Ignorance – a global story

Alexander Calder, La Grand vitesse, 1969


Commentary on Peter Burke's recent book

“If there is a sociology of knowledge, then there should also be a sociology of ignorance.” This development of his work led Peter Burke to publish, in 2023, the book Ignorance: a global history.

Such a sociology might begin with the question: Who doesn't know what? “We are all ignorant, just about different things…” For example, there are about six thousand languages ​​spoken in the world today. However, even polyglots ignore 99,9% of them.

Discussions about ignorance need to distinguish between its many varieties, “ignorances” in the plural, in parallel with “knowledges”. A famous distinction contrasts knowing how to do something and knowing something is the work of chance, “knowing how” and “knowing that”.

The terms know and know refer to knowledge acquired through personal knowledge – knowing London itself, for example, as opposed to knowing the existence of a city called London. Every form of knowledge has a form of ignorance as its complementary opposite.

Many new varieties have been labeled and an elaborate taxonomy created, using a variety of adjectives, from “active” to “intentional.” In fact, there are considerably more adjectives rather than the varieties described, a kind of “reinvention of the wheel” resulting from academic specialization, as individuals in one area of ​​knowledge often ignore discoveries in another.

An example contrasts ignorance of the existence of something with ignorance of its explanation. Epidemics and earthquakes, for example, have been known for a long time, but no one knew what caused them until relatively recently.

“Sanctioned” ignorance refers to a situation in which a group, such as Western intellectuals, feels entitled to remain ignorant about other cultures. Meanwhile, they wait for individuals from other cultures to find out about them…

Ignorance (like knowledge) is sometimes feigned. The former president of Brazil can deny the genocide due to his skeptical attitude towards the epidemic and vaccination, although he is aware of the massacre (second highest number of deaths in the world) permitted by his inaction.

Another useful distinction is between conscious and unconscious ignorance, where the term “unconscious” is used to mean “without having conscience” – the sense or perception possessed by humans regarding the morally right or wrong in individual acts and motives – and not in the sense Freudian of subconscious. This is the feeling or knowledge capable of allowing a human being to experience, experience or understand aspects or the entirety of their inner world.

The term “profound” ignorance has been used to refer to a lack of awareness of certain issues. It includes the lack of the concepts necessary to ask these questions.

An example of profound ignorance is the common lack of awareness of alternative modes of thought to our own. Circularity is central: a way of thinking persists because it is taken for granted, taken as natural, whether at the micro level of Thomas Kuhn's call a scientific “paradigm”, or at the macro level of a complete belief system. When we try to criticize our own norms, the limits of self-criticism become apparent.

Many historians and sociologists have treated individuals and groups as “gullible” or incapable of criticizing their beliefs. In doing so, they ignore these individuals and groups' lack of access to alternative belief systems.

In a closed system, it is difficult to keep an open mind. It is difficult, if not impossible, to challenge it without some awareness of the alternatives, generally arising as a result of encounters between individuals from different cultures, widening the horizon of expectations for both sides.

The ostrich with its head in the sand – illustration on the cover of Peter Burke's book – is a famous symbol of not wanting to know or knowing, also described as voluntary, intentional or resolute ignorance. The idea can be extended to include deliberate omissions or silences.

There were four moments in the production of past knowledge in which individuals chose between communicating certain items of information or remaining silent about them. The four moments were to produce documents, store them in files, retrieve the information and use it in a written story.

Guilty ignorance can be individual or collective. The latter is known as “white ignorance,” a phrase coined to refer to the prejudices underlying racism.

Collective ignorance supports the dominance of one group over another, encouraging them to accept their situation as natural. The ignorance of the dominant prevents them from questioning their privileges, while the ignorance of the dominated often prevents them from rebelling. Hence the efforts of those in power, as Diderot observed, “to keep the people in a state of ignorance and stupidity.”

“Selective” ignorance is exemplified as follows: “ignorance is the historian’s first requirement, it simplifies and clarifies, selects and omits”. The selection can be unconscious, a form of inattention, as shown by an informal experiment: if we watch a film without subtitles and with the sound turned off, we notice gestures and facial expressions of the actors normally ignored.

The multiplicity of perspectives – imperial, ethnographic, medical, mercantile, missionary and so on – suggests: we should speak not only of “teaching the eye to see”, but also of its opposite, “teaching the eye not to see”. Both the insight how blindness is incorporated into the habitus of certain professions.

In research, looking for one thing leads to inattention to others. For example, focusing attention on detecting Covid has led to missing signs of other dangerous diseases.

“Specified” ignorance is a conscious turning away from knowledge about one topic to focus on another: choosing to raise certain questions, adopt certain methods, or operate with certain paradigms. In each case, a positive choice has some negative effects, excluding certain types of knowledge, either deliberately or as an unintended consequence.

“Passive” ignorance refers to the absence of knowledge, including the inability to mobilize it for action. The term “active” ignorance, in the sense of resistance to new knowledge or ideas, is used to describe the opposition of some Orthodox to the disturbing views of heterodox. It can extend to the habit of “ignoring” everything we don’t even want to know, often with serious consequences.

The phrase “active ignorance” can also refer to what is thought to be known. “Ignorance does not reside in things not known, but in things known not to be so.”

Expressions such as “production” or “manufacturing” of ignorance are applicable, along with the adjective “strategic” ignorance. Peter Burke is not satisfied with references to the “production” of ignorance in cases where no knowledge preceded it. He prefers to use the old term “obfuscation”, or speak of producing “confusion” or “doubt”, or of maintaining ignorance, or of creating obstacles to knowledge.

It is clearer to stay close to common language whenever possible, describing attempts to mislead the public for political or economic reasons as simple “lies.” However, it has been and continues to be a very common practice to cover up many things that the public should know. This practice is also described as “disinformation” or, euphemistically, as “active measures”.

The ignorance of others is a source of power for those “in the know” in domains such as politics, business and crime. Elites’ “control of the definition of ignorance” had important political implications.

The ability to label others as ignorant meant disqualifying them from having a voice in citizenship matters. This is the exercise of civil, political and social rights and duties established in the Constitution of a country, by its respective citizens, that is, individuals comprising a given nation.

Citizenship is thus defined as the condition of a citizen, an individual living in accordance with a set of statutes belonging to a politically and socially articulated community. You cannot ignore your rights and duties. Exercising citizenship means being aware of your rights and obligations, ensuring that they are put into practice.

*Fernando Nogueira da Costa He is a full professor at the Institute of Economics at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Brazil of banks (EDUSP). [https://amzn.to/3r9xVNh]


Peter Burke. Ignorance: a global history. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2023, 256 pages. [https://amzn.to/3GuEhLs]

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