Typology Of Ignorance

by Milo Clark

January 20, 2003


In Buddhist matters, the Sanskrit word Duhka, Pali Dukka, is commonly translated as "suffering." According to the Four Noble Truths, life's central problem is suffering.

However, dukha may also be translated as "ignorance." To my mind, ignorance more accurately names life's central problems.

Back in 1968, Gregory Bateson; biologist, anthropologist, pioneering cyberneticist and, yes, philosopher; assembled a diverse group of multi-disciplinary colleagues to a conference on "The Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation." Bateson and his cohorts had nibbled around, chomped on and ripped at similar questions for years.

His daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, who has achieved in subsequent years a reputation nearly as awe inspiring as her father's, attended and reported her observations in Our Own Metaphor (1972), reprinted in 1991. (1)

Among the rich fodder for grazing minds within the green covers of this book, Will Jones started work on a typology of ignorance. The group was wrestling with the puzzling inability of humankind to come to grips with the immense damage we are inflicting on our home, the Earth.

Will's hesitant listing was more a search for hypothesis than expression of certainty. The group was very aware that they were including themselves in the predicament they sought to understand.

Little change in our collective capacity to foul our nest, other than increase, is notable over more than thirty intervening years. Presently, government, industry and military are all working to accelerate rates of destruction. For me, this brief typology has a special quality as a base on which to build.

I am continually recalled to this typology and its kin, the typologies of knowledge and learning, as I find myself again and again bumping into the walls of my own limitations, my own relative impotence, my own follies, my own daily, minute-by-minute, denials of that which I do know.

A tentative typology of ignorance:

1. Ignorance of facts, i.e., ignorance of relevant information on which to base responsible examination;

2. Ignorance resulting from the lack of particular theories or constructs to interpret them;

3. Ignorance resulting from limitations in world views: i.e., bases of reference, life experience, beliefs;

4. Affective ignorance, not caring about something one does or may know.

The common range of discussion about how "they" are messing up whatever is messed up in the eyes of the observer is usually considered to fall within these four items.

There is, however, a fifth item which offers challenging potentials for change. Indeed, change in each of the four above is incorporated into any change model applicable to dealing positively with our ruinous presence upon and ruthless domination of Earth.

In spite of the myriad efforts at both explanation and change which have been offered over the many years, we simply come up against our ignorance of our ignorances. And, therefore, the fifth item in the typology of ignorance, i.e., ignorance of ignorance, is deeply damning.

Our vast investment, personal, corporate and governmental, in collective ignoring of ignorance is exceeded only by our unperceived ignorances -- we simply don't know or will not acknowledge what we don't know until it turns out to be too late.

I suspect my sense of such matters underlies my deep distrust of current government. And it may also provide a means of understanding the degrees to which ignorance and ignorance of ignorance is operative.

We didn't know that atomic energy creates wastes and damages at the levels we now know. That we now have improving technical knowledge about the long lasting effects of nuclear energy doesn't have much effect on changing the past and little more in blunting the continuing and ever-growing headlong rush to nuclear disaster expensively and noisily advocated every day by corporations, governments and militaries.

To give pause on nuclear issues, James Lovelock of Gaia fame is an advocate, on balance, of nuclear energy as a less damaging technology than those dependent on fossil fuels.

We studied laundry detergents endlessly and never asked what happens after their use.

We never considered that nitrogen introduced through chemical fertilizers was of an entirely different order than nitrogen created through natural processes. Today, we put on more and more chemical fertilizers, more and more chemical nitrogen, to less and less effect and continue to reap exponentially compounded damages.

And the almost numberless listings of self-inflicted wounds consume more than they feed day after day after day.

Of the first four items, affective ignorance or denial is especially disturbing. I drive my car knowing that it is an ecological disaster, even if minutely less so than a short time past.

I eat chemically altered foods knowing that less and less nutrition is managing to survive within them.

I spend hours in front of or under many varieties of cathode ray tubes, computer monitors, television sets, microwave "ovens," fluorescent lights, knowing that I am risking unknown damages to my body cells.

I walk beside roads knowing that the exhaust emissions of the passing vehicles are taking a toll on my life; knowing that those emissions are washing off the roads into the ground waters.

I am not ignorant of the myriad ways "modern day life" is damaging my quality of life in the most basic senses of personal physical survival; I am denying my knowledge where I am aware of knowing.

And I am ignorant of so much that I simply don't know to be ignorant of. And I assume that I know much more than most.

Perhaps a useful approach to dealing with contemporary problems is to resolve ignorance into knowing and knowing into actions.

Any ideas?


The only way not to play a game is not to play!

Attempting to solve problems using the tools, techniques and thoughts which create them is silly.

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1.  "Our Own Metaphor, a Personal Account of a Conference on The Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation," Mary Catherine Bateson, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC, 1991, ISBN 1-56098-070-2  (back)


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Published January 20, 2003
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