Today's post is by Rik Peels. Rik is an Associate Professor in Philosophy and Religion & Theology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He is currently leading a large research project funded by the European Research Council, on the epistemology and ethics of extreme beliefs.
He aims to synthesize empirical work with conceptual and normative approaches to fundamentalism, extremism, and conspiracy thinking.
For almost its entire history, philosophy has studied knowledge and understanding rather than ignorance. I see why: we seek to know and understand reality rather than be ignorant of it, at least for most things (privacy issues and the like may be an exception). And perhaps the tacit idea was that if we get a grip on knowledge and understanding, we thereby also have insight into the nature of ignorance, as ignorance is simply the lack of knowledge, or at least so it was thought.
philosophical debates that appealed to ignorance, such as that about
Socratic ignorance, negative theology, ignorance as an excuse, and white
ignorance, were about the objects of ignorance (what we are ignorant
of), and not about ignorance itself. As a result, ignorance has become a
In this book, I open that box and argue that all these tacit assumptions about ignorance are mistaken. Ignorance is not just the lack of knowledge: it is a highly complex, multi-layered notion that comes in numerous shapes and sizes. In a way ignorance is a notion far more complex than knowledge. To give an example: When one knows something, one has a justified true belief that a proposition is true (and some an anti-luck condition is met), or maybe something like knowledge-first epistemology is correct.
But ignorance is much more varied: when one is ignorant, one can disbelieve a true proposition, one can suspend judgment on it, one can waver and not yet have adopted an attitude towards it, one can never have thought about it, or one may even lack the conceptual resources to consider it.
Things get even more intriguing when we move to the realm of social epistemology: a group knows as a group when at least some members of the group have knowledge, particularly the operative members, but, remarkably, a group can be ignorant even when most or all members have knowledge.
Imagine, for instance, that all twenty soldiers in an army unit witness an instance of sexual harassment. They are all individually convinced that what they see is morally wrong and in fact they know it. However, they do not dare to speak out and since nobody does, they think they are the only one in the group knowing that the misbehavior is morally wrong. They decide to keep it to themselves. As a consequence, the group carries on as it did before. It is not implausible to think that this is a case in which they all individually know of the moral wrongness of the act, yet as a group they are ignorant of that.
To better understand such cases, this book first develops an epistemology of ignorance and then applies it. By an ‘epistemology of ignorance’ I mean a theory that states what the nature of ignorance is (is it the lack of knowledge, the lack of understanding, or yet something else?), what kinds and varieties there are, what group ignorance is, and what it is for ignorance to come in degrees. I then show how this epistemology of ignorance provides crucial building blocks for solving various problems in philosophy and beyond.
I address challenging questions regarding white ignorance, structural ignorance (intentionally keeping others ignorant), responsibility for ignorance, ignorance as an excuse, ignorance in education, and expressing one’s ignorance.
In each case, we see that opening the black box of ignorance is fruitful. In fact, paradoxically, a full-blown epistemology of ignorance provides something that we have wanted all along: knowledge and understanding—but this time about ignorance itself.