“Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance is the death of knowledge.”
— Attributed to Alfred North Whitehead
Ever since Plato, when it comes to our mental life, philosophy has focused on knowledge and what is necessary for knowledge, such as evidence, rational belief, and justified belief. Sometimes it has even been obsessed with knowledge in such a way that it came at the neglect of other cognitive states. Over the last few decades, philosophy has, fortunately, broadened its scope, so as to include other valuable cognitive phenomena, like insight and understanding. It has even been paying attention to mental states that seem to be partly cognitive and partly emotional, such as hope and faith. But it has said relatively little about what seems to be a rather negative epistemic state, something we all wish to avoid, namely ignorance. This is surprising, for Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was already fascinated by ignorance and showing people in what way they are ignorant about certain things they take for granted.
Now, sometimes an important step towards understanding something is to consider its opposite. In other words, we often understand something by contrasting it with what it is not. Thus, we might get a better grip on knowledge by analysing ignorance. But it seems to me that ignorance is valuable to understand in itself, independently of its exact relationship to knowledge – there are many fascinating philosophical questions that have to do with ignorance and not primarily with knowledge.
Some of these questions are epistemic and conceptual: Is ignorance the lack of knowledge or the lack of true belief? If someone, for instance, believes truly on the basis of good evidence that the president is in the White House now, but, for some reason or other, that belief falls short of knowledge, is that person ignorant of the fact that the president is now in the White House? Does ignorance come in degrees and, if so, how should we understand those degrees? How does ignorance of facts or individual propositions relate to ignorance on some topic, say quantum mechanics, and how does ignorance on certain topics relate to being an ignoramus, that is, an ignorant person? If you hold a false belief but also believe that you should not hold that belief because it is irrational, do you still count as ignorant?
Other questions related to ignorance are moral or social rather than epistemic or conceptual. When does ignorance count as a moral excuse? Does culpable ignorance also excuse? Is deceiving someone – giving rise to a false belief – as morally bad as merely keeping someone ignorant? What hermeneutical frameworks keep us ignorant about minorities in society?
And then there are, of course, political questions regarding ignorance. To give just one example: What level of ignorance on what topics is permissible in order for one to still be a viable candidate for being the president of the United States?
I think this shows that there are many important questions regarding ignorance that philosophers – more specifically, epistemologists, philosophers of language, ethicists, and social and political philosophers – need to address. But why think that there is much to be gained here if philosophers return to Socrates’ fascination with ignorance rather than knowledge?
Let me give a few examples that illustrate how desperately we need more philosophical work on ignorance.
It is widely thought – at least, since Aristotle – that ignorance can excuse, especially ignorance for which one is blameless and which is factual ignorance rather than moral ignorance. But paying attention to the varieties of ignorance shows that things are more complicated than they might initially seem.
Imagine that Ramona, a demolition worker, faces the task of destroying an old factory. However, Ramona is ignorant of the fact that there is still someone in the building and she is entirely blameless for that ignorance. Now, whether or to what extent that ignorance excuses her depends on what kind of ignorance she displays. If she falsely believes that there is no one in the building and she is entirely blameless for that ignorance, she may well be fully excused. If she suspends judgement on whether there is still someone in the building and she is blameless for not knowing whether there is someone in the building, it seems she is still to be blamed and her excuse counts at most as a partial excuse. After all, if she is not convinced that the building is empty, she should not destroy it. Finally, if her ignorance is a true belief that falls short of knowledge, if that counts as ignorance at all, then it seems her ignorance does not excuse her in any way whatsoever: she should not destroy the building if she believes that there is still someone in it.
Another way in which the differences between the varieties of ignorance matter is that moving from one kind of ignorance to another kind of ignorance can still be a case of epistemic or intellectual progress. As the American psychologist William James famously argued, the epistemic goal is twofold: to believe the truth and not to believe what is false. This means that if one is ignorant because one holds a false belief and then comes to suspend judgement because one realises that one’s evidence is insufficient to warrant disbelief, one is still ignorant (one does not believe the truth, let alone know it), but one has at least avoided holding a false belief. And it seems one is better off from an intellectual point of view if one acquires certain concepts so that one can consider particular statements from the field of quantum mechanics, even if one does not know whether they are true or false, than if one completely lacks the relevant concepts, so that one cannot even grasp those statements.
This is not to deny that there has been some attention to ignorance in philosophy. The field of agnotology – the study of making people ignorant – has already said valuable things about ignorance. It has, however, focused on institutions, such as companies and governments, bringing about or maintaining ignorance or at least uncertainty about specific issues. Ignorance about the effects of smoking that was intentionally brought about and maintained by the tobacco industry is a well-known example of this. But there is a wide variety of issues that do not have this structure, such as: one person making another person ignorant, a group of persons keeping an individual ignorant, an individual keeping a group of persons ignorant, and an individual keeping herself ignorant.
I said at the outset that ignorance is a negative state in the sense that we wish to avoid it. And I think that is true in many cases. However, it is important to note that there are also many cases in which we seek or ought to seek ignorance. Understanding what ignorance is and how we can bring it about is, therefore, of importance.
For instance, we think privacy is legally and morally valuable and we think we ought to be ignorant of certain things people do, for example, in their own homes. What exactly is it that we strive after in being ignorant about what they do in their own homes: suspension of judgement, deep ignorance, or something else?
Another example is ignorance of dangerous technologies. Seumas Miller, for instance, has recently argued that we should aim at ignorance of nuclear technology, given the potential harm involved.
On a more personal level, we might want to be and remain ignorant about our chances of one day having certain diseases, given the possibility of accessing our genetic profile. Some people may want to know, but others will probably prefer to remain ignorant.
Or imagine that you failed to warn someone who took a big risk and consequently had an accident. You wonder whether you should blame yourself for not warning her. But then your friend tells you: “Don’t even think about it! Surely, this is not your fault.” Imagine that, given your enormous sense of responsibility, if you were to think about it, you would come to falsely believe that you are culpable and you would, thus, be in that specific state of ignorance. But imagine that your friend convinces you and you decide not to think about it. Thus, you are deeply ignorant of your innocence, because you do not even consider the issue. This is a case in which we strongly prefer one kind of ignorance to the other, given the practical ramifications – in this case: being awake at night and experiencing feelings of guilt rather than not being bothered about it because one does not even think about it.
Maybe we desire to be ignorant of certain cases of extreme evil and suffering that take place in the world and maybe rightly so. We may aim at ignorance in young children about certain sexual issues, at least up to a certain age. We might try to become or remain ignorant about specific faulty character traits of our partners or try to forget certain things they did or said. The list seems endless: there is a large number of things that we desire to become or remain ignorant about because of their moral, social, or prudential value. Thus, ignorance is philosophically important because it raises challenging conceptual issues, but also because we sometimes aim at it given the value it has for us.
I have argued that the concept of ignorance faces a whole gamut of challenging epistemological, moral, and social and political philosophical questions, many of which have not yet been addressed. Thus, I think it is time we take Socrates’ point seriously that we need to become aware of the crucial importance of ignorance in our lives. However, I also think it is time we go beyond Socrates’ point and go on to analyse ignorance in its many varieties and start to pay attention to the pivotal role it plays in many contemporary philosophical and non-philosophical debates.
We need to know more about ignorance.