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Ignorance as a productive response to epistemic perturbations

  • Chris MaysEmail author
Knowing the Unknown
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Knowing the Unknown: Philosophical Perspectives on Ignorance


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.


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



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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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EnglishUniversity of Nevada, RenoRenoUSA

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