegin’s essay and Sinnett’s speech. I suspect Sinnett’s speech has resonated because it went beyond the usual clichés of commencement addresses. Rather than praising students’ academic achievements, he exhorted them to embrace perplexity. Perplexity, he explained, shouldn’t be treated as a source of distress, pain, or shame. In fact, it’s often the only appropriate response to complex matters.
Sinnett’s praise of perplexity points to something fundamental that we’ve forgotten in our “Information Age,” an era in which expert opinion has become more accessible to mass audiences than ever before. This availability has led both experts and their listeners to overestimate the breadth of their knowledge. The result is a swarm of dueling claims about basic facts and truths, along with a sense that we’re in a post-truth era and facing an epistemic crisis. Information saturation has also made it hard to tell which kinds of information are worthwhile—leading many of us to spend time indulging frivolous or perverse curiosities instead of honorable and worthy matters. Recovering a sense of perplexity can help us alleviate the distortions in both our debates and our everyday lives.
What Is Perplexity?
Perplexity isn’t a weakness, as Sinnett notes—it’s a gift. Accepting our own ignorance about something is a precondition for learning about it. Of course, it’s impossible to stay suspended in a state of uncertainty indefinitely. As Catholic University Dean Andrew Abela has put it, “The pursuit of truth is like the pursuit of a spouse: at some point you hope to catch the object of your pursuit, get married, and have babies.” We can’t spend every day staring at our family members with a furrowed brow, wondering: are these people real, or aliens occupying human bodies? Some truths must be accepted in order to function and live well.
Even if we can’t stay suspended in wonder, perplexity has a rightful place in our lives. Because search engines provide instantaneous answers, it sometimes feels like answers to every question are literally at our fingertips; but surface-level attention and quick information, the digital age’s currencies, don’t yield genuine knowledge.
Perplexity, by contrast, tries to grasp something that is important but has a hidden meaning or recondite quality. Some matters are (or at least should be) sources of wonder for all human beings: Who is God? Is God three persons? Is nature completely malleable, or does it command reverence and study? What purpose is there to human existence? Sometimes more newsworthy topics are also worthy of wonder because they’re connected to deeper and consequential matters, or tied to more technical subjects like economics or medicine. For example, we might wonder what level of COVID-19 precautions is needed in 2022? Or what should we do about inflation and where did it come from?
With information abundance delivered to us on demand via screens, we’re given plenty of opportunities to be perplexed by the world. Unfortunately, too much of our content isn’t wonder-inducing, but instead is confidence-inducing. Cable news and viral tweets don’t usually fascinate or confound us. Nor do they provoke a desire to uncover veiled truths, which are almost always the most worthwhile ones. Instead, they affirm as righteous their audience’s often unexamined instincts about complex matters.
Information producers suffer from unfounded intellectual confidence just as much as information consumers do. Keegin’s essay for the Chronicle describes a bizarre tendency among online academics who offer commentary (usually on politics) far beyond the scope of their specialty. He notes, for example, medievalist historians sparring on Twitter and in blog posts over white supremacy—a concept that emerged well after the middle ages. Experts and audiences alike stifle their sense of curiosity, allowing half-considered opinions to fog their minds from noticing how subtle and interesting the world often is.
Attending to the world’s oddities is a rewarding exercise. In his commencement speech, Sinnett noted that the students who stand out at St. John’s aren’t the ones who pompously pontificate, but those whose questions are marked by the deepest wonder—those who allow themselves to be startled by an arresting argument, or find themselves considering anew a formerly rejected position.
When we’re confounded by something, it usually fascinates us and grabs our attention. When we carefully examine something complex, we begin to see apparent connections and patterns or disjunctures and incongruencies. Perplexity allows us to ask more precise and probing questions: we might not have knowledge yet, but we can begin to know what to ask about what we’ve seen. A path forward has emerged.
If we accept puzzlement when facing complicated problems, it means that we’re less likely to feel satisfied with easy answers. While it’s tempting to consume “content” from demagogic or ideological sources, thinly veiled agendas and motivated reasoning won’t satisfy those who are perplexed. Only sound thinking and carefully crafted arguments will.
Accepting our perplexity can also show us when our own speculations become futile and it’s time to rely on others. Many of us have questions about quantum mechanics, but we know that we can’t get very far on our own. We have to turn to someone else for help. But even in nontechnical matters, it’s almost always worthwhile to consult others who have frequented paths on which we’ve only just embarked. We might have a vague idea of what justice is, but reading Plato and learning from those who have studied Plato will carry us much further than we could go on our own.
Perplexity, therefore, not only helps us figure out what to ask, but also whom to ask. We need help, which can come in many forms: old books, new books, friends, teachers, colleagues, students. A couple of challenges immediately emerge from this, though. Sometimes the answers others give conflict with one another, and it can be hard to tell whose answers are right. Who commands the greatest authority, and whose arguments are ultimately most sound? In philosophical debates, this means deciding between Plato and St. Augustine, Nietzsche and Lewis. In present day controversies, where the question of authority feels especially acute, we must wade through conflicting arguments from “public intellectuals” who have supposedly solved all of society’s riddles. Who is the real expert? Who can be trusted?
This difficulty makes establishing public knowledge a formidable challenge. Experts who go beyond their training display a concerning lack of humility when facing complicated issues. They also sow mistrust of their ideas—even ideas born of their expertise. As Alexander Stern recently argued in The New Atlantis, technocrats and their media partners often respond to misinformation not with humility and transparency, but with crude assertions of “epistemic control.” These experts “refuse to admit mistakes, they appeal to authority and credentials instead of evidence and they attempt to shut down dissenting voices.” As a result, their true statements begin to seem like lies to many people.
A perplexed posture helps us evaluate whether claims to expertise are sensible or not: it alerts our suspicion when specialists veer far outside their lane. It can detect bromides and platitudes, and knows when a principle is improperly applied. For example, a theologian who rejects safety precautions during a pandemic on the basis that death is imminent seems out of touch with the urgencies of overflowing hospitals and the tragedy of mass graves. At the same time, an epidemiologist who argues that protecting physical health at the expense of corporate worship and in-person schooling and socializing has failed to recognize real goods that fall outside her specialty. Often, those willing to admit the limits of their expertise—who circumscribe their claims according to the boundaries of their understanding—prove the most reliable.
While perplexity can help us judge the limits of expertise, curiosity alone can be treacherous. Perplexity degrades into voyeurism when its objects are perverse. In Dostoevsky’s novel Demons, the character Nikolai Stavrogin isn’t interested in things that normally spark wonder like beauty, conflict, or love, but instead indulges wayward curiosities. Stavrogin is a strange young man whose inner void and turmoil swallow everyone around him—he is ultimately the source of an entire town’s political upheaval and eventually unraveling.
One of Stavrogin’s core deformities is his interest in violent exploitation. In a chapter that Dostoevsky’s editors removed from the original manuscript because of its disturbing content, Stavrogin recalls his ecstasy in scheming to rape a young girl and later finding her body after she committed suicide. The things that should perplex and engage Stavrogin—people around him with complex motives, the strange political turmoil that has seized his province—are utterly uninteresting to him; he remains immovable. He even yawns in the middle of conversations that should greatly interest him about his life and community. But he is only interested in stimulation—temporary diversions that involve shocking or grotesque sensations.
Stavrogin is an extreme example of how mere curiosity directed toward gruesome or profane things can make us base. But there are more common and mundane ways we all do this, especially in the digital age. And because information online is often search-engine optimized (a sorting mechanism completely indifferent to ethical considerations), the task of filtering the good from the bad falls entirely on individual users. The morally indifferent manner in which content is presented to us makes it much easier to go down internet rabbit holes to read about our adversaries’ downfall or embarrassing gaffes, for example. Or to spend an hour rage-reading an obnoxious person’s outrageous tweets. These behaviors distort our capacity for wonder, which is fit for good and decent things. Everyone of course needs revelry, playfulness, and amusement. Our minds can’t always be fixed on heavy and demanding topics. But good fun doesn’t marvel at or delight in ugliness, scandal, or failings. Perverse curiosity is bored with reality as it is, and seeks out deformities to make it interesting. The easy availability of voyeuristic content can deceive us into thinking that the world before us is boring and that ugliness is what’s truly captivating.
Perplexity, by contrast, doesn’t eschew the given and the ordinary. It knows that with careful study and attention, appearances can take on new hues and offer unexpected revelations. It also doesn’t dismiss people, even those who might seem predictable and simple. And it doesn’t use people for pleasure or amusement. People always command wonder because everyone offers a unique combination of experiences, emotions, ideas, and loves. When we allow ourselves to be fascinated by others, entire universes can open up to us.
A perplexed posture, then, means being changed or moved by other people and ideas at times. It doesn’t seek cheap or easy answers to serious questions. And it isn’t satisfied with momentary highs from oversimplified and triumphant assertions, but prefers the rewards of prolonged contemplation. Perplexity also turns its sights from the grotesque, and doesn’t abuse its objects for the sake of stimulation or entertainment.
Hastily hoarding knowledge and abusing others along the way creates a self-enclosed space, where nothing can enter or leave. The alternative—questions, perplexity, and interest in the world—is risky. It requires us to admit our ignorance to ourselves and others. But that’s a small price for the fun of learning.