U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Novelty in the Study of Ignorance: Historiography, Theory, Etc.

For the past several years, as my anti-intellectualism project simmered in the background of other work, I had been convinced that the Robert Proctor-Londa Schiebinger Agnotology volume, published in 2008, was the beginning of something new and different within the study of anti-intellectualism, broadly defined.

Even though the volume’s editors do not refer to Hofstadter’s 1963 tome, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, my sense was that Agnotology indirectly added to that historiographic tradition. Because of my view of the Proctor-Schiebinger volume, I saw two other works as derivative: Erick Conway and Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt (2010), and the edited collection, Miseducation: A History of Ignorance-Making in America and Abroad (edited by A.J. Angulo, 2016). In my recent post, wherein I cover some of the new terminology in the Agnotology volume, I conveyed aspects of Proctor’s seemingly novel framework. Again, I saw all of this as something exciting within the arena of Hofstadter’s work, as an important subset. But it isn’t, really. And even though agnotology is an exciting area of study, it’s also not novel.

Further reading and contemplation have brought better perspective. What I see now see is that agnotology is a separate stream, originating from an entirely different mountain, that merges into Hofstadter’s older river of study. The agnotology paradigm derives from two sources: out of questions and problems in the hard sciences, but also out of Foucault’s questioning of the intersections of power and knowledge (i.e. epistemic problems in relation to discourses and genealogies of knowledge), especially as it relates to social constructivism. Neither Proctor nor Schiebinger cite Foucault, but one of the essays in the volume—Nancy Tuana’s “Coming to Understand”—helped make the connections to Foucault clear. The stream from ‘Foucault mountain’ clearly connects to Proctor’s “strategic ploy”/”active construct” iteration, where ignorance “is made, maintained, and manipulated by means of certain arts and sciences.” It is the “social construction of ignorance.” [1]

I’ve known for some time that agnotology was firmly rooted in the study of the history of science. That is Proctor’s background. The Agnotology volume makes this clear in the most frequent topics of its essays: classified scientific knowledge (esp. physics), climate science, medicine, biology, archaeology, genetic engineering, etc. The volume contains references to The Encyclopaedia of Ignorance (1977, on “what it is [scientists] would most like to know”) and The Encyclopedia of Medical Ignorance (1984). And then Proctor himself first utilized the notion of ignorance as an active construct/strategic play in his own 1995 work, Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know about Cancer (Basic Books).[2]

I was pleased to see this lineage in the sciences, as it helped demystify Proctor’s seemingly unique work. While he gave it shape with a specific neologism—both unique and connected to older Greek terminology—Proctor did not create the arena of study out of “whole cloth,” as they say. A concern for ignorance had been floating scientific streams of thought since the mid-1970s.

The Nancy Tuana essay helped me see more clearly the connections to Foucault—i.e. why Foucault isn’t directly referenced in Proctor’s own work, but why the former still lurks in the background. Tuana makes the connection clear in her preference to concentrate on how “epistemologies of ignorance” develop. The concern for Tuana is how “ignorance…is better understood as a practice with supporting social causes as complex as those involved in knowledge practices.” Foucault is directly cited by Tuana, but the works of others are folded into her epistemological intersections of race, feminism, sexuality, and ignorance.[3]

Tuana begins by citing a 1983 essay by Marilyn Frye, on whiteness and a feminist understanding of race and race supremacy. Frye underscored how a “determined” and “impoverishing” ignorance resulted in actions and negligence in ethno-racial interactions. Tuana then turns to Charles Mills’ 1997 book, The Racial Contract, wherein Mills argued that racial matters involved “an inverted epistemology…of ignorance” where whites ironically created a world they were “unable to understand.” For Mills, “cognitive dysfunctions” were structured into this white world. Moving back a bit chronologically in the scholarship, Tuana then cites Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1990). Segwick argues that “ignorance effects can be harnessed, licensed, and regulated on a mass scale for striking enforcements.”[4] For Tuana, the politics of this arena are key in epistemological analyses. Here we are clearly back at Foucault. Power and knowledge are being fashioned, simultaneously, by the state. Ignorance is actively constructing our visions of race, gender, and sexuality.

While I still believe that Hofstadter is lurking in the background of Agnotology, and his areas of concern in Anti-Intellectualism directly apply (e.g. religion, masculinity, science, education, politics), my goal here is simply to underscore how several streams comingle in relation to the study of unreason, anti-intellectualism, and ignorance. I noted last week the ideas of agency and shame in relation to ignorance. That alone should’ve brought me more quickly to Foucalt. But the Tuana essay, thankfully, took me by the hand to that stream, and helped me explore it further.

What I see now is that I wanted agnotology to be something novel. I wanted it to demonstrate newness in field of intellectual history. As is the case with most scholarship, however, the Proctor-Schiebinger volume—to use a football analogy—simply moved the ball forward a few yards. It obtained a noisy first down. Despite, however, the novelty of volume’s title and new terminology introduced, the game had been proceeding for years before 2008. – TL


[1] Nancy Tuana, “Coming to Understand: Orgasm and the Epistemology of Ignorance,” in Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, eds. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 8-9, 111.

[2] Proctor-Schiebinger, 11-18, 30n12, 183

[3] Tuana, 108-110.

[4] Ibid.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. What about someone who is (or people who are) ignorant in the old-fashioned (?) sense of “uninformed about” and whose ignorance results basically from a decision not to do something? For example, I’m ignorant of X because I never studied X or bothered to inform myself about it, and while that may have social determinants (e.g. the nature of dominant curricula or cultural influences), it’s also an individual thing. How does that kind of ignorance connect to anti-intellectualism as Hoftstadter wrote about it or ignorance as “practice” or “social construct”? (I begin to wonder what cannot be labeled a “practice,” but that’s by the by.)

    Also, in recent years there have been one or two wide-audience books about ignorance in the lack-of-knowledge sense (e.g., how little Americans know about … whatever, or everything). How does that fit in?

    • Louis: Thanks for the comment.

      The kind of ignorance you mention in your first para appears in Proctor’s first essay in the book. It takes two forms. The first he calls “ignorance as a native state” (pp. 4-6). This is simple ignorance, or an innocent deficit. It implies “a place where knowledge has not yet penetrated” (p. 4). This kind of ignorance, once recognized, demands to be overcome—e.g. by reading or discovery.

      The second he calls “ignorance as a lost realm, or selective choice (or passive construct)” (pp. 6-8). He posits that inquiry is always selective, looking here or there. Ignorance becomes “a product of inattention” (p. 7). No decision has been made to destroy or subvert knowledge.

      Does this help?

      Thus far I’m unconcerned with the vast popular literature about our purported ignorance. I find most of it uninteresting—righteous harangues that often ignore why people may be ignorant (i.e. structural issues). Or gotcha-style junk by elites. The current stuff seems less concerned with the roots of problems and causation rather than self-reliance and morality tales.

      On Hofstadter’s connections to all of this, well, I’m still sorting that out. The connections between his psychologizing (i.e. the disorder of paranoia) and knowledge deficits are easy to see. But my sense is that Hofstadter saw ignorance in two other ways: (1) as a personal plight for which you (i.e. historical actors) were responsible for rectifying, or (2) humans as dupes, easily led astray by prominent pseudo-intellectuals. The latter situation occurs less because of ignorance than that the masses were biologically flawed, or products of flawed educational systems (e.g. churches and/or schools). In sum, I see Hofstadter—as of today in my developing thoughts on this relationship—as positing either too much or too little agency in humans past and present. – TL

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