Taking Ignorance Seriously

Jeffrey Friedman says:

The most profound observer of political ignorance, Walter Lippmann, tackled [...] the commonplace accusation that one’s political adversaries have evil motives. This is neither a charitable accusation to make nor one that, when the heat of the day’s political battles dissipates, stands up to empirical testing. Yet it is an immensely important political phenomenon that unfolds regularly.

Lippmann attributes it to the inherently contestable nature of a complex world – especially one that we tend not to see as particularly hard to fathom. We typically fail to realize that the political world is complex, and thus that our perceptions of it amount to anything but “the facts” speaking for themselves.

Once our political opinions appear to us to be “self-evident” reflections of the facts, it becomes mysterious (to us) why anyone would hold different opinions than we do. As Lippmann ([1922] 1997, 82-83) puts it,

He who denies my version of the facts is to me perverse, alien dangerous. How shall I account for him? The opponent has always to be explained, and the last explanation that we ever look for is that he sees a different set of facts. Such an explanation we avoid, because it saps the very good foundation of our own assurance that we have seen life steadily and seen it whole…

So where two factions see vividly each its own aspect, and contrive their own explanations of what they see, it is almost impossible for them to credit each other with honesty. If the pattern fits their experience at a crucial point, they no longer look upon it as an interpretation. They look upon it as “reality.”

Someone who does not share my interpretation of (obvious) “reality,” Lippmann continues,

…is an annoyance who does not fit into the scheme of things. Nevertheless he interferes. And since that scheme is based in our minds on incontrovertible fact fortified by irresistible logic, some place has to be found for him in the scheme. Rarely in politics is a place made for him by the simple admission that he has looked upon the same reality and seen another aspect of it. That would shake the whole scheme.

Out of the opposition, therefore, we make villains and conspiracies.

If we allowed that those who disagree with us just see the facts differently, we would have to conclude that either they, or we, must be mistaken about the facts. That would undermine the obviousness of the reality that we find solidly anchored in “self-evident truths”. We sidestep the disconcerting possibility that we may be mistaken about these truths by attributing not a mistaken understanding of the facts but bad motives to our political opponents. It is far easier to reassure oneself about the purity of one’s own motives than about the infallibility of one’s own perceptions, so people persistently tend to see a world that is in fact so complicated that its interpretation generates honest disagreement as, instead, so simple that only evil people could disagree with them – malevolent people who deliberately ignore obvious truths.

Thus, ignorance of the real possibility of one’s own ignorance both enables and is reinforced by ignorance of the possibility of one’s political antagonist’s ignorance.

Popper (1962: 7-8) has a theory of the source of political demonization that almost exactly duplicates Lippmann’s:

The conspiracy theory of ignarance is a curious outgrowth from the doctrine of manifest truth.

By the doctrine that truth is manifest I mean the optimistic view that truth, if put before us naked, is always recognizable as truth.

But how can we ever fall into error if truth is manifest? Ignorance may be the work of powers conspiring to keep us in ignorance, to poison our minds by filling them with falsehood, and to blind our eyes so that they cannot see the manifest truth.

The conspiracy theory of ignorance is fairly well known in its Marxian form as the conspiracy of a capitalist press that perverts and suppresses truth and fills the workers’ minds with false ideologies…

The theory that truth is manifest – that it is there for everyone to see, if only he wants to see it – this theory is the basis of almost every kind of fanaticism. For only the most depraved wickedness can refuse to see the manifest truth.

This is one reason that, in politics, people close their minds to other points of view, regardless of the content of those points of view. Anyone can use this mechanism to dismiss challenges to their own beliefs, no matter what those beliefs are.


From Jeffrey Friedman’s “Popper, Weber and Hayek: The Epistemology and Politics of Ignorance”, Critical Review 17 (2005) nos. 1-2. (www.criticalreview.com/)