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The Epistemology of Ignorance

Peter Rickman on the crucial importance of context.

A great deal has been written on the roots of knowledge in sensory experience ordered by reason. Have we given enough thought to our dependence on the contexts into which we can place any information? I began to reflect on this as I watched various knowledge quizzes on television and became more acutely conscious of the vast areas of ignorance in all of us. To avoid seeming to look down my nose at the limitations of others, I start with my own. I know, as was brought home to me, next to nothing about the world of entertainment or sport. People more knowledgeable in these areas would be surprised by my puzzlement about frequent parodies and references by comedians to people of whom I have never heard. I in turn am astonished and alarmed about ignorance in areas of more interest to me. It appears to be widespread on the part of contestants (presumably chosen for not being totally ignorant) of history, geography and politics. One man thought that Lord Nelson had died at Waterloo, another had no idea that the Nile flowed north, a third thought that it was Cleopatra who had asked for the head of John the Baptist. Someone did not recognise Eisenhower as having been in charge of the invasion of the Continent in the second world war. Examples could be endlessly multiplied.

Within our own civilisation and in everyday life we can manage pretty well. We recognise familiar food and know what clothes, kitchen utensils and the like are for. Other things around us hold some mystery: how does a computer work? What is a website? How can I make my television set work when kicking it proves ineffective? However in all these cases we know what experts to turn to.

It is different with such knowledge as understanding the problems of the Middle East, the advantages and disadvantages of joining the Euro, the rights and wrongs of a war with Iraq, or the reasons for the resurgence of rightwing parties in many European countries. Of course newspapers deluge us with answers to these questions, as do politicians. Unfortunately their answers conflict and we more often are given opinions rather than well-established facts.

In dealing first with the purely epistemological issues we need to set aside personal prejudices. True, I personally feel a little contemptuous – having learned Latin and Greek in school – of broadcasters who do not realise that such words as ‘media’, ‘criteria’ or ‘phenomena’ are plurals, while those who know about pop stars would think of me as an old square (or whatever the term young people would now use for people like me). None of this, however, affects the purely epistemological considerations that need to precede weighing the implications for politics and other areas of practical life.

The most encompassing context of cognition is time, because all our experiences are temporal. Immanuel Kant called it one of the forms of intuition. There is no need to give here an account of Kant’s approach. Enough to remind ourselves of aspects of time that provided his starting point. There are features of time of which we are intuitively aware: it represents an unbroken, irreversible succession of moments. We cannot wipe it out. I cannot, except in thought, escape the linear succession of moments, cannot jump into the future or into the past however eager I might be to try it. I cannot walk in the park and meet my mother as a young girl.

However, the medium of our reflections is not the empty form of time but the succession of individual and collective experiences as retained or recalled in memory and recorded in biographies and history. Not everything can be explained historically but a great deal of light can be thrown on many things by awareness of how they originated and developed.

Similarly all movement and material objects are encountered in space, Kant’s second form of intuition. There are spatial relationships we know intuitively rather than learning them from experience. For example, in our visual field a straight line is the shortest path between distinct points and we do not need to discover this by measurements. However our experiences aren’t simply framed by formal geometry but in the contexts of objects related in space explored in more detail by astronomy, geography and all kinds of environmental studies.

Numerous contexts can be listed for various areas of knowledge; for example there are sport, culture, and politics, and each subdivides into more specific ones, i.e. different sports, different cultural spheres. There is also science with its many disciplines. In many cases several contexts, such as history, politics and geography, are all relevant.

All this is pretty familiar and does not need explaining further. I only wanted to emphasise that – except in the case of the newly born – experience is not inscribed on an empty slate but absorbed into interlocking and expanding contexts. So problems and failures arise not merely from lack of intelligence or the absence of current information but from ignorance of the context.

We can now turn to the value or importance of different kinds of knowledge and therefore of the contexts relevant for acquiring it.

Politics is one of the main spheres where all adults have a responsibility to make choices which we would like to be as knowledgeable as possible. This is most obvious in democracies, where we have a right to vote. True – a rare referendum apart – we leave our governments to make the day-to-day choices, but we choose these governments in the light of past performance, assessment of personalities and, above all the promises and plans contained in their election manifestos. Future elections are also judgement day for them.

How can we citizens discharge our responsibility to choose well on polling day? Democracy is based on the conviction that we are all capable of judgement in two areas; of moral judgements as to what is right or wrong and of forming a view of our own most important aspirations. Knowledge of the facts on which we are supposed to judge is another crucial matter because complex and elusive factors can be at work. One good illustration is the issue of whether Britain should join the Euro, which divides not only the political parties, but often even members of the same party. Though I am literate and interested in the matter, I must confess that in my case any inclination one way or the other would be purely emotional and, my choice finally will have to depend on whom I think I can trust.

I referred at the outset to the ocean of ignorance in which we find ourselves. We can now pose the following question, an answer to which involves epistemology: is it a matter of laughing at or bemoaning the stupidity and mental laziness of most of us, or a matter of pinpointing educational failures which could be addressed? Certainly some issues are so complex and technical that only experts can provide the answers. Here the best we can do is to assure ourselves – as critically as we are able – that these experts are well qualified and reasonably unbiased. But in many other cases better understanding and greater knowledge could be within our reach if we are provided with the contexts which epistemology shows to be relevant.

It would be idle to bemoan the fact that the mass media are more concerned with their circulation or size of audience, than with education. However it may be worth while to make a point about our education. Clearly there is a sense in wanting our education to be relevant to life. In consequence practical skills such as plumbing, carpentry and the like are well rewarded and specialised subjects such as engineering, medicine or economics have been emphasised in our universities. There is nothing wrong with that but other subjects no less important for our lives tend to be neglected.

History as the record of what happens in that all encompassing medium, time, is an example. It is not just a record of what people, long dead, once did. It provides the proper context into which to acquire current information so that it can be used to make choices for the future. Thus history and geography are basic requirements for being orientated in the world, i.e to make knowledgeable choices. We cannot, and need not know everything. You may be forgiven for not knowing when precisely the battle of Pelusium was fought or where precisely Pelusium is. But we should have an idea that an important factor in England being a predominantly Protestant country was the defeat of the Great Armada during the reign of Elizabeth I. It is also helpful to know that two world wars occurred in the first half of the 20th century. It is equally helpful for the understanding of our world to know that Germany and France share a common frontier, or that Poland adjoins Russia.

Epistemology is important because what we think we know tends to determine our choices and actions, our preferences, voting intentions, support of particular causes and the like. Was the war against Iraq justified? What would be a just solution of the Israel/Palestine conflict and how can it be achieved? Should Britain adopt the Euro? Obviously philosophy by itself cannot answer questions like these. However it can make a relevant contribution by identifying the contexts of knowledge of which would help us to decide.

Epistemology is intensely practical insofar as it issues a challenge to the mass media to provide the relevant contexts to the issues of the day. Even more important is its relevance for educational policy. Obviously education needs to provide skills from reading and writing to vocational preparation. But it also needs to provide the contexts for the kind of choice children will have to make as human beings and citizens.

© Prof. Peter Rickman 2005

Peter Rickman was for many years professor of philosophy and chair of the (now closed) philosophy unit at City University, London.

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