Types of Ignorance

By Maeve Maddox

As a teacher, I am always pained when I hear “ignorant” used as an insult.

ignorance: n. lack of knowledge

Everyone is born ignorant into the world. The word ignorance is from Latin ignorantia. The prefix in– means “not”; Old Latin gnarus means “aware, acquainted with.” Mere ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. Ignorant is not a synonym for “stupid.”

Catholic theology recognizes three categories of ignorance:

invincible ignorance: lack of knowledge that a person has no way to obtain

vincible ignorance: lack of knowledge that a rational person is capable of acquiring by making an effort

nescience: lack of knowledge that doesn’t matter in the circumstances (from Latin ne-, “not” plus scire, “to know.”

In Catholic theology, invincible ignorance, “whether of the law or the fact, is always a valid excuse and excludes sin.”

In the secular realm, however, all ignorance is seen as “vincible.”

For logicians, the term “invincible ignorance” means “the fallacy of insisting on the legitimacy of one’s position in the face of contradictory facts.” If the facts are presented, there’s no excuse to refuse to acknowledge them.

The law likewise does not allow for a category of information unavailable to the lawbreaker that would forgive the breach of the law: ignorantia juris non excusat, “ignorance of the law does not excuse.”

Here’s a lengthier definition of the secular take on invincible ignorance from Wikipedia:

invincible ignorance: a deductive Fallacy of Circularity where the person in question simply refuses to believe the argument, ignoring any evidence given. It’s not so much a fallacious tactic in argument as it is a refusal to argue in the proper sense of the word, the method instead being to make assertions with no consideration of objections.

Fitness expert Greg Glassman has this recommendation for dealing with invincible ignorance:

some simply cannot be swayed toward your way of thinking, so don’t try. …you’re probably best to walk away from a pointless debate.

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8 Responses to “Types of Ignorance”

  • Mary Hodges

    Maeve, I agree with your definition, but the term “ignorant” is often used colloquially to mean “ill-mannered” or “uncouth” . This usage is recognised in the OED. I suppose the idea is that someone so described is ignorant of – ie does not know – the correct way to behave.

  • Maeve

    @Mary
    Definitely! Your remark immediately made Emilia’s anguished “Ignorant as dirt!” pop into my mind.

    While ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s nothing to be proud of, either.

  • Julie

    The French use to verb “ignore” in the sense of “to be unaware of” rather than in the sense of “to refuse to take notice of.” I’ve always thought it a useful verb, as in “Elle souffre d’une douleur dont elle ignore la cause.” (“She is suffering from a pain the cause of which she doesn’t know.”)

    I doubt, however, that we will succeed in recovering that usage in English.

  • Dwain Wilder

    The wikipedia definition of “invincible ignorance” seems at odds with the Catholic theological definition, since it describes a condition that one could recognize in oneself and overcome. But the Church’s definition is beyond sin, and thus would seem inborn. What to make of that difference?

    Dwain

  • Michael

    Thanks Maeve! Very helpful indeed.

  • Maeve

    @Dwain
    The Wikipedia definition is the secular definition.

    “Invincible ignorance” in the theological sense, at least as I understand it, refers to ignorance of matters relating to salvation. For example, pagans who lived before Christ had no way of knowing about Christian redemption. Their ignorance was “invincible” because they had no way of getting the necessary knowledge.

    Outside of the theological context, “invincible ignorance” seems to mean bullheadedness of the kind we see so much of in so-called “debates” in which each side goes into the fray with the attitude that “nothing you can say is going to change my mind.”

  • Stephen Thorn

    Just to throw this in regarding ignorance and lack of knowledge —
    There’s an old Arabian maxim that I like:
    “He who knows not and knows not he knows not: he is a fool – shun him. He who knows not and knows he knows not: he is simple – teach him. He who knows and knows not he knows: he is asleep – wake him. He who knows and knows he knows: he is wise – follow him.”

  • Peter Trainin

    Root is gnosis to know.
    cf. prognosis diagnosis, agnostic, recognize, the Gnostics,
    the silent K of to know is a vestige,
    In-gnos = ignosis = not to know.

    Invincible Ignorance in real life is the constraint on lucidity
    imposed by the hierarchy of fears woven into the formative years,
    which demand an over-arching hegemony over a slaved worldview, and in which the Zombie values an illusion of
    immediate personal security more than the autonomous use of the only truly human attribute, his own mind.

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