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Ignorance and What We Do Not Know


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UNESCO, Division of Philosophy: Rencontres Philosophiques: What do we not know? (Paris, 14-17 March 1995). Coordinated by Jeanne Gruson.
Title: Tribune Issues: 11. Messages: 142 Participants: 400 Languages: English or French Input: using word-processing software


Important kinds of ignorance

We come to see that in real world terms perhaps the most important kind of ignorance is the failure to know things that are already well within the fund of human knowledge, somewhere. We see that the individual, as opposed to humanity as a whole, is frightfully ignorant. We just don't know very much ourselves.

As a corollary it also dawns on us that, as the fund of human knowledge leaps forward seemingly at lightning speed, our ignorance as individuals increases proportionately. We know less and less all the time, as measured against the whole.

Beyond that, what we do know may not be as valid as it was once taken to be. Or it may have lost relevance. In this sense our personal fund of effective knowledge may be shrinking. Some of us can still drive a horse and buggy, but not pilot an aircraft. Brady Bryson, Second Thoughts (USA, October 1993)

Denial by leadership Arguably, the most profound threat to the development of planetary civilization is the inability of leaders to admit that there are fundamental circumstances with which we must deal that cannot be acknowledged. Donald N Michael

Leadership's shadow: the dilemma of denial

(Presentation to the Club of Rome)

Ignorance as part of the educational cycle Perhaps a radical new approach should be taken to ignorance. Is it remotely possible that ignorance might be usefully understood as a resource? After all the ecologists demonstrated the vital importance of marshes and swamps as environmental "sinks" -- previously condemned as unhealthy and requiring draining. Maybe ignorance is such a sink -- vital to the (re)educational cycle and to the creative process. What happens in such a sink, that knowledge is so threatened by? Maybe there is a case for a "wetlands" preservation programme? Anthony J N Judge, Union of International Associations, Brussels

Ignorance as a resource: Ignorance can be deplored. Frantic efforts may be made to reduce the level of ignorance. But the rate of increase of ignorance is now daunting. Maybe ignorance should be explored as a resource. If it cannot be eliminated, maybe it can be used more creatively.

There are many conditions under which it is better "not to know". Forgetting can be a great relief. But are there ways of using what we do not know? Scientists achieve this by talking about "black boxes" having unknown operations. Maybe black boxes should be produced in great quantity to contain ignorance? But maybe, like the "enclosure of the commons", this could raise other problems. And maybe one person's knowledge is another person's "black box".

But treating ignorance as a resource is at least more proactive than vainly attempting to eliminate it.

Anthony J N Judge Union of International Associations, Brussels

Generation of ignorance The amount of knowledge available is increasing exponentially. Each new born infant is therefore faced with a mountain of knowledge of increasing size. In principle education may enable him or her to climb that mountain, to some level, along a particular route.

But whilst the amount of Ignorance per Capita (IPC) may be increasing due to the increase of knowledge, the situation is more serious with respect to the Total World Ignorance (TWI). This could be assessed by multiplying the average ignorance per capita (IPC) by the world population. This is a measure of what is known by some as against what is not known.

With the rapid increase in the world population, and the inability of even the most educationally privileged to keep up, Total World Ignorance is clearly reaching a condition of explosive growth. Does each new born infant increase Total World Ignorance?

Anthony J N Judge Union of International Associations, Brussels

Production of ignorance by science ? Each new discovery in a "centre of excellence" increases the knowledge of some. But, by so doing, it increases the gap between those who obtain and understand such insights and those who do not.

In this sense advances in knowledge contribute directly to the production of ignorance. Given the rate at which specialized knowledge is now being produced, it can therefore be said that never has the production of ignorance been so great.

Anthony J N Judge Union of International Associations, Brussels

Et les Ignorants? Comment se fait-il que les Savants se considerent en droit de s'exprimer sur l'Ignorance?

Peut-on, comme Savant, se specialiser dans l'Ignorance?

Et les Ignorants? Ne sont-ils pas, par definition, deja specialistes

dans la chose?

Et comment s'expriment-t-ils les Ignorants? Qu'est-ce qu'ils savent de l'Ignorance que les Savants ne savent pas? Comment savoir?

Anthony Judge Union des Associations Internationales, Bruxelles

Ignorance of what?

Is the level of ignorance, even in industrialized countries, telling us that much of the knowledge on which that judgement is based is not worth learning? This concern has certainly been expressed in debates about existing curricula.

Is it suggesting that for their psychic survival people are educating themselves along pathways which are not considered meaningful, or indicative of intelligence, within the prevailing pattern of thinking? This is suggested by the immense resources devoted to music and to "alternative" therapies and belief systems.

Is it suggesting that people feel deprived of an imaginal education, faced with the formal (even rote) learning so frequently considered most appropriate (especially "to the needs of industry")? This is suggested by the enthusiasm for graphics, cartoon books, science fiction, fantasy and the archetypal portrayal of cult figures in music.

Is our concern with the ignorance of many concealing the fact that those with most expertise and power are really quite ignorant about how to navigate through current and future crises?

Anthony Judge Union of International Associations, Brussels

Necessary ignorance

Ignorance is the necessary condition of life itself. If we knew everything, we could not endure existence for a single hour.

Anatole France The Garden of Epicurus, 1894

Knowing nothing

The Sceptics that affirmed they knew nothing, even in that opinion confuted themselves, and thought that they knew more than all the world beside.

Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medicus, 1643

Ignorance and belief Ignorance is ignorance; no right to believe anything can be derived from it. Freud, The Future of an Illusion, 1927

Doctoral ignorance There is an ABC ignorance that precedes knowledge and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it. Montaigne, Of vain subtleties, Essays, 1580-8

Learning and emptiness A great deal of learning can be packed into an empty head. Karl Kraus, Aphorisms and More Aphorisms, 1909

Production of ignorance In completing one discovery we never fail to get an imperfect knowledge of others of which we could have no idea before, so that we cannot solve one doubt without creating several new ones. Joseph Priestley, Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air, 1775-86

Affectations of the ignorant Learned conversation is either the affectation of the ignorant or the profession of the mentally unemployed. (Oscar Wilde, Intentions, 1891)

Action by the ignorant Let the wise beware / Lest they bewilder / The minds of the ignorant / Hungry for action. Bhagavadgita, 3

Ignorant friends I would / Prefer as a friend a good man ignorant / Than one more clever who is evil too. Euripides Ion (c. 421-408 BC)

Ignorance as a trap This topic is a trap. Ignorance of what ? The answer can be only one: ignorance of answers to some questions. So, a presupposition for the existence of ignorance is the existence of some questions and the awareness of them. Where there is no question, there is no ignorance. So, the best way to teach is to train people to raise clever questions. Since the number of questions is increasing exponentially when the number of answers is increasing in arithmetic progression, the size of the awarness of our ignorance is an indicator of our intellectual and cultural level. Professor Solomon Marcus, Spain/Romania (e-mail: SM@ASTOR.URV.ES)

Questions and paradox The present system of education is a great failure in the following respect. Clever questions are those that are neither trivial, nor too difficult to be beyond the possibilities of our time. Only a few people are able to raise them. So, we reach the paradoxical situation that the most ignorant people are just those who are the most advanced in knowledge, intelligence and creativity. Professor Solomon Marcus, Spain/Romania (e-mail: SM@ASTOR.URV.ES)

Ignorance of ignorance? Against the common opinion, I think that "ignorant of" is not an iterative operator. I cannot be ignorant about my ignorance, because my ignorance is relative to the questions I am aware of. The difference between a clever person and a stupid one is that the former is looking for answers to his own questions, while the latter learns ready made answers and is not interested to look for the questions requiring them. Professor Solomon Marcus, Spain/Romania (e-mail: SM@ASTOR.URV.ES)

Keeping the Void empty

One can view ignorance as the "Great Void". As we are into so much "stuff" in our culture, how can we keep the great void empty -- filled with its infinite potential -- and still learn from it? As we are in a state of information overload, how can we keep the pristine state of ignorace free of information and keep it pure in our cyberworld? What might be the state of Blissful Ignorance mean in our cyberworld? Moshe Dror, Academy of Jerusalem, Israel (by e-mail)

Colonizing the domain of ignorance Creativity is, perhaps above all, a response to what we do not know. To the extent that we reduce this domain of ignorance in this generation, do we not also deprive future generations of the opportunity for creativity? Can we risk condemning the future to life without the unknown? Do we need an International Union for the Protection of Ignorance? Let us cherish what we do not know. Anthony Judge, Union of International Associations, Brussels

Sur la critique Une tribune libre, comme ce "Bulletin d'Inspirations", devrait permettre des remarques "négatives" afin d'être conséquente. Une conférence sur le négatif l'exige. Mais cela demande un certain art d'être "positivement négatif" ou "négativement positif". La critique formulée dans la contribution no. 45 (bien que compensée en partie par le no. 31) ne facilite pas les choses. Comme l'aurait pu dire Varela, une remarque négative est aussi parlante sur l'ignorance de celui qui la formule que sur le sujet de la critique. Bien sur, tout pourrait être meilleur dans ce monde -- y compris la participation de la salle! C'est le défi de ce que nous ne savons pas -- qui détermine ce que nous ne pouvons pas! Jean Nesbitt, Bruxelles

Encyclopedia of Ignorance It is useful to know that an Encyclopedia of Ignorance exists (published 1978, ISBN-0-08-022426-1). But having acquired it, I regret that the many authors were basically only able to address what they knew. They failed to treat what they did not know in an interesting manner. It is time for another effort! Alexander Wolzenburg, Brussels.

Jeanne Gruson, Division of Philosophy

More contributions to UNESCO conference bulletin:

Other insights

Inconceivable knowledge: We do not know most of what we do not know as we are not aware of what there is to know. And we cannot know much of what there is to know because it is inconceivable to us. Yehezkel Dror, Professor, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

What We Do Not No: Ourselves. Oracle, Delphi (Greece): post-humously


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Fred Inglis:

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