Thursday 30 November 2017

Understanding Ignorance

In this post, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Gettysburg College, Daniel DeNicola, introduces his just-released book, Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Do Not Know (MIT, August 2017). He writes on a range of ethical and epistemic issues, usually related to education. His new book grew from an earlier work, Learning to Flourish: A Philosophical Exploration of Liberal Education (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2012).

Ignorance, it seems, is trending. Political ignorance has become some so severe that the democratic ideal of an informed citizenry seems quaint. Willful ignorance is the social diagnosis of the moment: critics found to be implicated in prejudice, privilege, ideology, and information cocoons. Ignorance is used both as accusation and excuse. In the broadest sense, it is a ineluctable feature of the human condition.

And yet, philosophers have ignored ignorance. While occupied with the sources and structure of knowledge, epistemologists for centuries have dismissed ignorance as simply the negation of the proposition, “S knows that p.”

Within the last two decades, however, scholarship on various aspects of ignorance has popped up in several disciplines. My book, Understanding Ignorance, draws on these multi-disciplinary works and presents what is likely the first comprehensive, philosophical treatment of ignorance—comprehensive, in that it addresses conceptual, epistemological, ethical, and social dimensions.

My explication is organized by four spatial metaphors: ignorance as a place or state, as boundary, as limit, and as horizon. Among the topics discussed are the relation of ignorance and innocence, the technique of mapping our ignorance, and our intellectual tools for ignorance management. I also offer a critique of “the virtues of ignorance” as proposed by various writers.

I conclude that ignorance has significant philosophical import and a structure perhaps more complex than that of knowledge. (After all, if genuine knowledge requires, say, four conditions, then the failure to meet any one or any combination describes a different form of ignorance.) I argue that we have many ways of constructing our own (and others’) ignorance, both deliberately and inadvertently—a few of which are morally permissible, even obligatory.

Although Understanding Ignorance is intended to be accessible to a non-specialist readership, it builds a critique targeted against traditional analytic epistemology: it has been focused on propositional knowledge and the “context of justification,” ignoring other forms of knowing and the “context of discovery”; it has concentrated on the individual knower in solo acts of cognition, ignoring the dynamics of epistemic communities; and has been disinterested in many values issues that arise from the acquisition, content, purpose, and context of knowing and not-knowing.

In reaction, I embrace virtue epistemology, along with insights from social and feminist epistemology—with a richer treatment of ignorance. Thus, I advocate a re-centering of the field on the interaction of knowledge and ignorance.

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