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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P065-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved January 21, 2018, from

Article Summary

Until recently, epistemology has largely neglected ignorance, focusing on knowledge and what is necessary for knowledge, such as epistemic justification. However, over the last 20 years or so the tendency to neglect ignorance has changed, especially in several debates at the intersection of ethics and epistemology. This may come as a surprise, as one might think that ignorance is simply the absence of knowledge and that since the philosophical literature displays an extensive discussion on knowledge, ignorance does not deserve significant philosophical attention. However, it turns out to be philosophically challenging to spell out exactly what ignorance is and that even if it is absence of knowledge, ignorance merits philosophical attention of its own in a wide variety of philosophical debates.

Ignorance is an important concept in at least four different philosophical areas. First, in epistemology, the core questions regarding ignorance are what the nature of ignorance is, what varieties of ignorance there are, and whether ignorance has any epistemic value. Several issues in the philosophy of religion, such as negative theology, which says that we are inevitably ignorant of the divine, also touch on ignorance.

Second, there are moral dimensions to ignorance. Some philosophers have argued that certain moral virtues, such as modesty, entail ignorance. Ignorance can be a moral excuse. And the fact that ignorance itself sometimes excuses one for one’s ignorance leads to the so-called tracing problem (see §4 below).

Third, the concept of ignorance plays a significant role both in criminal and civil law and, as a result of that, in the philosophy of law. Ignorance can provide a legal exculpation: because one was ignorant, one did not commit a crime in the first place. Ignorance can be a legal excuse: one did commit a crime, but one is not guilty for it because one was ignorant. And ignorance can count as an inculpation: one is culpable for committing a crime because of one’s ignorance.

Fourth, several topics in social philosophy and the philosophy of science involve the notion of ignorance. Agnotology is the study of ignorance or doubt that is intentionally induced or maintained by the government or influential business companies. An example is the ignorance brought about by the tobacco industry about the effects of smoking. Social forces and hermeneutical frameworks make certain interpretations of and by minority groups possible or impossible and, thereby, lead people to remain ignorant about them. Debates about privacy refer to the obligation of other people to remain ignorant about certain facts about one’s personal life, especially since the considerable increase of possibilities for removing such ignorance by accessing a person’s traces in the digital world. Quite a few philosophers of technology have argued that societies should aim at collective ignorance regarding particular technologies that have been or might be developed, such as possibilities for making weapons of mass destruction, given the enormous potential social harms involved.

Citing this article:
Peels, Rik. Ignorance, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P065-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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