Livin’ It Up On the Via Negativa

by David Wolpe on May 5, 2014

In the coming days and weeks we invite you to take a journey down the Via Negativa.

What, you ask, is the Via Negativa? It is the place of not understanding. It is not getting it. And then still not getting it.

It is a way of thinking about learning and intelligence, not by what we’re good at and what we know, but by what we aren’t good at and what we don’t know.

It’s a place of twists and turns to which we will return, and as we do so, we may begin to recognize features of this place that we did not notice on our first visit.  We may, as the playwright Henrik Ibsen said, be gradually able to to get to know this place, like sitting in a train car  and beginning to  to get acquainted with our cabin-mates.

Think of it as a stroll along a quiet sun-dappled canal in Venice where, oddly enough, there is no sound. We are visiting and observing as spies from another world. In the world we understand,  there is laughter and the clinking of wine glasses, a loud roiling conversation in a trattoria, cries of pain when an an iron skillet lands on a foot, the smells of garlic bread and pesto, and curiosity over news of our sons and daughters and cousin Frankie and whether his band is any good. There is, in short, a life made up of all things human, erupting out of time, accessible to our senses.

What we seek is to determine whether we can bring sound and life to this strange place.

Is there a way to recognize commonalities in things we have trouble understanding which may seem utterly dissimilar? And if we succeed in this recognition, can we understand some of what befuddles us?

Can we, in short, become smarter?

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