A Taxonomy of Ignorance

This from Dave Pollard, summarising an essay in a recently reprinted book by Wendell Berry:

Varieties of ignorance:

Inherent ignorance —ignorance that stems from the limitations of the human brain
Ignorance of history —due to our unawareness of what we have forgotten, and never learned
Materialist ignorance —willful refusal to recognize what cannot be empirically proved (narrow-mindedness)
Moral ignorance—willful refusal to come to a moral conclusion on the basis it may not be ‘objective’
Polymathic ignorance—the false confidence of knowledge of the past and future
Self-righteous ignorance—ignorance arising from our failure to know ourselves and our weaknesses
Fearful ignorance —stemming from the lack of courage to believe and accept knowledge that is unpopular, unpleasant or tragic
Lazy ignorance—stemming from not being willing to make the effort to understand what is complex
For-profit and for-power ignorance—deliberate obscuring or withholding of knowledge (e.g. advertising, propaganda)

Interesting how so many of these varieties are attitudinal! Thanks Matt for the reference.

I’ve been playing with my own taxonomy of ignorance (for my next book but one) which goes something like this:

Secrecy – can be attitudinal or structural (for structural secrecy see Diane Vaughan’s The Challenger Launch Decision)
Forgetting - can be accidental or deliberate
Inattention – can be attitudinal or structural
Incomprehension – can be naive (insufficient experience) or paradigmatic (incompatible mental models)
Surprise – can result from inattention or incomprehension
Denial – for self protection or comfort
Outsourced - where we rely on other people’s knowledge to perform key tasks and do not seek to gain it for ourselves

4 Comments so far


Interesting that you do a taxonomy of things that - ontologically - don’t exists. Ignorance is like darkness: it does not exist. Darkness is simply absence of light, and ignorance is absence of ...

Posted on November 21, 2006 at 05:11 PM | Comment permalink


Interesting observation Christian… but I’m not sure I completely agree. “Ignorance” does seem to take on substance in working life and common usage - it’s particularly important where there’s “something” not known or not conscious that will have an impact on your welfare as an organization or as a person.

There are also different degrees of ignorance I think, summed up in the famous Rumsfeld quote - see http://www.greenchameleon.com/gc/blog_detail/introducing_the_rumsfeld_ignorance_management_framework/

But I DO like the idea of building a taxonomy of non-existent things… sounds very much like Borges!

Posted on November 21, 2006 at 06:04 PM | Comment permalink


O.K., another metaphor: Pizza Margherita is dough, tomato, cheese and basil. You might call the humble margherita: pizza without ham, pizza without salami, pizza without extra cheese, pizza without chameleon, pizza without weblog. It’s always the same pizza, but in each case without something different. And this “without” does not say so much (nothing?) about the pizza, but a lot about your expectations.
So in a way I agree: as you speak about different things that don’t exist (ignorance of a, b, c...), you create a taxonomy of unsatisfied expectations.
And these are real - at least the pain and the frustrations FEEL real.

Posted on November 21, 2006 at 10:07 PM | Comment permalink


I like the metaphor, but the “without” is not just about unsatisfied expectations… it can also be about dissatisfaction or fear about performance, suspicion or fear of surprise, a sense that there is something we need to know in order to be effective.

Posted on November 22, 2006 at 10:11 AM | Comment permalink

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