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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 05-Mar-17


Sunday 05-March-17

Knowing, ignorance and self-knowledge

If you take any subject, you can have a range of knowledge about this, ranging from no knowledge to full knowledge. Few people exist at the extremes of this spectrum, though many have little knowledge and a good number may have a lot of knowledge (but not total knowledge).

There is a second, reflexive dimension on knowledge, which is the self-knowledge of knowing about your knowledge, in particular knowing what you do not know. In other words, this is the ability to see the spectrum of knowledge in any given subject and place yourself upon it, saying 'I know this but I do not know that'. A paradox of learning is that, as you gain more knowledge, you realize how much more you have yet to learn.

It can become problematic if you do not know what you do not know, as this can make you arrogant as you assume you know everything. This can be seen in the 'curse of ignorance', where people are not only ignorant, but are also ignorant of their ignorance. This does not mean they have no knowledge. Indeed, they may be very knowledgeable. Yet they are still ignorant of some things, and this lack of self-knowledge can lead to combative argument.

Why might we not know what we don't know? Sometimes it is because we simply have not encountered a sub-domain of knowledge. People who understand Newtonian physics may feel they know how atoms work, even though they have not encountered quantum mechanics. Sometimes also, we actually do know there are things that we don't know but feel uncomfortable about this, so we pretend that what we don't know is unimportant or simply does not exist. This is where we turn to deception rather than accept ignorance, even as we condemn ourselves to remain ignorant.

The best position is always to accept your ignorance, and always be ready to learn. This requires a certain amount of humility, which often needs sufficient self-confidence to publicly and cheerfully admit ignorance. Yet it is a position from which we can each grown and learn, increasing both our real knowledge as well as discovering more ignorance as a route into a learning future.

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