, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 483–484

The limits of ignorance

Nicholas Rescher: Ignorance: On the wider implications of deficient knowledge. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009, 160pp, £17.95 HB


    • Westminster Institute of EducationOxford Brookes University
Book Review

DOI: 10.1007/s11016-011-9571-z

Cite this article as:
Sandis, C. Metascience (2012) 21: 483. doi:10.1007/s11016-011-9571-z

Over the past 50 years, Nicolas Rescher has written over one hundred books across an impressively wide area of philosophical topics, including epistemology, metaphysics, philosophical logic, philosophy of science, metaphilosophy, ethics, socio-political philosophy and both ancient and modern history of philosophy. It is with considerable ease, then, that Rescher considers the broader implications of ignorance in this little book of applied epistemology.

The book itself divides into eight independent sections, each an interesting essay in its own right. The thread uniting the whole book is Rescher’s unabashed pragmatism that places him closer to Nassim Taleb than to his fellow academic philosophers (though Rescher ends the book with a surprisingly question-begging argument for why ‘ignorance betokens realism’). Like Taleb, Rescher holds that the chances of informed action and prediction can be seriously increased if we better comprehend the multiple causes of ignorance. The study of ignorance is thereby shown to be of supreme importance in our individual and social lives, from health and safety measures to politics and gambling (often indistinguishable from an epistemic point of view).

Rescher refers to the varied sources of ignorance as a method of classifying ignorance into different types, distinguishing from the outset between ignorance that is necessary (in the sense of inevitable) and ignorance that is contingent (viz. a lack of knowledge that can be rectified). This is a familiar Kantian move, designed to outline the bounds of knowledge:

The issue of contingent ignorance—of what people are too lazy or too incompetent to find out about—does not hold much interest for cognitive theory. What matters from the theoretical point of view are those aspects of ignorance that betoken inherent limits to human knowledge (3).

Of course, as Rescher points out, the pragmatic point of view is rather different from the theoretical one. From the perspective of a pragmatist, contingent ignorance is of prime importance because we can do something about it. Rescher accordingly supports a kind of epistemic optimism. That is to say, he takes it that we are at worst only contingently ignorant of whether or not our ignorance of any given thing is of the necessary or contingent variety. This outlook is arguably in keep with much ancient scepticism as well as that of the early modern empiricist, David Hume (who believed that all theorising about what lies beyond experience was empty). Modern scepticism, by contrast, is pessimistic in arguing that our second order ignorance is necessary; a corollary of this bleak view is that there is no such thing as knowledge (or ‘certain knowledge’ in the most popular version of the sceptic’s language game).

Having identified and classified the varieties of ignorance, Rescher sets out to see how we can avoid them, at least in the numerous cases where ignorance is not akin to bliss (‘that a terrorist does not know how o make a bomb is fortunate’ Rescher tells us). Perhaps the most obvious suggestion is through the use of computer technology, but Rescher is rightly suspicious of those who find epistemic hope in the powers of digital machines. He writes that ‘computers can reduce but not eliminate our cognitive limitation’ (138). Rescher’s reasoning here is as simple as it is clear: computers are instruments we use and, like any other tool, can only help us if we already know what we are after and where to look for it. In the hands of an ignorant user, the more powerful tool does more damage than the less powerful one. A different way of emphasising much the same point is that computers do not have understanding and that ignorance is just as often a matter of misinterpreting the facts before us as it is due to a lack of factual information.

Readers of this journal will be particularly interested in the chapter ‘On Limits to Science’. Rescher considers the possibility of there being an end to science in the sense in which Hegel envisioned an end to History. He argues that while it is conceivable that technology could come to an end, it will never be possible to determine whether such a state is actual. Rescher claims that this is because the Insolubilia Thesis, viz., there are ‘nondecidable questions that science will never resolve’, is itself ‘something whose truth status can never be settled in a decisive way’ (90). But this latter move seems self-defeating for if it is true, then there must be nondecidable questions, in which case it is also false, and if it is false then it is possible for the truth of the Insolubilia Thesis to be settled, in which case it would also be possible (if the thesis turned out to be false) to determine that there are no nondecidable questions. We may disagree about whether or not the question of whether there are any deep disagreements is itself something that we deeply disagree about, but one cannot hold that we could never know whether or not this disagreement is deep without begging the Insolubilia question one way or another. Rescher is right to point out, however, that his thought that we could not ever know whether science had come to an end is perfectly compatible with the possibility that one day perfected technology might enable us to do everything that it is possible for us to do (77); we just would not know it.

All in all Rescher has written an exciting and provocative book that will be of interest to epistemologists and philosophers of science alike. He successfully combines the spirit of Socrates with the earthiness of Peirce.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011