On the Virtues (Advantages?) of Non-knowledge

The functional meaning of non-knowledge differs from one societal institution to the next. In an institution such as science it is a state of development of knowledge that must be overcome, a condition that acts as an incentive. In a highly stratified societal institution (e.g., a total institution) differing states of knowledge are a constitutive characteristic feature (a functional necessity) that is defended by all means. A society in which complete transparency prevails would be, as Merton (1949/1968) emphasized, “diabolical” (p. 345). In practice, a mutually transparent, complex society is unrealistic.

Moore and Tulmin (1949, p. 787), in their classical functionalist analysis of the societal functions of ignorance, therefore pointed to what in their opinion is the widespread opinion that ignorance is the natural enemy of societal stability and of the possibility for orderly societal progress and that every increase in knowledge automatically increases human welfare. A generally positive public attitude toward new knowledge, which was widespread in the years immediately following World War II, is at present losing ground to growing skepticism about new scientific and technical knowledge. It is not unusual anymore to encounter the opinion that people know too much. Explicit knowledge politics, that is, efforts to police novel knowledge, commences once new capacities for action have been discovered (Stehr, 2003).

There is a multitude of convincing references to the virtues and advantages of ignorance, a lack of knowledge, and invisibility. The discussion and formulation of the novel moral principle for an individual’s “right to ignorance” by Jonas (1974, pp. 161-163) is clearly germane to a discussion of the political and ethical dilemmas generated by the dynamics with which knowledge grows. Jonas’s moral principle is opposed by equally formidable ethical demands that insist on a right to know, especially at the collective level or from a macroperspective (Sen, 1981; Stiglitz, 1999). In everyday life, sentiments that support the virtue of not knowing find expression in such sayings as “What I don’t know can’t hurt me” and “Where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise.”

Opposition to excessive transparency of one’s own behavior and that of other actors, as Merton (1949/1968, p. 343) also emphasized, stems from certain structural characteristics of societal groups. To these features belong, for instance, the institutionally sanctioned, but in reality also limited, negligence in complying with or enforcing existing social norms. The characteristics also include psychologically determined, variable opposition to maximum behavioral transparency (Popitz, 1968, p. 8).[1] In modern society technical and legal barriers and these conditions for opposition preclude an unlimited investigation of the behavior and convictions of individual actors—about whom one would like to know everything. The alleged goodwill or maliciousness of the thought police is irrelevant. For instance, new possibilities for avoiding technically mobilized monitoring keep turning up.

Popitz (1968), on the other hand, pointed to the disencumbering function that limited behavioral information has for the system of sanctions.[2] Limiting the available or requested behavioral information—a decision that is tantamount to relinquishing sanctions—is also a sort of “indeterminacy principle of social life” (p. 12). It “opens a sphere in which the system of norms and sanctions need not be taken literally without obviously giving up its claim to validity” (p. 12).

Lastly, there is a further (primarily cognitive) function of insufficient knowledge. It has repeatedly been claimed that knowledge arises from non-knowledge, or that non-knowledge can be transformed into knowledge. Just how this transformation is supposed to happen is scarcely addressed, however. The hypothesis that knowledge originates in non-knowledge as it were, in nothing (ex nihilo), completely overlooks the societal genealogy of knowledge, such as the close, even intimate relationship between scientific and practical knowledge. The birth of a scientific discipline is no parthenogenesis. The hypothesis of the transformation of non-knowledge into knowledge favors certain knowledge in that the origin of new knowledge is simply suppressed.

  • [1] Inasmuch as the disregard and sanctioning of existing social norms by certain incumbents ofsocietal positions of a group is known, it must be decided whether “the basic formal structure of agroup is being undermined by the observed deviations of behavior. It is in this sense that authoritiescan have excessive knowledge of what is actually going on, so that this becomes dysfunctional forthe system of social control” (Merton, 1949/1968, p. 343; emphasis added).
  • [2] In this respect I note that the expression non-knowledge (Nichtwissen) in the title of Popitz’streatise does not appear a single time in the text. The work’s title may be the work of the publishinghouse. The exposition shows that Popitz rightly avoided the term non-knowledge and more guardedly wrote of limited behavioral information and limited behavioral transparency.
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