What’s the point of ignorance?

“The philosopher is the shepherd who tends the mixed flock of the possible on the highlands…” Michael Serres.

What’s the point of ignorance? Well, quite a lot as it turns out. We know that ignorance is everywhere. If we have a problem defining or describing English identity, then some might argue that a good place to start is ignorance. It seems as though some people relish being ignorant, they even wear it as a badge of honour – after all, we’ve had enough of experts haven’t we? Even though we live in an age of unprecedented access to information, we also live in what some people are calling the Age of Ignorance.

As Daniel R. DeNicola writes in his extraordinary book Understanding Ignorance: “Tyrants and other advocates of authoritarian systems have long appreciated the advantages of an ignorant constituency.” By contrast, he writes ‘democracies – at least in theory – rest on the pillar of an enlightened citizenry’ but now ‘the problem of political ignorance…is so severe that the ideal of an informed citizenry seems quaint’.

Such views are commonplace these days. Most people who regard themselves as educated and well-informed decry the seeming advance of ignorance on all fronts. It could be argued, of course, that ignorance has always been with us and that in days gone by it was much worse. But maybe the difference today is that, rather than being a stigma or something to be ashamed of, ignorance, at least in some quarters, is regarded as being almost a matter to be proud of, something to be celebrated – as epitomized by the drooling troll.

But Understanding Ignorance goes much further than these commonplaces to argue that ignorance is a permanent state of humanity and, indeed, the force behind our search for knowledge or, as DeNicola prefers to call it, understanding.

Almost inevitably, DeNicola draws on what he calls ‘Rumsfeldian parsing’ – that is 1) known knowns 2) known unknowns 3) unknown unknowns, and the one that Rumsfeld left out 4) unknown knowns, which refers to knowledge that is, or has become, subconscious, like riding a bike. These referents were not invented by Rumsfeld, of course, but were summarized nearly a decade before him by the philosopher Ann Kerwin. It is the unknown unknowns that attracts DeNicola most, including his most piercing metaphor of the horizon of ignorance. In this world he also uses simile when he describes knowledge, or understanding, as being akin to an unstable island in a sea of ignorance as far as the eye can see. But at least as we cast our nets over the sea we may gain new understanding or find new islands to colonize. We may even move towards the horizon, but as we do, of course, the horizon also moves and what lies beyond is the unfathomable, boundless emptiness of unknown unknowns. Even if we move beyond our immediate horizon into space our knowledge is bounded by the observable universe, that which is determined by the length of time it has taken for light to reach us – and so on.

In this context DeNicola writes of what he calls ‘improved ignorance’. We may refine our ignorance by ‘specifying more precisely a known unknown but in the process new questions open up that could not even have been asked before and were therefore unknown unknowns and now become known unknowns. The point here is not that the vast region of unknown unknowns has been reduced, only that our horizon of ignorance has shifted.

It is in this horizon of ignorance – which, incidentally, emphatically rejects some scientists’ claim that there will one day be a theory of everything – that the philosopher thrives. He writes that ‘genuine philosophical understanding recognises an ultimate escape from ignorance as an impossibility, a vain attempt to clutch the horizon’. We should introduce a word of caution here because, although the horizon metaphor is a powerful one, it does not in itself express the truth of the matter. One could argue, for example, that since what lies beyond the horizon is unknown unknowns DeNicola cannot possibly state with any certainty that it, or at least most of it, cannot come with the purlieu of human understanding. At the same time, however, our experience of quantum physics, which famously no-one truly understands, and our exploration of the vastness of the universe (or universes!) does lend weight to DeNicola’s central claim.

But DeNicola is no apologist for ignorance and in the final pages of this important book – which is only 208 pages long but itself contains enough insights to fill its own universe – DeNicola returns to what he earlier calls ‘socially constructed ignorance’ and appeals to an ‘epistemology of resistance’. Specifically, he writes: “The appropriate response is now coalescing: a shift from the individual knower to the epistemic community, with a correlative shift from epistemic autonomy to forms of epistemic dependence.” And then this powerful plea: “Social epistemologists of varying stripes have brought attention to sources and forms of socially constructed ignorance, to the privileges and power that permit certain types of wilful ignorance, and to the need for an ‘epistemology of resistance’ that reveals and disrupts structures of epistemic oppression.”

This book is erudite and important, treading warily at times and sometimes boldly the porous boundary between our fragile and ever shifting knowledge and the seemingly infinite field of ignorance. It would be depressing if it did not combine a celebration of the knowable with ‘the horizon of the unknowable’ and a call to arms against the construction by the powerful of wilful ignorance.

Understanding Ignorance is published by The MIT Press.

Dickie Bellringer.

Join the Conversation


  1. Argumentatitve as usual, I am not impressed with deNicola’s metaphor of democracies “resting on a pillar of an enlightened citizenry”. The metaphor doesn’t work at all, does it? But since he has come up with the idea “enlightenment”, it suggests to me that the extent of what we can “see” — metaphor for what we can realize in our mind (“understand”?)– is more comparable to what is sufficiently “lit up” by knowledge than what is lit up by the sky and comes within our horizon. We can’t normally see everything within our horizon anyway, not at the same time: it depends which way we are facing.
    A more convincing metaphor, though not tackling exactly the same question is your illustration at the top, where the stumbling figures may have 20/20 vision, but won’t see much, or each other, wit boxes over their heads (as in Goebbels’ Germany). Yours ever, Christopher.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Christopher, many thanks for responding. I’m not sure whether you don’t like the metaphor or what it is trying to convey. It’s quite good if you think that democracies – and as he says, at least in theory – depend on a reasonably knowledgeable electorate. There has been a slew of books recently challenging whether that has ever been the case. But as I write in the article, what seems to be different now is that ignorance has become a sort of badge of honour rather than a matter of shame. The other matter I would like to raise is that I have only been able to scratch the surface of this fascinating book and it’s well worth reading to capture its full import.


      Liked by 1 person

  2. It was the metaphor I complained of. Better not use them than use them badly, say I. Resting on a pillar of citizenry doesn’t add to the colour or
    the sense. I was more interested in enlightenment, which is not what the sky does on a fine day when you can see to the horizon (but not in all directions at once).. I suggest enlightenment is better described in terms more like Portia in the Merchant of Venice, saying: How far that little candle throws his beams/ So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
    Treating prevailing evil – or in your argument ignorance – as a surrounding (virtually infinite) darkness.
    Why fuss about words? What is philosophy/poetry but words. I won’t go on any more about it. Yrs, C.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Christopher, do I detect in those last comments the observations of a visual artist decrying the domination of the written Word?


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