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Writing a History of Ignorance

Peter Burke

Since the 1990s, a new kind of history has been flourishing: the history of knowledge—or better, the history of different kinds of knowledge, knowledges in the plural. Turning a topic upside down often proves to be a good way to take a fresh look at it, as historians of memory discovered when they decided to include forgetting in their research.

Ignorance is usually defined as an absence of knowledge, and writing the history of an absence raises obvious problems. As some may wonder, what are the sources for the history of what isn’t there?

One answer to this question is to adopt a retrospective approach according to which each new discovery reveals what we did not know before. The landfall of Columbus in 1492, for instance, reminds us that the Americas had previously been unknown to Europeans.

A second approach is to focus on the consequences of ignorance, often disastrous, as the histories of business, politics, war and epidemics such as Covid make very clear. Covid is simply the latest in a series of epidemics that include bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, yellow fever and the so-called ‘Spanish flu’. In each case, when the epidemic struck, no one knew where it came from, how it spread and how to resist it, and as a result, many lives were lost.

In the case of business and politics, there have been countless examples of ignorance, on the side of decision-makers—think of Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro!—and also on the side of ordinary people, harming their interests as voters, consumers or investors. Rulers, whether democratic or autocratic, have rarely been trained for the job. Most of them have had little knowledge of finance, as King Philip II of Spain, for instance, was honest enough to admit. Particularly obvious is the ignorance of foreign countries on the part of decision-makers, including President Woodrow Wilson and Prime Minister David Lloyd George, a serious disadvantage when they were redrawing the map of Europe at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

Ignorance is not, however, confined to individuals. Organizational ignorance has long been a powerful force in history, and as organizations become larger, the power of this kind of ignorance increases. In a large, hierarchical organization, information does not flow easily. The leaders know things that their subordinates do not know, but the workers also know things that the leaders do not know. However, the hierarchical system is a major obstacle to communication between them. History is full of examples of the reluctance of managers or officials to tell their bosses what those bosses need to know but do not want to know. Imagine telling Stalin that his Five-Year Plan was not working! Other institutions, from the army to the Church, also suffer from organizational ignorance, although, so far as I know, no historian or sociologist has yet studied these examples.

The history of war offers particularly clear examples of the consequences of ignorance. In what has been called “the fog of battle,” the leaders on both sides are likely to be ignorant of the size of the opposing army, its position and its resources. The leader who is less ignorant is the one who wins. Ignorance and arrogance make a fatal combination. Professional soldiers have often underestimated the enemy when that enemy is largely composed of amateurs, and this sense of superiority has often led to defeat, as in the cases of the French in Indochina in the 1950s, the Americans in Vietnam in the 1960s, and the Russians and the Americans in Afghanistan.

Of course, those last-mentioned defeats were not the result of a simple absence of knowledge, though this absence played its part. One might also say that the French and American generals were in denial, that they did not want to know that the enemy were well-trained, that their morale was high, and that they knew the terrain much better than the invaders—a situation that is repeating itself in the Ukraine today.

More generally, the wish not to know something—global warming, for instance—often leads to lack of preparation and so to disaster.

There are many kinds of ignorance—simply not knowing, being aware of not knowing (like Socrates), wanting not to know, and not wanting other people to know. Much ignorance is negative in its consequences, but in some cases it is positive. It is good that examiners do not know who wrote the papers they are marking, that jurors are kept away from news of public discussions of the trial in which they are participating and that none of us know when we will die. Montaigne wondered whether illiterate peasants did not lead a happier life than scholarly gentlemen such as himself.

As a historian of knowledge, and now of ignorance as well, I have often been asked whether we know more or less than our ancestors. My answer is a double one. Looking at humanity as a whole, it has never known more than at the present time. On the other hand, individuals know about the same amount as their ancestors. They have usually acquired new knowledge, knowledge of computers for example, but at the price of the ignorance of much that their ancestors took for granted—knowledge of the Bible, knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome, and so on.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from this story, it is a lesson in humility. As the American humourist Mark Twain once remarked, “We are all ignorant—just of different things.”  

Peter Burke is emeritus professor of cultural history at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of many distinguished books that have been translated into more than thirty languages, including The Polymath and What Is the History of Knowledge?

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