Ignorance and incompetence: Linguistic considerations

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


Introduction It's tempting to think that ignorance is just the opposite of knowledge. This view is usually referred to as “The Standard View” (see, e.g., Peels 2010, 2012; Le Morvan 2012, 2013). You are ignorant of something just when you do not know it. This temptation, I will argue, should be avoided. While we could introduce a new technical notion of ignorance and treat it as the complement of the notion of knowledge, our ordinary concept of ignorance is considerably more promiscuous in its application than our concept of knowledge. We sometimes speak of people being ignorant simpliciter. However, like knowledge, ignorance is a matter of standing in a particular relation to either a proposition or a subject matter. If we say that John is ignorant, we normally mean that he is ignorant with respect to a fact or a subject matter that is salient in the given conversational context. In this paragraph I argue on the basis of evidence from ordinary language use that there are three types of ignorance: ignorance of facts, ignorance of a subject matter, and ignorance of how to perform a particular activity. None of these uses is equivalent to our ordinary use of “do not know” or “fail to know,” when “know” occurs propositionally. If you don't know that p, you do not know that p simpliciter. You cannot know that p a lot, a little or to some extent. Conversely, we can be a little bit ignorant of the fact that p, very ignorant of the fact that p, and ignorant of the fact that p to some extent. Ignorance to some extent of the fact that p entails having a partial belief (or other comparable attitude) that p is the case or having some but not all the evidence one could (fairly easily) have had that p is the case. While ignorance of a fact does amount to a failure to know the fact, a failure to know a fact does not entail complete ignorance. That is, one can fail to know a fact without being completely ignorant of that fact. As we will see, when you are ignorant about a subject matter, this entails having little or no knowledge of the claims that constitute the subject matter.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9780511820076
ISBN (Print)9781107175600
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'Ignorance and incompetence: Linguistic considerations'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this