U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Problem of Ignorance in History

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.

I’ve had friends and family chide me for saying out loud, and explicitly, that I am ignorant about some matters. Of course I talk to academics, historians, intellectuals, and humanists regularly. I find all too often that when I make a claim of ignorance, there still seem to be too many expressions of surprise. Perhaps it’s because everything is seemingly a mere “Google search” away? Has Google made ignorance a symptom of laziness? Or perhaps I should take it as a compliment that people think so highly of my general knowledge or education? Or perhaps I’m violating a norm of egotism? I don’t know.

What I do know is this: no matter how hard one works, reads, or studies, ignorance is unavoidable. It’s impossible to not be uninformed and misinformed about some things. Ignorance is inescapable. Just a few days ago, in a less serious realm, I had to confess ignorance of the popular HBO show Girls. I knew the name “Lena Dunham,” but I could not link her name to a related celebrity sighting of a Girls costar, and couldn’t immediately link Dunham’s name to the show. I didn’t find this terribly embarrassing, but I think I shocked my conversation partner with my lack of awareness.


I’m still working this out, but I think the problem is that term ‘ignorance’ signals two senses of what Raymond Williams terms a “structure of feeling.” First, theoretically, and as a convention in relation to common sense, ignorance is unacceptable. You should remedy the situation before you speak or write. Common sense, as defined by Gramsci, dictates a hegemonic knowledge of which you are, or should be, aware. But ignorance indicates that many senses or ways of seeing are vying for acceptability, and your ignorance tells others that you’re not aware of the most dominant or acceptable view of the scene, situation, or whatever.

The second sense of a structure of feeling refers to how the term ‘ignorance’ evokes a reaction of surprise or disgust. It garners a guffaw or a SMDH. It indicates a revulsion by the person assessing your lack of knowledge. You are inadequate because of your laziness or absence of education.

The first sense—i.e. ignorance as a signal—should cause less of an emotional reaction, or none at all. It should signal confusion about the dominant mode of thinking, which would hopefully result in an educational response. I realize my drift here depends on one seeing common sense as linked to hegemonic domination. I also realize that my drift is uncommon, hence I understand why people don’t think charitably about ignorance.

The second sense, however, seems to be dominant, or at least the most powerful. It more clearly generates a negative rather than charitable response.


During a recent academic conference I tried to use ‘ignorance’ in the first sense above to help develop a theoretical view of anti-intellectualism (broadly defined). My use depended on one having a full knowledge of the social science of ignorance, as presented by Robert Proctor in Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (edited by Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, Stanford, 2008). I confess that, at the time in the paper, I didn’t frame my use as I did above (using Williams or Gramsci). I didn’t sharply distinguish between ignorance as a structure of feeling and thought, versus ignorance as a cavil. That said, I did reference Proctor. I discussed ignorance as a purposed structure utilized, by nefarious intellectual actors, to destabilize discourse.

Perhaps Proctor had this problem too, hence the coining and use of agnotology. Proctor and his intellectual cohort, in the volume, talk in social scientific terms about the purposed production of ignorance. And the volume explores “surrogates” (p. 2) of ignorance: “secrecy, stupidity, apathy, censorship, disinformation, faith, and forgetfulness.” The authors speak of the “work” ignorance does, but always in the context of generation and production.

I found this a compelling theoretical construct. I felt it adequately removed agency from the equation—in a way that made emotional reaction to ignorance irrelevant, or even nonsensical. Even so, I was surprised when my colleagues objected to my attempts to use ‘ignorance’ in a neutral fashion. It was deemed as still elitist, just as the term ‘anti-intellectualism’ has an elitism problem. In retrospect, I should’ve stuck with agnotology and the associated terminology invoked by Proctor, Schiebinger, and others in the volume—terms such as: ‘agnogenesis’ (p. 11, manufacturing doubt for nefarious purposes); ‘agnometric generators’ (p. 26, the people or institutions that generate the doubt); ‘agnometric indicators’ (the event or results); etc.

This terminology, found in the volume, provides a kind of clinical-theoretical means of navigating the divide between agency and victimization. It is not pleasant to ponder how we are victims of the purposed production of ignorance or doubt, but it is important to realize we are all probable dupes at certain points. It is better to admit it than otherwise. But almost no one wants to confess their ignorance, because it signals laziness or victimhood. The sooner we detach those connotations from ignorance, and allow ourselves to be properly diagnosed, the sooner we’ll productively get at the roots of numerous social ills plaguing the United States and the world generally.


In terms of professional morals or ethics, we should all be willing to both confess ignorance and refrain from ignorance-shaming others. In terms of history and historical study, we should be able to think about ignorance in a way that does not purport, or import, shame on historical actors. Ignorance should be thought of in neutral terms. Many forces, past and present, work to perpetuate knowledge deficits—to make a certain kind of common sense hegemonic in particular ways. Not all ignorance is matter of choice. Ignorance is, rather, sometimes thought that has been repressed, suppressed, and hidden. Our job as historians is to get at those structures of feeling, or paradigms, about ignorance and anti-intellectualism—when and where they existed. – TL

11 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Leaving aside for the moment willful ignorance, our epistemic condition is fundamentally characterized by an ineluctable fact: ignorance unavoidably shadows all knowledge (or all of us), an axiomatic truth cleverly expressed by Einstein: “As our circle of knowledge expands, so [too] does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.”

    • Nice find on the quote. The funny thing is, Proctor lists a dozen or so quotes and aphorisms about ignorance at the end of his contribution to the book mentioned above (pp. 28-29). People love talking glibly, or aphoristically, about ignorance. – TL

    • Willful ignorance is classified, by Proctor, as what he terms a “passive construct” (or lost realm and/or selective choice, p. 6-8). The key is selectiveness, which is starkly demarcated from “active construct” (p. 8–10)—on which I focus in the post. – TL

  2. “Ignorance is of a peculiar nature: once dispelled, it is impossible to re-establish it” It is not originally a thing of itself, but is only the absence of knowledge; and though man may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant. Those who talk of a counter-revolution in France, show how little they understand of man. There does not exist in the compass of language an arrangement of words to express so much as the means of effecting a counter-revolution. The means must be an obliteration of knowledge; and it has never yet been discovered how to make man unknow his knowledge, or unthink his thoughts. Thomas Paine Rights of Man

  3. Ignorance as a rhetorical gambit is fascinating. It’s is something I first came across decades ago in (I think) that first English translation of Roland Barthes’s essays, called Mythologies. In one essay Barthes writes about an influential theater critic in Paris whose way of dealing with plays with political implications he didn’t like was to say “I’m not really interested in/don’t really know about [this or that].” The upshot is not so much to confront the theme or question in a play but rather to suggest that it has been given a scale or depth it doesn’t warrant. There, there is no overt or even covert invitation to add to knowedge and maybe reach some new perspective; rather, the speaker makes clear that attempts to impart new knowledge will be regard as hostile.

    • Ideology is a central motivator in maintaining ignorance. The ideology claims other forms of knowledge, or ways of knowing, aren’t worth your time.

  4. Kenneth Burke is the key here, every insight contains a certain blindness. Ignorance is an achievement, a product of intellectual development and improvement.

    • Indeed. Insights are often ideological motivated, and the ideology depends on motivated reasoning and devaluation of other ways of knowing. Burke figures into my larger work, but you’re right that I should’ve used him here.

  5. Tim, I’ve been wanting to write a post for a while about the social uses of performative ignorance in various academic settings. I was going to take it in the direction of accruing social capital by disavowing of certain kinds of experience/knowledge/expertise, and I might still do that. But I just got back from this Conservative / Progressive summit, and I saw what seemed to me to be, perhaps, another kind of performative ignorance at work, especially in some of the discourse in the last panel: a refusal to see or acknowledge or recognize some people as fully worthy of being valued and heard. It was really a trip. Tried to write some initial thoughts at my own blog, but would want to put something more polished up here at USIH. But I do want to affirm your observation here about refraining from ignorance shaming, but at the same time I need to figure out how to respond ethically to what can seem to be “willful ignorance.” We can’t read people’s minds, so we have to read their words and actions, as well as their silences. But I was struck this weekend by the deliberate if perhaps not always entirely self-conscious effort that lots of us make to Not See something that seems plain enough to our fellows. I’m reminded of George Eliot’s observation about how we must go about well wadded in cotton wool, or we couldn’t bear to get through life. But this Not Knowing, or Not Marking, that I’m thinking about is something different, in degree if not in kind.

    Anyway, just wanted to say you’ve written a nice post here with lots of avenues for further inquiry. Hope to contribute something to the conversation you’ve started as soon as I can get my head on straight and maybe take a nap or two.

  6. LD: I really appreciated your summary of Con-Prog conference’s final session—and the aftermath. I’ve linked to it here because others should read it too. It’s instructive in relation to your first point.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about performance and performative endeavors in relation to unreason, anti-intellectualism (broadly defined), and perceived stupidity/ignorance. Most all of it is performative in relation to a range of deeper commitments. I am convinced that the deepest commitment is economic, and that ideological commitment arises from both the right and the left (for different reasons and with differing valences). Let’s just say that money and money-related ideology is at stake somewhere in relation to 75-90 percent of anti-intellectual “events.” The “unreasoning” is motivated fears of loss, change, the and maintenance of an economic system. The other 10-25 percent is about religion. But I even think that is often tied back to economics (more than half the time of that smaller percentage). – TL

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