Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know, by Daniel R. DeNicola

Brooke Horvath

Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know, by Daniel R. DeNicola (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0-262-03644-3) xii + 250 pp. Hardcover, $27.95.


“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance,” observed H. L. Mencken in Notes on Democracy (1926). Gettysburg College Professor of Philosophy Daniel DeNicola would agree, for he sees ours as an “Age of Ignorance” despite our ready access to an overabundance of information. In fact, he tells us, studies suggest that “the rate of functional illiteracy may be higher in today’s America than it was in colonial New England.” Furthermore, our collective ignorance “is trending,” for “a refusal to know” has become for many people “an ideological stance.” Widespread, willful public ignorance—of history and politics, science and economics—can prove disastrous, whether we are talking about Russian interference in our elections or about those in Congress (a majority) who are climate-change deniers. If less momentous to the commonweal, personal ignorance likewise distresses, embarrasses, and frustrates almost daily: Why didn’t my editor at FI respond to the review I sent in last week? I wouldn’t have joked like that if I knew his father had just died! Why can’t I remember my Netflix password?

DeNicola is not, however, intent on anatomizing our national know-nothingness in the manner, say, of Kurt Anderson’s recent Fantasyland, nor is he writing to shame us for our failure to perform civic duties intelligently, our readiness to pledge allegiance to political or religious snake-oil salesmen, or our indifference regarding what particle physicists are up to these days. Understanding Ignorance is, rather, an exercise in epistemology, “an extended, exploratory essay” on “the ways in which we experience ignorance… .” If this sounds dull, it is not; indeed, the book is interestingly informative and thought-provoking throughout. The prose is engagingly clear, and the subject surprisingly multifaceted and more far-reaching than I imagined it could possibly be—which just goes to show how much I knew. But that’s okay, says DeNicola, for “ignorance (whether individual or collective) is a vast, fathomless sea; our knowledge but a small, insecure island.”

Understanding Ignorance is organized in terms of four spatial metaphors—ignorance as “place, boundary, limit, and horizon”—which allow for the grouping of closely related topics. First, however, DeNicola offers “a typology of ignorance” by making good use of Donald Rumsfeld’s “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns”—to which he adds as a fourth category, “unknown knowns” (Do I know the atomic number of iron if I learned it in high school but can’t recall it now?). Exploring these possibilities of knowledge and ignorance leads the reader to an explanation of ways of knowing: “knowing that” (“factual knowledge expressible in propositions,” the summum bonum of epistemologists), “knowing how” (skills such as playing the piano), and knowing through “unmediated experience” (the taste of an apple or really “knowing” someone).

Taxonomies completed, DeNicola begins to probe his subject. Among the many topics considered: false knowledge and error; tacit knowledge; “epistemic communities”; the roles of belief and understanding in establishing “genuine knowledge”; epistemic humility and restraint; Gettier conditions (“coincidental interactions between knowledge and ignorance” wherein luck leads us by chance to true knowledge); disjunctive vs. spectral epistemic states (whether knowing something is “an on-or-off state” or “a matter of gradation”); “varieties of not-knowledge“; trust and discretion, privacy and secrecy; “virtue epistemology” (the evaluation of epistemic virtues and vices as “displayed not only in the pursuit, but also in the possession, the protection, the transmission, and the application of knowledge”).

The questions asked and answered are fascinating: Must I consciously believe something to know that something? Do I know the sum of 237 x 7 if I need first to calculate it? Do we have a right to ignorance? Do I know “what a polygon is if I can identify examples but am unable to define it”? What determines whether I can or should share knowledge? “How does one come to learn what one does not know one does not know?” “Is there some knowledge it is better not to possess?” “Can one be ignorant of something that is, in fact, false?” “How drastically” would our unknown unknowns “alter our lives and our view of the world” were they to metamorphose into known unknowns? Do I know why I did something “if there were also subconscious factors in play”?

The significance of DeNicola’s work here for “traditional analytic epistemology” is saved for the book’s epilogue, which was a wise decision, for a virtue of Understanding Ignorance is the author’s refusal to permit his discussion to become an academic epistemologist’s contribution to epistemology. In DeNicola’s opening lament over our culture of ignorance, he includes as an example the false belief that voter fraud explains Hilary Clinton winning the 2016 popular vote—a small detail that suggests how timely and consequential his subject is meant to be for general readers. Thus, practical implications are stressed. For instance, regarding justice: “systemic bias, disregard for legitimate epistemic authority, patterns of willful ignorance, practices of withholding or distorting vital information—all raise questions of justice.” Drawing on the work of British philosopher Miranda Fricker, DeNicola (who is invariably quick to give credit to others) offers two examples of epistemic injustice. The first is “testimonial injustice,” which occurs when “a source is routinely given more or less credibility than is deserved” (think “James Comey”). The second is “hermeneutical injustice,” in which “someone is wronged in their capacity as a subject of social understanding”—as when a woman’s allegation of rape is dismissed, perhaps because irresponsible ignorance remains “the privilege of the powerful.”

To speak of justice is, of course, to speak of ethics. Under what conditions does one properly have the option to know X, a desire to know X, the need to know X, the right to know X, and/or the obligation to know X? What is the moral weight of “a desire not to know something” that one has “elevated to a need and asserted as a right that obligates others”? Again, ethical concerns arise both when examining how knowledge is obtained and when the knowledge itself is examined (Is it hazardous, forbidden, odious?). Similarly, moral concerns are important when considering the purposes for which knowledge was acquired and the context in which it is shared or withheld. Beliefs, too, obviously have a moral dimension when they collide with facts to the contrary or are maintained through willful ignorance—in which case, although they may “aspire to truth,” they become, in DeNicola’s opinion, “ethically wrong.”

DeNicola’s chapter on “the ethics of belief,” from which I have been summarizing a few points, highlights (as does much else he shares with us) just how much one’s knowledge of ignorance falls into those Rumsfeldian boxes mentioned earlier. In addition to being reminded of ideas I perhaps flatter myself to think I already knew (even if I would have had trouble articulating them), I also learned much that addressed questions I have pondered and much that I didn’t know I didn’t know. Which is not to say that I now know all about ignorance, for, as DeNicola reminds us, ignorance is often “constructed by our knowing.” However much one comes to know, and however much that knowledge reshapes our “small, insecure island” where we busy ourselves scavenging for sense and cooking up our truth claims, what we see offshore is always at best a sea of “improved ignorance” stretching to the horizon and more than deep enough to drown in. Thanks to DeNicola, I know this strained metaphor is so because it meets the classic criteria for “genuine knowledge”: I believe in my ignorance, that belief is true, and I’ve ample warrant for its truth.

“I am the wisest man alive,” observed Plato, “for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” It was for him a rare moment of self-deprecation and hyperbolic to boot, but true enough when one contemplates what one knows vs. what one does not. We can enlarge and improve our island, reclaim a bit of land near the shore, but we remain stuck here. Although the fact that 25 percent of Americans think “the Constitution established Christianity as the official national religion” (as reported by the National Constitution Center) leaves me more than a tad disconcerted, DeNicola insists that our oceanic ignorance needn’t (always) prove “demoralizing, paralyzing, even terrorizing.” The upside of ignorance is that it “provides room for imagination, free thought, and creativity”; the curiosity sparked by ignorance “can summon us to inquiry” and thereby conjure wonder as we venture further “into the unknown”:

Ignorance and knowledge, we might say, have a yin-yang relationship: it is the balance and interaction of the two that give us the life of the mind. It is the mutually prehending relationship of the known to the unknown that provides the matrix for learning, the challenge of discovery, the quest of the research lab, the anticipation of turning the next page of the narrative, the exhilaration of risk, the yearning of hope, and the thrill of surprise.

John Dewey, DeNicola reminds us, believed that “the horizon of ignorance is felt as the unrealized self,” but it is a self increasingly realized under the goad of ignorance. As for philosophy as a way of knowing, we are reminded that, properly understood, it “is not the love of knowledge; it is the love of wisdom,” which begins in the sort of wonder that “may open the door to endless questioning.” It is, DeNicola continues, “a suicidal philosophy that confines itself to empirical facts, or that aims simply to add to their store” instead of casting off “into the possible,” the not-yet-known, to learn “what might be” and “what could be,” and thereby opening space for “what should be.” Our knowledge, and our self-realization, may be “forever limited and incomplete,” but for what we do know, we’ve ignorance to thank. (Emphasis in original quotes.)

And now you know.

Brooke Horvath

Brooke Horvath’s most recent reviews for FI were of Arlindo Oliveira’s The Digital Mind and Daniel De Nicola’s Understanding Ignorance.

Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know, by Daniel R. DeNicola (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0-262-03644-3) xii + 250 pp. Hardcover, $27.95.   “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance,” observed H. L. Mencken in Notes on Democracy (1926). Gettysburg College Professor of Philosophy Daniel …

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