Book Reviews

Rik Peels and Martijn Blaauw, The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance, Cambridge University Press, 2017.

The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance is a provocatively framed collection of essays dealing with a variety of epistemic issues related to the concept of ignorance. The first three essays in the volume have to do with the nature of ignorance itself. Le Morvan and Peels’ contribution provides an overview of some relevant literature, and distinguishes between two views on the nature of ignorance, which they call the Standard View and the New View. In both cases, ignorance is conceived of as a lack or absence of something; what distinguishes the two views is the issue of what is lacking. On the Standard View, the ignorant agent lacks knowledge, whereas on the New View, they lack true belief. Nottelmann and Brogaard, in their respective essays, consider different ways in which we might classify ignorance. Nottelmann outlines three dimensions along which we might classify a type of ignorance: first, the kind of thing about which the epistemic subject is ignorant, such as a fact, the existence of an entity, or the answer to a question; second, the degree of ignorance the subject displays, for instance, in practical ignorance; and last, the order of ignorance, since it is possible to be meta-ignorant – a point that is made by Medina, both in his contribution to this collection and in his earlier (2012) book on the subject. Brogaard’s essay can be seen as further clarifying the first of these dimensions, arguing on the basis of linguistic analysis that there are three types of ignorance: ignorance of facts, subject matter, and how to perform a particular activity. This linguistic analysis, however, has implications for the kind of thing that ignorance is, since it ultimately speaks against the Standard View in arguing for a difference between ignorance and a lack of knowledge.

The next several essays in the volume connect ignorance to other epistemic concepts. Olsson and Proietti consider treatments of ignorance and doubt in several possible worlds frameworks, ultimately concluding that ignorance and doubt are not simply negations of knowledge and belief, respectively. Blome-Tillmann, taking the Standard View as background, extends contextualism about knowledge to contextualism about ignorance. This allows him to provide an interesting contextualist response to standard skeptical arguments, say about the existence of the external world. Brown’s essay discusses two versions of an objection to anti-intellectualism which argues that it leaves us more ignorant than we would ordinarily take ourselves to be. On the anti-intellectualist view, a difference in stakes between hearer and speaker can undermine knowledge transmission through testimony; Brown argues that, even though there can be some conflicts, our frequent reliance on testimony and memory as sources of knowledge should not lead us to reject anti-intellectualism. Another interesting essay by Pritchard considers cases in which being ignorant has epistemic value. For instance, being ignorant of a misleading defeater might help us gain further true beliefs.

The editorial framing, however, of the last three essays is curious:

We have included these essays, even though they are not confined to the epistemic dimensions of ignorance. This is because religious epistemology is typically part of epistemology, the epistemology of race has interesting things to say on collective ignorance in its relation to individual ignorance, and group belief and group knowledge have recently become big issues in epistemology (9).

What this seems to mean is that these final three essays, as with much of the epistemology of ignorance literature they draw on (at the very least, the Fricker and Medina draw on that literature), incorporate the social and political dimensions of ignorance. That is, they discuss ignorance as it occurs in our non-ideal world, and as it is produced in agents who are all socially situated in some way. But the acknowledgement of such traditions and bodies of work in epistemology is in tension with the initial, and indeed motivating, claims of the book. The first sentence of the book’s back blurb is, “Ignorance is a neglected issue in philosophy.” In light of the Fricker and Medina essays, this seems obviously false, given the rich contributions by philosophers of race and gender to the development of epistemologies of ignorance. In their introduction to the volume, the editors make a more precise claim—though still one that bears further consideration—that epistemologists have hardly paid attention to ignorance, as they acknowledge that areas of philosophy other than epistemology have dealt with the issue of ignorance. The one exception they note within epistemology is in the area of radical skepticism (1). Given, however, that Linda Martín Alcoff’s contribution to the collection Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance (2007) provides a typology of existing arguments in the epistemology of ignorance, the claim, even, that it has been neglected in epistemology is puzzling.

Before drawing out the issues with the framing of this volume, I should note that none of this should be taken as a criticism of its individual essays, as contributions to epistemology, and to the epistemology of ignorance in particular. I think that there might have been some cases in which greater (or some) consideration of the more explicitly social literature might have been beneficial, however, and we might see this as a missed opportunity. For instance, the several essays discussing classifications of ignorance tend to consider it primarily as an absence or lack of something, where the nature of the thing lacking is up for disagreement. But those writing on ignorance in the philosophy of race tradition often write about it as something produced or cultivated. It might have been helpful to see how this would play a role in the taxonomies of ignorance discussed in some of the earlier essays in the volume. Similarly, the work on epistemic value might also have considered ways in which being racially ignorant could potentially have epistemic as well as social benefits, for instance, by allowing agents to take advantage of knowledge-granting opportunities that they might cede if they were more socially responsible.

To return to the initial editorial claim, though, that epistemology has generally ignored the phenomenon of ignorance, note that it could be interpreted in several different ways. It could mean that the well-developed literature in epistemologies of ignorance that draws from the philosophy of race has generally been ignored by a lot of mainstream epistemologists. This seems true (and to the detriment of much of mainstream epistemology), but, given that most of the essays in the book do not engage with this literature either, it is not clear that this is what the editors meant. Moreover, there seems to be some general inattentiveness to the potential social impact of this work. The front cover art, entitled “Spring’s Landfall” features a pink-clad young woman, blindfolded, attempting, it seems, to row a flower-filled boat with two sticks through a field. Ignorance, illustrated, is feminine, hapless, and blinded.

Instead, there seem to be two other ways in which this claim could be interpreted. One is that “epistemologists” refers to epistemologists whose work does not consider the social situatedness of agents. So this would exclude those who work on epistemology in a way that is fundamentally attentive to factors such as gender, race, or disability. Second, there is the possibility that the editors themselves are ignorant of the fact that the literature on epistemology and ignorance is substantial, despite its lack of inclusion in many anthologies and collections. Both of these interpretations are disappointing, but provide interesting case studies for applications of epistemologies of ignorance. So I will use the tools from the Fricker and Medina essays in the volume to analyze this.

In the first case, in which epistemology is construed in such a way that it excludes many philosophers who would self-describe as epistemologists, we might wonder whether there is a kind of hermeneutical marginalization. As Fricker’s essay describes such a situation, we might think that “some social groups have less than a fair crack at contributing to the shared pool of concepts and interpretive tropes that we use to make generally shareable sense of our social experiences” (163).

It might be difficult to make the case that groups of philosophers working on ignorance from particular non-mainstream perspectives are sufficiently cohesive to count as social groups. But we might also note that a lot of work done in anti-oppressive philosophy generally is done by people who experience at least some form of oppression, whether it be in terms of gender identity, race, or disability. But if such work is not counted as epistemology proper, then we have a situation in which, say, feminist epistemology does not have a fair crack at contributing to the shared pool of epistemic concepts that we use to engage in dialogue about the nature of knowledge.

This seems to be detrimental to members of social groups whose lived experience is better captured by the tools of feminist epistemologies, and those other excluded epistemologies of ignorance. It can also serve to signal to those interested in doing that kind of work that such pursuits are less inherently philosophical, or perhaps that considering epistemic practices that are more familiar to them is a question of ethics rather than epistemology. But it also seems epistemically detrimental to the philosophical community as a whole, since the hermeneutical resources for talking about epistemology generally are unequally distributed among its members.

The second situation, in which working epistemologists can be unaware of the extent of the literature on epistemologies of ignorance, might also be a case study, perhaps as a case of meta-ignorance. But we might also worry about the extent to which such meta-ignorance might be structurally reinforced. Meta-ignorance is extremely similar to the higher-order ignorance that Nottelmann considers (54-5), but as Medina describes it, is often associated with privilege and a lack of epistemic friction. Not only is it ignorance at the object level, but it is also ignorance of one’s own epistemic limitations (183). Moreoever, meta-ignorance is not always culpable. It might be culpable if it is also active ignorance, meaning ignorance that resists correction. This might be a matter of individual epistemic vice or bad faith, but can also be structurally produced, as Charles Mills notes in writing about white ignorance. As such, it might be worth considering what structural factors might contribute to the marginalization of particular bodies of philosophical literature.

In general, this book collects together some well-formulated and clear essays on the various epistemic topics related to ignorance. Its principal problem is not the quality of its contributions, but its motivating conceit. It purports to fill a gap in the epistemic literature, though it is not clear that the identified gap exists. Also, claiming that there is such a gap can contribute to the marginalization of philosophical work written by philosophers from underrepresented groups. But at the very least, the claim that there is such a gap allows for an interesting application of the conceptual tools of the epistemic literature that the editorial framing largely neglects.

Audrey Yap

University of Victoria

Victoria, B.C.


Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Medina, José. 2012. The Epistemology of Resistance. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Sullivan, Shannon, and Nancy Tuana (Eds.) 2007. Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.


Tribalism requires varying amounts of ignorance: Religion, Nationalism, Conservatives, Racists, are violent and sometimes go to war when their ideologies are contradicted. So it is important to call them out. Fact check them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *