While writing my doctoral thesis as a researcher at University, I was repeatedly confronted with the negative connotation of the word naïvety within the academic context. It was said that interdisciplinary research is naïve because one is not able to adequately grasp the other scientific area in order to be able to write about it, e.g. to deal with physics as an art historian. Theories are called naïve when they seem too simple and lack complexity. During the last tailormade workshop in Berlin, one could hear people apologizing for naïve questions in discussions.
The word naïve originates from the French word naïf and means childish, original, simple-minded, harmless, foolish. In everyday language, it is used to refer to people who cannot adequately evaluate circumstances and actions due to lack of knowledge. Misjudgments made by people are considered naïve in particular if they are too positive and thus underestimate the egoism of other people, for example.
However, Kant himself evaluates naïvety as the ability to face a situation neutrally with unbiased knowledge. He describes naïvety a “noble or beautiful simplicity, which bears the seal of nature”.
Schiller also writes in his essay ‘On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry’ that behind childish naïvety, there is a heart full of innocence and truth, which is described as a higher practical human strength. In his description, being childishly naïve means being in harmony with nature, in harmony with oneself and the world without being consciously aware of it. According to Schiller, classical Greek poets wrote in this state of feeling. In contrast, the modern sentimental poet only knows the longing for this harmony, as modernity has reached a state of disbalance with nature and unhappiness is an existential experience of the human being in the world.
Naïve art is a fully established genre in the art scene, but few are aware that naïvety was also one of the driving forces in the history of socially engaged art. Baudrillard, who was deeply influenced by the Situationists, describes how he likes to go about his everyday life as more ignorant, someone who doesn’t know anything but has a hunch that something is wrong. He writes: “I like being in the position of the primitive … playing naïve”.
In view of the philosophical value of naïvety and its importance in visual arts, without which many artistic and literary movements would not exist, it would be desirable to deal with this term in a less negative way in an academic context. It also has a problematic connotation in the post-colonial context, which assumes a hierarchical thinking of knowledge when everything ignorant and primitive is considered less valuable. The term ‘ignorant’ should also be viewed in a differentiated manner, considering that cultural context and personal preferences make any knowledge unique. When two perspectives meet and they are incongruent, it does not mean that one perspective is more knowledgeable and the other ignorant, but simply that both have a different knowledge that is neither better nor worse, just different.
Baudrillard, Jean (2005). The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Interviews, Essays. MIT Press.
Nenon, Thomas (2014). Kant, Kantianism, and Idealism: The Origins of Continental Philosophy. Routledge
Schiller, Friedrich (2002). Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung. Reclam, Philipp, jun. GmbH, Verlag.