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Understanding Ignorance by Daniel R. DeNicola

Paul McGavin finds help in understanding ignorance in Understanding Ignorance.

This is an important and impressive book that deserves our attention. Although it’s not a perfect book, its author, a professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, displays deep thought and wide reading, and traverses a broad canvas in understanding ignorance. On the whole the writing is accessible to patient general readers, and DeNicola carefully introduces them to the technical language of the theory of knowledge (or ‘epistemology’, as it is known in the business).

He considers Ignorance under three categories:

(1) Known unknowns – what I know I don’t know;

(2) Unknown unknowns – what I don’t know I don’t know; and

(3) Unknown knowns – what I don’t know I know; for example tacit knowledge, or what I have forgotten before being reminded.

The many variations of these categories are analysed in an accessible way. More difficult are the categories of understanding, since the distinction between understanding and knowledge is subtle. Knowledge can be conceived as information, where I know the description and specification of something; while understanding is the integration of various sets of information in ways that build up systemic relationships between them in your mind. In this state I know the description and specification of something and can evaluate and apply what I know, as well as be aware of different understandings of that information.

DeNicola first examines the various reasons and ways that people remain ignorant in a knowledge sense, that is, in terms of sheer information. He leads us to recognise that even the cleverest of us may fail to notice particular pieces of subtle information (perhaps of a personal kind), resulting in specific forms of misunderstanding. From here the author undertakes a more complex examination of how such ignorance comes about, as well as cases where ignorance may be deliberately chosen.

Several times the author also raises the question of ‘innocence’ as a form of ignorance. He makes the following salient observation:

“[When] innocence is prolonged and enforced, moral maturity is kept out of reach. The restriction of experience, the prohibitions and censorship of knowledge that such sustained naiveté would likely require, become a kind of imposed ignorance… [such innocence does] not cross the threshold of moral maturity” (p.53).

I also found the following lines especially important: “Only recognition of the possibility of our own ignorance opens a cognitive space for unlearning false knowledge or for genuine learning (or an improved ignorance)” (p.186); and “Within the horizon of the unknown, we may come to seek a learned ignorance, to understand our search for knowledge not as a quest for certainty, but as an attempt to refine, improve, and moralize our ignorance” (p.193). There are gems throughout the book which guide the reader to a deeper understanding, including this:

“Mapping one’s ignorance also has affective benefits. Wherever mastery of knowledge and skills creates professional status, especially in practices that give professional power over clients, there arises a natural pride that rests on what one knows, and a regrettable tendency for authority to develop arrogance. We know the effects: failure to listen, premature dismissal of relevant information, overreaching and overbearing professional conduct, mistakes and the denial of them, and so on. An explicit acknowledgement of ignorance may generate a corrective humility, a desire to see rather than presume understanding, alertness to unforeseen consequences, and openness to alternative approaches” (p.69f).

Many passages like this reveal an author whose thinking has passed from knowledge to a wisdom that understands. Yet this very quote points to an area with which I wrestled in my reading. To me, DeNicola’s reference to “overreaching and overbearing professional conduct, mistakes and the denial of them” especially describes those who boast professional knowledge yet who do not know that they do not know. In their lack of understanding they may be unaware of their ignorance. The disposition of people who know less than they think they do works against learning (after all, they already ‘know’!) and works against opening-up to different perspectives – other ways of looking at what they ‘know’. It also works against the humility that is an essential condition of wisdom.

Every year I used to say to my students (referring to a mythical textbook), “No-one’s going to give you a job for recounting what’s on p.476. You have to show that you understand it, and that you can integrate across different understandings, and apply that synthesis!” Similarly, DeNicola writes: “accessing [information] is not learning… which requires attention and interest, affects the knower… creates within the mind of the learner informational networks, conceptual connections, cognitive frameworks, and expanded moral, intellectual and artistic imagination. These aspects of the life of the mind alter our ways of speaking, acting, and responding to the world – and influence what other knowledge we might choose to ‘look up’.” (p.77).

This emphasises that both our knowing and our understanding in large part depend upon our psychological aptitudes and dispositions, which can be either learner oriented or non-learner oriented. People and societies that have non-learner dispositions tend to be only dimly aware of what they do not know, and generally inactive in rolling back the boundaries of the unknown.

The author refers to several works by ‘virtue epistemology’ scholars, and writes, “They have produced intriguing analyses of such epistemic traits as curiosity, humility, open-mindedness, intellectual courage and caution, persistence, and respect for evidence, and of intellectual vices” (p.116f). I particularly appreciated DeNicola’s discussion of ‘Ignorance and Epistemology’, and his analysis of the social nature both of not-knowing/not-understanding and of knowing/understanding, which he frames in terms of ‘epistemic communities’ (p.57). Philosophers tend to want to avoid ambiguity, and it’s pleasing to note the author’s appreciation of ambiguity in knowing and not-knowing, which he calls a “continuum or spectrum of epistemic states, as matters of gradation” (p.73). The gradations may be overlapping. The mystery of how much we know or how much we understand can in a sense take us out of a philosophic mind-set; but then, the philosophic mind is not the sum of the human mind, and recognizing that fact tests the humility of philosophers and non-philosophers alike.

Those who attentively read Understanding Ignorance will find much that will help cultivate virtues concerned with how we know and what we know (this is virtue epistemology) which take us out of our cognitive comfort zone. Readers specifically interested in virtuous knowing may care to flick straight through to the Epilogue after reading Chapter 1, especially the sections on ‘Epistemology: Context and Content’, ‘Beyond Propositional Knowledge’, ‘Discovery and Justification’, and ‘Individual Knowers and Epistemic Communities’. It’s worth acquiring this book for these sections alone, and reading the whole work in light of these sections is likely to increase the understanding the book imparts.

© Rev Dr P.A. McGavin 2019

Paul McGavin is a priest, scholar, educator & pastor of the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, Australia, living in retirement in Sydney. His email address is: drpamcgavin@bigpond.com.

Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact Of What We Don’t Know, by Daniel DeNicola, MIT Press 2017, 264 pages, $27.95, ISBN 9780262036443

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