Lecture 11 of Yuval Harari's online course A brief history of humankind is titled "The discovery of ignorance." In it he presents the thesis that by arriving at a land mass entirely different from the one that the then-standard geographical treatises had led him to expect, Columbus unwittingly dealt a mortal blow to all of the conventional wisdom of his time, especially that received from tradition and from ancient texts.

Harari therefore concludes that the so-called "discovery of America" was also, in a very literal sense, a discovery by Europeans of their ignorance (hence the lecture's title). Indeed, according to Harari, up until 1492, the general and unquestioned belief was that all that was worth knowing was either immediately apparent to the senses (i.e. "common sense"), or else it was contained in the traditional wisdom transmitted from one generation to the next and in canonical texts preserved since antiquity. Columbus's landing on the New World made this belief untenable, and Europeans for the first time got an inkling of the extent of their ignorance. (Of course, this realization did not happen overnight: it took generations for the implications of 1492 to be fully digested. Also, it should go without saying that none of the above should imply that Europeans were more ignorant than anybody else.)

According to Harari, there is a direct connection between the events of 1492 and the publication in 1620 of Bacon's Novum Organum Scientiarum, generally considered the first enunciation of what we now refer to as the "scientific method."

(Indeed, it is consonant with Harari's thesis that the frontispiece of Bacon's work features a galleon sailing beyond Gibraltar's Pillars of Hercules, into the ne plus ultra: a clear metaphor for the newly discovered Unknown, and for the challenge to venture into it.)

Harari's lecture was the first time I ever heard this causal link, as it were, from Columbus's 1492 to Bacon's 1620.

My question is: Is Harari the originator of this thesis, or is he quoting earlier thinkers?

  • 6
    I don't know who originated this nice theory but it is wrong. The scientific method's development predates Columbus considerably. For example: "Roger Bacon was inspired by the writings of Grosseteste. In his account of a method, Bacon described a repeating cycle of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and the need for independent verification. He recorded the way he had conducted his experiments in precise detail, perhaps with the idea that others could reproduce and independently test his results." See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_scientific_method May 17, 2014 at 14:44
  • And Pythagoras?
    – Rajib
    May 17, 2014 at 19:35
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    until 1492, the general and unquestioned belief was... canonical texts preserved since antiquity - Very wrong IMO. How would Harari explain the adventures of Henry the Navigator - 1394-1460!?: responsible for the early development of Portuguese exploration...through the systematic exploration of Western Africa, the islands of the Atlantic Ocean... The discoveries of the Portuguese were amazing at the time, and were no secret. The Europeans were curious, adventurous and investigative long before 1492.
    – user2590
    May 18, 2014 at 2:34
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    @Rajib - Certainly Pythagoras and numerous other ancients were very sophisticated, but I gather that this theory (which I also reject) is referring to Western Europe in the post-Roman period, not the ancients
    – user2590
    May 18, 2014 at 2:47
  • Columbus had no idea he was heading into the unknown. He thought he was taking a short cut to Asia to outflank the Portuguese, who had occupied the routes around Africa. Portugal knew he was on a fool's errand, since they knew Asia was far too far to reach. Lucky for old CC the Americas were in the way, saved him from dying.
    – Oldcat
    May 22, 2014 at 23:50


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