Understanding Ignorance: Interview with Daniel R. DeNicola

By Celia Wan

To attempt a comprehensive analysis of ignorance, Daniel R. DeNicola (ΦBK, Ohio University, 1966) drew on decades of experience in the study of philosophy for his most recent book, Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know (MIT Press, 2017). 

In the book, DeNicola argues that most philosophers have focused on the structure and justification of knowledge, largely ignoring the more complicated structure of ignorance. The book presents four conceptions of ignorance—as place, as boundary, as limit, and as horizon. It explores the ways we construct our ignorance, the ethics and influence of ignorance, and the views of ignorance as accusation and excuse, as scourge, as refuge, and as a positive aspect of our lives. 

DeNicola is Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Gettysburg College and serves as President of Iota of Pennsylvania Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. He received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Ohio University in 1967, where he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. Then he went on to complete his master’s and doctorate degrees at Harvard University (1968, 1973) in a joint program in philosophy and philosophy of education. 

From 1996 to 2007, DeNicola served as the Provost of Gettysburg College and later as Vice President for Program Development. Before joining Gettysburg College, DeNicola was Provost at Rollins College, where he also chaired the Department of Philosophy and Religion. He has also held visiting scholar appointments at Harvard University and at Lancaster University (UK). 

DeNicola’s academic specializations include the philosophy of education, ethical theory, and theories of emotions. In addition to Understanding Ignorance, he previously authored Learning to Flourish: A Philosophical Exploration of Liberal Education, which analyzes the meaning and impact of liberal arts education.  


What motivated you to write a book about “ignorance”? 

DENICOLA: When I wrote my book on liberal education, I wanted to include an account of the nature and impact of ignorance, but the topic grew too large for a chapter, or even a section of that book. My interest in the topic originally had three sources: For years, I taught a first-year seminar called “Secrets & Lies,” about the ethics of concealment and deception. I was gradually drawn to the ways in which these practices construct ignorance for others. Second, I was intrigued that epistemologists, who study knowledge, had ignored ignorance; there were very few serious works on the topic, and none was comprehensive. Third, it seems that ignorance is trending, that our public life is being diminished by a culture of ignorance, a willful and celebratory ignorance. We badly need to understand these virulent forms of ignorance.  

In your book, you talk about the ethics of ignorance. Under what circumstances can ignorance be good? What are some of the values of ignorance? 

DENICOLA: These are difficult questions to answer briefly, but I’ll try to be concise. Ignorance is not a virtue, though recognizing one’s own ignorance and the possibility of being wrong are intellectual virtues. There are also morally good actions, such as protecting privacy and confidentiality, that require the maintenance of others’ ignorance. In addition, when we extend our trust to someone, we use a benign, self-imposed form of ignorance, foregoing the need to verify their actions. Moreover, there are specific contexts in which we have the right or even the obligation not to know certain things. The imposition of ignorance is sometimes required to assure fairness (as in blindfolded justice), or to preserve one’s autonomy (as in one’s rejecting information about one’s chance of incurable genetic diseases).

Finally, ignorance is connected to freedom. Without ignorance, there would be no adventure, no mystery, no space for creativity. The very effectiveness of narrative relies on its flow into the unknown: what will happen next? For us, individually and collectively, this “horizon of ignorance” is the realm of possibility, the imagined and unimagined unknown.

You divided your book into several sections—metaphors of ignorance as place, boundary, limit, and horizon. What are your thoughts behind these metaphors?

DENICOLA: Taking them in turn: It is important to understand ignorance as a state of mind, a place or condition in which we can dwell. It is the condition in which we are born, and I’m interested to compare it with innocence. A quite common conception is that ignorance is the boundary to our knowledge, and thus we can construct or move (that is, advance) our boundaries—perhaps even map our ignorance. But ignorance also represents a limit, the end of the knowable, whether it is our human finitude or the inscrutability of the past and future, or the impossibility of omniscience. Finally, it is horizon, a perspectival vista that moves with our learning. In the end, knowledge and ignorance imply each other, and it is their dynamic interaction that is a given in the human condition.  

Did you come across any conceptual difficulties when writing a book about ignorance i.e. in understanding the unknown? If so, what are they?

DENICOLA: In one sense, the apparent paradox is only superficial: in the same way that one could write clearly about vagueness, one can write knowledgably about ignorance. We can differentiate knowing about ignorance from knowing (learning the content of) what we don’t now know. But the knowledge one can have regarding unknown unknowns is far less than the knowledge we can claim regarding known unknowns. When dealing with unknown unknowns, we can only have intimations, not knowledge.  

You became a member of Phi Beta Kappa as an undergraduate and you have also supported Phi Beta Kappa’s mission as secretary and then president of the Gettysburg College chapter of PBK. How is Phi Beta Kappa part of your personal philosophy? 

DENICOLA:  As it happens, the first talk I gave about ignorance was in 2009 to the spring banquet of our Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Phi Beta Kappa celebrates intellectual and moral virtues, and it champions intellectual breadth and value of a liberal arts education. These are central to my vision of a flourishing life—and the subject of my earlier book. They are critically needed now.  Although, thanks to our easy access to vast knowledge, there has never been a better time to be a scholar or an informed citizen, ironically, our public life is being engulfed by a culture of ignorance.  

Is there anything about your book that readers and reviewers haven’t asked… but you wish they had?

DENICOLA: It’s early, but the book covers many controversial matters, so I’m sure may questions and criticisms will arise. No one has yet commented on my discussion of the tools of ignorance management. It seems to me that it is a significant human achievement that we have developed ways of managing ignorance we can’t easily remove. Two rich examples are insurance, which seeks to reduce the risk of uncertainty; and probability theory, which attempts to convert our ignorance of individual events to knowledge about a class or series of such events. 

Celia Wan is a junior at the University of Chicago majoring in history, philosophy, and social studies of science and medicine. The University of Chicago is home to the Beta of Illinois Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.