I’ve been reading Jonathan Zimmerman’s and Emily Robertson’s The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools over the past few weeks. In the course of reading I unexpectedly ran across a concept related to ignorance studies but, heretofore, unmentioned in those works and, yet, important to them. Continue reading
I’m nearly finished with a full, word-for-word read of Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance. An essay therein that feels most germane to our current political situation is Peter Galison‘s “Removing Knowledge: The Logic of Modern Censorship” (pp. 37-54). The essay focuses on the government’s classification of information since 1945. But Galison’s concerns and themes should trouble those of us living under a presidential administration focused on secrecy and leaks. Continue reading
For the past several years, as my anti-intellectualism project simmered in the background of other work, I had been convinced that the Robert Proctor-Londa Schiebinger Agnotology volume, published in 2008, was the beginning of something new and different within the study of anti-intellectualism, broadly defined.
Even though the volume’s editors do not refer to Hofstadter’s 1963 tome, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, my sense was that Agnotology indirectly added to that historiographic tradition. Because of my view of the Proctor-Schiebinger volume, I saw two other works as derivative: Erick Conway and Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt (2010), and the edited collection, Miseducation: A History of Ignorance-Making in America and Abroad (edited by A.J. Angulo, 2016). In my recent post, wherein I cover some of the new terminology in the Agnotology volume, I conveyed aspects of Proctor’s seemingly novel framework. Again, I saw all of this as something exciting within the arena of Hofstadter’s work, as an important subset. But it isn’t, really. And even though agnotology is an exciting area of study, it’s also not novel. Continue reading
As a prefatory remark—in order to be abundantly clear—what follows is not about the ignorance OF history. While some of the points below cross over and apply in certain ways to knowledge deficits in history, the focus here is on talking about moments and formations of ignorance in history. The operative question is this: How do we conceive of, and talk about, moments of perceived ‘ignorance’ in history?
In many of my conversation circles, confessions of ignorance constitute a moral failing. Continue reading
[Thanks to Ben Alpers and Robin Marie for pre-reading and giving comments on this piece. Their comments, however, do not constitute approval of everything within. I take full responsibility for what follows. – TL]
As is perhaps the case with many thinking people, young and old, the quest for truth can be an inspirational endeavor. It still inspires me—no matter the complications, difficulties, and potential impossibility of obtaining some particular truths. As I grew older, however, the quest for understanding began to overshadow the pursuit of truth. This probably arose from a desire to think through all the grey areas of human action and thought. As an offshoot of that, as a professional historian I have been continually intrigued by what one could call a mirror image of the quest for truth and understanding: the problems of unreason, anti-intellectualism, and ignorance.
Given those deep currents in my life, there was never any question about whether I’d read Lee McIntyre‘s provocatively titled Chronicle of Higher Education essay: “The Attack on Truth: We have entered an age of willful ignorance.” Continue reading
To this point, I have usually grouped the historical study of ignorance under the genus of Richard Hofstadter’s term, ‘anti-intellectualism’. Why? Because the term has been around for a long time—since 1909 according to the OED, or even 1821 if you accept a related noun. As such, it seemed easier think about purposed and accidental ignorance as species of the same genus—namely, the refusal to engage the real terms of a situation, whether concrete or abstract. One could resist or avoid intellectuals or ideas, but the result was the same: anti-thoughtfulness. This seemed close enough to anti-intellectualism to keep the term. Increasingly, however, I’ve noticed the use of the term ‘agnotology’ to describe studies of ignorance.
The last link, a Wikipedia entry, relays that… a Stanford University historian of science, Robert Proctor, came up with agnotology. He meant it to denote topics which are “victim[s] of scientific disinterest,” or a “structured apathy” he called “the social construction of ignorance.” Proctor has since co-chaired two events to explore his topic: a 2003 workshop titled “Agnatology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance” (no link available) and a 2005 conference titled “Agnotology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance.” [Aside: I have no idea why the spellings for the conferences are different.] To the right is a book Proctor co-edited with a Stanford colleague Londa Schiebinger, titled Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford U. Press, 2008).
But then Wikipedia also notes that a similar term, “agnoiology,” coined in the nineteenth-century by Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier (1808-1864), means (a) “the science or study of ignorance, which determines its quality and conditions” or (b) “the doctrine concerning those things of which we are necessarily ignorant.” I’ve also discovered that Keith Lehrer (emeritus philosophy professor, University of Arizona) used the term in a 1971 article, “Why Not Skepticism?” that appeared in The Philosophical Forum (2.3, 283–298, citation here, at bottom).
Based on these notes and little entries, it seems to me that scientists and philosophers have an affinity for the term agnotology because it implies (a) science (or more accurately anti-science), (b) the living present, (c) a repository for things that do not fit comfortably into epistemology, and (d) sources of ignorance (purposed and otherwise) that range beyond the individual (i.e. sociology of ignorance).
Despite the relation to science and philosophy, both Proctor and Schiebinger are both historians of science. Go figure. As such, I sense the potential for a future USIH conference that is friendly to scientists and philosophers. The conference’s goal could be a reconciliation of the notions of anti-intellectualism and agnotology.