Throughout history, every age has thought of itself as more knowledgeable than the last. Renaissance humanists viewed the Middle Ages as an era of darkness, Enlightenment thinkers tried to sweep superstition away with reason, the modern welfare state sought to slay the “giant” of ignorance, and in today’s hyperconnected world seemingly limitless information is available on demand. But what about the knowledge lost over the centuries? Are we really any less ignorant than our ancestors?
In this highly original account, Peter Burke examines the long history of humanity’s ignorance across religion and science, war and politics, business and catastrophes. Burke reveals remarkable stories of the many forms of ignorance—genuine or feigned, conscious and unconscious—from the willful politicians who redrew Europe’s borders in 1919 to the politics of whistleblowing and climate change denial. The result is a lively exploration of human knowledge across the ages, and the importance of recognizing its limits.
"Ignorance might seem to be a pressing contemporary problem but, as this dazzling, comprehensive book shows, it has many pasts. Only Peter Burke could have written such a deliciously knowledgeable history of ignorance."—David Armitage, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas
"A rich, fascinating book of astonishing range. Burke impresses the need for awe and humility about how much humanity doesn’t know or refuses to know, and how this problem shifts and resurfaces across eras."—Linsey McGoey, author of The Unknowers
"Delivers a journey through all forms of not knowing, from secrecies to unintended consequences, to different forms of forgetting things formerly known. Burke shows that as more knowledge is generated, the horizon of ignorance can widen – for good or for bad. Burke’s new book will not only be a milestone in ignorance studies, but should become standard reading."—Matthias Gross, author of Ignorance and Surprise