If knowledge is unlimited, what about ignorance?
Nadja El Kassar
is a qualified philosopher with a teaching position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and is currently visiting professor at the Free University of Berlin. Her focus areas include epistemology and ignorance. [email protected]
When you question what you know or have to explain something that you think you know, you often notice that you don't Whitewhat you thought you knew. Do you know why the leaves of deciduous trees turn brightly in autumn? Really every detail of the explanation? Or rather so gross that it has something to do with chlorophyll? And knowledge You with such a rough idea why the leaves of deciduous trees turn brightly in autumn? Generally asked: How much do you have to know so that the knowledge can be put on your own "I know that" list? And what should be on the "I-don't-know-that" list?
In the search for your knowledge, you inevitably run into your own ignorance, but it is even more difficult to make a list of what you don't know. Because to do this, you first have to know that and what you don't know. It is undisputed, however, that the list of all our knowledge as well as that of our ignorance could be extended at will. This also has to do with the fact that not all knowledge is explicit, a lot is also implicit.
The exciting question that in is in these lists and at the center of this essay is: What is knowledge anyway? Philosophers understand this question in at least three different ways: First: What types of knowledge are there? Secondly: What is knowledge? And third: What counts as knowledge? 
Questions about knowledge have preoccupied thinkers for over 2000 years. The answers are varied and controversial to this day. And in this essay, too, the approaches to answering these three questions will remain incomplete, for every approach has blind spots. But for all three questions we get approximations to philosophical answers. In addition, we will discover cross-connections between knowledge and essential terms such as "power", "justice" and "ignorance" and thus at least the initial question "What is knowledge?" and understand better the different answers to it.
What types of knowledge are there?In my list of things that I know, I have - typical of philosophers: inside - with sentence-like knowledge began. I know tigers are mammals. I know H2O is the molecular formula of water. Such knowledge is expressed in propositional sentences. Sentence-like knowledge can be knowledge that is collected in encyclopedias, but it can also be knowledge that is more trivial, such as knowing one's own name. This knowledge is also in the form of sentences, but is usually not found in lexicons. 
But not all knowledge is a sentence. There are also practicalKnowledge: Knowing how to ride a bike, knowing how to play the piano, knowing how to program an algorithm. For me to know how to ride a bicycle, it is not enough that I can formulate a description of the relevant conditions and body movements. I have to be able to do it too. Practical knowledge is not so easy to translate into statements, and it is by no means exhausted there. It takes practice for practical knowledge, because practical knowledge includes things that we do with our body.
A related kind of this knowledge is that phenomenal knowledge, in other words, knowing how something feels - toothache, sore muscles, but also sun rays on the skin or water that caresses the feet. This knowledge, too, is not just sentence-like knowledge. I can describe in words what a toothache feels like (stabbing, dull, etc.), but ultimately the feeling cannot be fully translated into statements. Writers: inside practice these translations again and again, and are also quite successful there. But without the experience itself, without the feeling, it's not quite the same.
Sometimes will too physical knowledge counted as a kind of knowledge. For example, you know how your feet are positioned while reading this text, even if you are not looking at your feet. Proprioception is the sense of perception on which this knowledge is based. And maybe it is also physical knowledge when you dodge a ball that unexpectedly flies towards you, or when you (can) go down stairs without looking where the steps are. It is controversial whether this physical knowledge should actually count as knowledge.  Because can something that can "somehow" be found in our bodies actually be knowledge? Medical professionals and others do research into physical knowledge, and the knowledge they produce in the process is sentence-like. The physical knowledge itself remains physical nonetheless. That brings us straight to the next question.
What is knowledge?Why might it sound strange to refer to the ability to dodge a ball as knowledge? Because it is widely believed that knowledge has something to do with truth. I can know that H2O is the molecular formula of water because the convictionthat H2O is the molecular formula of water is true. Knowledge is therefore something that is true. And the ability to reflexively evade something is not something that is or can be true. It's a skill - you can have it or you can't. Similar problems are found with practical knowledge. This knowledge is also not true. Nonetheless, truth seems to constitute knowledge, that is, to be a condition of knowledge. Because knowledge excludes false statements, i.e. the untruth of the sentence, truth belongs in a definition of knowledge. 
Some philosophers argue that practical knowledge, such as knowing how to ride a bicycle, is actually sentence-like knowledge. Because it can be reduced to sentence-like knowledge: That means, I can formulate a lot of true sentence-like statements about the ability to ride a bicycle and thus grasp the practical knowledge of how to ride a bicycle. However, we have noticed that with this type of knowledge there is a direct reference to body movements and actions that cannot be represented in sentences. Because sentences are just not the same as body-mediated actions. The same applies to phenomenal knowledge; this too cannot be reduced to sentence-like statements.
There is an extensive debate in philosophy and related disciplines about the relationship between practical and sentence-based knowledge, which, however, leads to many detailed questions, which is why I am excluding them here.  But the fact that there is such a debate is still instructive for the question of what constitutes knowledge. The debate can raise doubts that practical and physical knowledge are actually types of knowledge. And the doubt shows that there is a type of knowledge that is treated by philosophers: internally, but also socially privileged, has, so to speak, a special status: sentence-like knowledge. This knowledge seems to be at the core of knowledge.
However, these statements are no justification for why sentence-like knowledge has a special status, and neither are they any justification that this should be the case. I only point out that this knowledge is valued highest in countless social contexts, for example in school and academic. This should come as no surprise in view of the now almost outdated analysis of the "knowledge society" in which we supposedly live. Nevertheless, it deserves to be emphasized that the definition of types of knowledge can be controversial and that dominant interpretations can unilaterally determine the definition of knowledge and exclude other approaches. That means: the very definition of knowledge and types of knowledge has to do with power. I will come back to this later. 
Despite these problematic limitations, I concentrate on sentence-based knowledge when it comes to the question of what constitutes knowledge. There are also competing provisions for sentence-like knowledge; What is certain is that, by definition, it must actually be sentence-like. That is, it ultimately consists of beliefs: The convictionthat the molecular formula of water H2O is, my knowledge makes that the empirical formula of water is H2O is out.
We have seen that truth is part of the definition of sentence knowledge. But can't knowledge also be wrong? Interestingly, there is mostly agreement in philosophical contexts: only something that is true can be knowledge. And if something that was believed to be knowledge turns out to be wrong, then it was not knowledge, but only supposed knowledge. The geocentric worldview, for example, which sees the earth and people in the center of the universe, was taken to be knowledge, but has turned out to be supposed knowledge because the heliocentric worldview is correct. But the fact that we often only have supposed knowledge is no reason to delete truth from the definition of knowledge. Truth is knowledge. Truth is central to knowledge. We also recognize this from the fact that facts or facts are often the subject of knowledge.
Which conditions still apply to knowledge? Knowledge should be justified: Justification provides the foundation for knowledge. I know that in autumn the leaves of deciduous trees turn brightly because I have seen it in different autumns before. So my perception provides a justification for my knowledge. But I also know because I learned it at school, along with the explanation that because the green chlorophyll is withdrawn, pigments of a different color remain. And maybe I still know why and how the chlorophyll is extracted from the leaves. These are further justifications for my knowledge that the leaves of deciduous trees turn brightly in autumn. The chain of justification goes even further, of course, and also includes tacit knowledge. For our question about the definition of knowledge, it is important that a chain of justification belongs to knowledge.
In his dialogue with Meno, Socrates uses a vivid picture to explain why justification is so important for knowledge, and why true conviction alone is not enough: with knowledge, true conviction is still "tied up" by justification (as with ropes) and can be so don't fade away. And sometimes it looks like the justification even guarantees knowledge. But then there is the problem of supposed knowledge, because a justification can also be wrong, and then it does not lead to knowledge. Before it was known, for example, that oxygen feeds fire, in the 17th and 18th centuries Century associated combustion processes with the substance "phlogiston", among other things. The explanations, though plausible to some extent, were ultimately wrong because phlogiston does not exist. In order to avoid these eventualities in the definition of knowledge, philosophers have thought of various additions to the definition.
A very important addition is that knowledge is certain. This is more than the truth condition. Because certainty also means unshakable. In other words: only that true conviction that is also resistant to irritation can be knowledge.  Accordingly, knowledge is only that which justifiably remains when it is attacked by objections. In order to avoid the problem that knowledge can turn out to be supposed knowledge, a further condition is introduced: Knowledge should be sensitive to errors, that is, it should be possible to refute supposed knowledge through justified criticism.  Knowledge is more precisely defined by these additions, but it is also integrated into knowledge processes, in the scientific and social exchange of knowledge.
For (sentence-like) knowledge, the following five conditions must be met: (sentence-like) knowledge is true, justified conviction (by the way, the classic definition of knowledge in philosophy), which is error-sensitive and resistant to irritation.
But what about knowledge that is based on "alternative facts"? What about knowledge that should be sensitive to errors, but those who know do not care about this aspect? Indeed, the definition of sentence-like knowledge cannot be refuted by an idiosyncratic understanding of knowledge, the assertion of "alternative facts" or the stubborn repetition of unjustified statements. Because a philosophical definition should not depict how a term is used incorrectly or improperly and adapt to this use; rather, it should determine how the term should be used.
The idiosyncratic use of the word "knowledge" is nonetheless revealing. It indicates that knowledge is part of social, knowledge-oriented practices. Knowledge always has something to do with knowing persons (or subjects). How strong this connection is, and whether there can be knowledge without people and without their influence, is another node at which the question "What is knowledge?" branched in many ways. Like many others, I assume that people intervene in knowledge processes. You want to determine what counts as knowledge. That is one of the reasons knowledge has to do with power.
What is considered to be knowledge?I have presented a normative definition of knowledge, but it is known that knowledge is also socially determined through recognition. This does not necessarily mean that knowledge is just a construct, but only that social processes help determine what is known as knowledge. We have already seen this with the question of whether physical knowledge is knowledge at all. Social and scientific processes are also at work here that help determine an answer to what counts as knowledge. These processes are also pervaded by power: who provides the dominant interpretation? Who determines what counts as knowledge?
We see the effects of these validation processes in lost knowledge, for example about the medicinal effectiveness of certain plants. This knowledge is buried because it has not been passed down, sometimes through conscious suppression, sometimes unintentionally. The peacock bush provides an example of lost knowledge. This plant was used by female slaves in the West Indies to perform abortions so as not to give birth to children who would have to lead a life of slavery. The natural scientist Maria Sibylla Merian, for example, mentioned the use of the peacock bush 300 years ago in her writings.  In the course of colonialism, a lot of knowledge about the use of plants was brought to Europe, for example that quinine, obtained from the bark of the cinchona tree, is effective against malaria. But the knowledge of the ways in which the peacock can be used as an abortion agent was hidden from the European women of the time, and it would probably have been of use to them. 
The fact that knowledge has to do with recognition and validity underlines once again the close connection between knowledge and power. The powerful can sometimes have a say in what counts as knowledge. A look at history seems to suggest that this power of determination is unlimited: Statements that are neither true nor justified have been and are then declared to be knowledge through coercion or through blunt assertion. They are then mostly part of an ideology. This is how we experience it nowadays, for example, in the case of climate change deniers: inside, who cannot be dissuaded by sound scientific refutations from continuing to assert their verifiably false statements.
Disapproval and recognition processes not only affect knowledge, but also those who know. Not everyone who knows is recognized as a knower, not everyone who knows is also allowed to know. The female slaves of the West Indies in the 18th century were not regarded by the colonial authorities as knowing; both her knowledge and herself have been ignored. The women have thus experienced epistemic injustice. "Epistemic injustice" refers to processes and mechanisms by which a person who knows something is not treated as a knower, for example because he or she is not heard because of his or her gender or belonging to a group. 
Finally: no knowledge without ignoranceWhat answers to the three interpretations of "What is knowledge?" so did we evolve? Knowledge can be of different types: it can be sentence-like, practical or phenomenal. Sentence-like knowledge is true, justified conviction that is certain, but also sensitive to errors and resistant to irritation. Recognition processes also shape what counts as knowledge. But not everything that counts as knowledge is actually knowledge. False statements, for example, can only be supposed knowledge.
The questions about the validity of knowledge point back to a facet of knowledge that I already mentioned in the introduction: ignorance. Is that what is not knowing ignorance? To conclude, I would like to briefly show why, when asked what knowledge is, we cannot avoid talking about ignorance as well. 
In short: there is no knowledge without ignorance. What does that mean? First of all, it means the observation that a person was ignorant before he acquired knowledge. My ignorance comes before my knowledge; before I know something I didn't know So ignorance and knowledge are linked in time.
The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal provided another necessary link between knowledge and ignorance: he described knowledge as a large sphere in a sea of ignorance. And with this picture we can see that whenever new knowledge is added, the sphere grows, but so does ignorance.  Because if you know more, there is also more ignorance, because you now know more about which you do not know the corresponding at the same time. Knowledge and ignorance therefore always coexist and, if at all, cannot be understood alone, but only in combination.
In these attempts to answer the question of what knowledge is, it turns out that knowledge is inextricably linked with many other terms. The close connection between knowledge and ignorance is particularly important. The knowledge of his own ignorance made Socrates - according to the oracle of Delphi - the wisest of all people. Let's take that as a suggestion to think about the question: What is ignorance?
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