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Ignorance as a productive response to epistemic perturbations


This paper argues that ignorance, rather than being a result or representation of false beliefs or misinformation, is a compensatory epistemic adaptation of complex rhetoric systems. A rhetoric system is here defined as a set of interconnected rhetorical elements (beliefs, arguments, commonplaces [loci communes], meanings, and texts) that cohere into a self-organized system that is thoroughly “about” its contexts—meaning that its own boundaries and relations are both constrained and enabled by the contexts in which it exists. Ignorance, as described here, is epistemic management that preserves the boundaries and relations of a rhetoric system, and is a way of dealing with information that runs counter to one’s beliefs. Ignorance is also productive, in that it produces new knowledge that works to make rhetoric systems more resistant to potential destabilization. To elaborate these points, the paper examines discourse about the phenomenon of global climate change, which illustrates how individuals productively counter information as a way of preserving beliefs. As the paper argues, ignorance is neither a cognitive nor epistemological failure, but rather is a result of the dynamic and continuous process of enforcing epistemic and rhetorical boundaries.

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  1. 1.

    In a more recent study by Nyhan et al. (2014), parents who were resistant to vaccinating their children because of a fear that vaccines cause autism, when presented with evidence that such vaccines do not cause autism, showed “decreased intent to vaccinate” (emphasis added).

  2. 2.

    Relatedly, there is a significant amount of scholarship on ignorance that presents it as the result or representation of false beliefs or misinformation, which often also considers ignorance and belief in terms of quantity (Le Morvan and Peels 2016; Treaner 2013).

  3. 3.

    There are similarities between epistemic management that results from ignorance and the management of uncertainty (see, for example, Hogg and Blaylock 2012, p. xxiii), a state that could be considered a form of tentative ignorance. While ignorance is explored in detail here, a full discussion of its overlaps with uncertainty is beyond the scope of this paper.

  4. 4.

    We could go back to the Greek sophist Protagoras to find this point, as he held that there are two opposed logoi or rational accounts of any situation (Sprague 1972). More recent (and nuanced) articulations can be found in Consigney (1996) and Perelman (1982).

  5. 5.

    Note that the use of the term “force” does not mean that this rhetorical force has to be a physical force. Complex systems theory describes several systems that are held together by a non-physical force. Social systems (e.g. Luhmann 1995) are just one example of such non-physical systems bound together in this way. The existence of such a force simply means that the borders cohere in a way that makes them resistant to destabilization or redefinition.

  6. 6.

    Dimitrov and Woog (1997), for example, specifically discuss complex human society as a nonlinear dynamic world of emergence, bifurcations, attractors, autopoiesis, and self-organization (p. 502).

  7. 7.

    For express consideration of both kinds of systems, see Prigogine (1996), Prigogine and Stengers (1984).

  8. 8.

    In fact there is a great deal of significant neuroscientific evidence that our language use—and so our reasoning and our beliefs—are influenced by non-linguistic factors associated with our somatic emotional responses (Franks 2006).

  9. 9.

    Rayner’s work echoes theories of humans as “cognitive misers” (Fiske and Taylor 1991) as well as the notion of motivated skepticism (Taber and Lodge 2006).

  10. 10.

    Despite public opinion increasingly supporting the existence and the seriousness of AGW, significant opposition still does exist (Dunlap 2013, p. 695).

  11. 11.

    See, for example, the recent “Pizzagate” incident, in which a restaurant in Washington, D.C. was thought to be a hub for human trafficking. Though completely fictitious, the strength of belief and intricacy of the narrative of proponents of the conspiracy drove one person to travel to the restaurant and fire his rifle in an attempt to disrupt the enterprise (Pizzagate conspiracy theory 2019).


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I would like to thank readers of previous iterations of this paper, including the two anonymous reviewers whose feedback was invaluable in shaping the article manuscript. I would also like to thank the editors of this special issue of Synthese, Selene Arfini and Lorenzo Magnani, who provided feedback in conversation and correspondence that had a significant impact on the work. As well, I would like to thank Tommaso Bertolotti for putting together the 2018 Cognition in 3E conference, where the idea for this article emerged. I also wish to thank Tomie Hahn and Curtis Bahn for their useful feedback on earlier versions of this work. Finally, I would like to thank Julie Jung and J. Scott Jordan for countless discussions and suggestions regarding the direction and scope of my work in this area.

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Correspondence to Chris Mays.

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Mays, C. Ignorance as a productive response to epistemic perturbations. Synthese 198, 6491–6507 (2021).

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  • Ignorance
  • Systems theory
  • Rhetoric
  • Wild systems theory
  • Climate change
  • Conspiracy theories
  • Rhetoric system
  • Epistemic management