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'Ignorance is so much more interesting than knowledge'

2 May 2023
What do we know about what we don't know? In his new book Ignorance, philosopher Rik Peels makes short work of ignorance about ignorance.

As a philosopher and theologian at VU, Dr. Rik Peels is concerned with epistemology, or theory of knowledge. In this context, he describes a subject that has received little attention so far: ignorance. In his book Ignorance. A Philosophical Study Peels examines what ignorance is, what forms it takes and when it excuses or holds people responsible. 

You've written a book about ignorance. Shouldn't scientists or philosophers rather be concerned with knowledge?
Yes, but not only. Before antiquity, philosophers have been concerned with thinking about knowledge and understanding, but ignorance is often ignored. The implicit premise is that ignorance doesn't matter. Or that it does matter, but that we already understand it when we know what knowledge is, because ignorance is simply the lack of knowledge. That premise is wrong. Ignorance is much more layered and complex than that, and therefore much more interesting than knowledge. In my book I not only argue this, but I also show examples. With a theory of ignorance, you can solve all kinds of problems or at least make an important contribution to them.

Why isn't ignorance just the lack of knowledge?
There are all kinds of ignorance, which are very different from each other. Consider for example the difference between believing in something that is not true, suspending your opinion, the situation in which you have never thought about it or the situation in which you could not think about something, for example because you do not have certain concepts. All these forms work differently, for example to the extent that they are a good excuse or how they relate to responsibility. 

To give another example: when we think of  ignorance we quickly think of ignorance of certain facts, but there is also such a thing as the counterpart of familiarity (knowledge by acquaintance), such as not knowing the character of a person or of the taste of a particular wine.

Why is this an important book right now?
It touches on all kinds of important and topical issues, such as agnotology, the study of deliberately keeping people ignorant, as has happened and continues to happen in the tobacco industry. A theory of ignorance can help to better understand those kinds of dynamics: for example, keeping a group ignorant works differently than keeping an individual ignorant.

Another important example is white ignorance, a theme that I also want to relate to as a white, heterosexual man, now almost middle-aged. What is this kind of ignorance that often stems from what is also called white privilege? Is it a lack of knowledge about racism? Or is it more a lack of personal experience, i.e. familiarity knowledge, such as not being familiar with being treated racially? Clarity about white ignorance can help to map and counteract it.

I was also tempted to write a separate chapter on disinformation or misinformation, but in the end I didn't, although it does appear in other chapters, such as the example of MH17 in chapter 7.

Are there any topics in your book that you find extra important or you would like to write about further?
A few years ago I wrote with my colleague Thirza Lagewaard about group ignorance, what it means to be ignorant as a group. We argued that a group is ignorant if people who have influence in that group,  the so-called operative members, are ignorant. I have since come back to that and have revised my vision in this book. I think a group can also be ignorant if all members of that group have knowledge. That sounds very counterintuitive, but the example I use  – a me-too case – I think shows it well. Imagine that a group of soldiers, say twenty soldiers, see the same transgressive behavior happening. Individually, they all know  that the behavior crosses borders, but they are so afraid to speak out that  they don't and think they're  the only ones who know about the transgressive behavior. In that case, they all  know, but as a group they don't know, because they don't share it with each other. You see that the  group as a group is and remains ignorant, because they don't do anything with it. To keep a group ignorant, you don't necessarily have to make everyone ignorant; It is about the ignorance  of crucial people or preventing  the exchange of ideas between people in the group.

We are already slowly beginning to move into academic philosophical territory. Still, the book is very readable. How do you want people who are not philosophically educated to read this?
I wrote primarily as an academic book,  but I tried to write it down as accessible as possible, so that people from all disciplines can benefit from it. And I don't rule out another public book. Let's first see how this book is received.

Photo: Gerbert Floor