We Don’t Really Know Anything About Anything, and Other News


On the Shelf

José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, Girl with a Book, ca. 1875.

  • Let’s put some things in perspective about human knowledge. Sure, there are plenty of things we know as facts (New York thin crust is superior to Chicago deep dish) and others we can be basically sure of (Donald Trump prowls the outer boroughs at night in a latex superhero costume, torturing stray cats and hyperventilating into a paper bag), but many even more basic matters remain mysterious to us. Consciousness, for instance. We don’t know shit about consciousness. In a new series, Tim Parks asks the philosopher Riccardo Manzotti to take him into the riddle: “Why doesn’t our behavior simply happen, taking its course the way the planets follow their orbits? We don’t know. Just as cosmologists don’t know what dark matter is. All we know is that there is something that doesn’t add up and very likely points to some profound error in our assumptions about reality … The truth is that we just don’t know a priori the nature of physical reality. This is a point Bertrand Russell made very strongly back in the 1920s. The more we investigate the physical, the more varied and complex it appears.” 

  • Back in the realm of things we think we know about, there’s Emma Tarlo’s Entanglement, a new history of human hair that calls into question our rationality: “In an excellent chapter on the practices of Haredi Jewish women, Tarlo digs deep into a subject that often seems unfathomable to outsiders: the requirement that married women, when out in public, wear a wig … Twelve years ago, the sheitels of pious north London, Brooklyn, and Jerusalem were responsible for disrupting the global hair industry. In 2004, the ninety-four-year-old Rabbi Elyashiv decreed that the wigs worn by married women were unclean and should be destroyed immediately. His objection lay in the fact that the Indian hair from which the sheitels were made came from Hindu temples in southern India where pilgrims are tonsured before worship. This, the rabbi ruled, made the hair ‘idolatrous.’ The result was hysterical high feeling as distraught Orthodox women in headscarves and swimming caps threw their costly and carefully curated sheitels onto a series of pyres. One of Tarlo’s sources reckons that a billion dollars’ worth of human hair went up in smoke.
  • Tara Isabella Burton defends the seeming artificiality of the self-branding social-media era: “As the twentieth-century philosopher Paul Ricoeur points out, self, self-conception, and action are not so easily divorced from one another. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves—including through public performance in the social sphere—also come to govern our actions … Playing a public role on social media, presenting ourselves as a ‘character’ (the ‘fun one,’ the workaholic, the gleeful bohemian, the ‘good friend,’ the liberal do-gooder, and so forth), is to commit to being that person in the social sphere: to enter into an informal contract with those that witness us to ‘be that person.’ ”