Desktop version

Home arrow Education arrow Knowledge and Action


Knowing and Not Knowing

Nico Stehr

The outstanding feature of a man’s life in the modern world is his conviction that his life-world as a whole is neither fully understood by himself nor fully understandable to any of his fellow-men. Alfred Schutz (1946, p. 463)

In the presence of the total reality upon which our conduct is founded, our knowledge is characterized by peculiar limitations and aberrations. Georg Simmel (1906, p. 444)

As aptly as these introductory words by Schutz and Simmel summarize my own hypothesis on the presumed phenomenon of non-knowledge,[1] I note that it is captured still more precisely by economist Joseph Stiglitz’s (2005) formulation about the “invisible hand” (p. 133) ostensibly operating in the market place. Asked why the invisible hand is invisible, Stiglitz gave a straightforward answer: because it does not exist. Similarly, I ask in this chapter why non-knowledge is difficult to grasp. And my equally analogous response is: because there is no such thing as non-knowledge.

Not wishing to capitulate already at this early point, I concentrate in this chapter on scientific discourses in which participants maintain that something like nonknowledge does exist. The knowledge/non-knowledge dichotomy appears in many discussions on the subject as a kind of performative speech act (Sartori, 1968). However, it recommends only one side of that which it designates, namely, knowledge. I cannot quite sustain my doubt about the existence of not-knowing; from time to time I have to deviate from it and maintain that non-knowledge does exist. At the same time, I draw attention to other terms that are empirically and theoretically more productive than the naked assertion that non-knowledge exists. Finally, I will point to a number of intriguing, but rarely studied topics relating to the question of the societal function or societal treatment of apparently insufficient knowledge.

  • [1] My usage of the term non-knowledge follows the convention in the Literature that discusses theabsence of knowledge. The term is synonymous with not knowing and has a close affinity but notidentity with ignorance. In German the term is Nichtwissen. N. Stehr (*) Karl Mannheim Professor for Cultural Studies, Zeppelin University, D-88045 Friedrichshafen, Germanye-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it © The Author(s) 2017 P. Meusburger et al. (eds.), Knowledge and Action, Knowledge and Space 9,DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-44588-5_7
Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics