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The Excess Boom in Non-knowledge

Despite of the problems that Freud and Hayek quite obviously had with the concept of non-knowledge, why has the term resonated so much in the contemporary cultural and social sciences, particularly in German-speaking countries? In the media and public discourse alike, the category of non-knowledge is increasingly becoming a prominent and trenchant monetary unit as the shady side of knowledge, but why is it gaining currency?

The boom in reflection on non-knowledge certainly has to do with the essentially controversial concept of knowledge as well as with the common understanding of the modern conditions for the production of knowledge, with the societal role often attributed to knowledge, and with the theory of modern society as a knowledge society. Is the difference between knowledge and non-knowledge an example of the typically static conceptual polarity of Old European philosophy? Or is that difference basically only the widespread cultural criticism that the individual—given the extensive and growing volume of objectified knowledge in modern societies and given the sophisticated new technical and complicated methods of accessing it— disposes over only a minute (and probably diminishing) share of all knowledge? Are the widely discussed findings on the average voter’s alleged political ignorance, stupidity, and disenfranchisement and on the danger it poses to democracy a cause of the topicality of the subject of non-knowledge?

Is it, on the other hand, unrealistic to assume that the average citizen, including the well-educated contemporary citizen, has (or should have) sufficient technical expertise to intervene, for example, in the complex decision-making on economic questions of the goal conflict between inflation and unemployment? At root, does the concept of non-knowledge merely mean the societally necessary distribution of knowledge? Does the concept of non-knowledge perhaps refer primarily to the future present, about which one is really little informed? Does the origin of the boom in observations about non-knowledge lie, under certain circumstances, in an overestimation of the societal role of allegedly unquestioned scientific knowledge and in an underestimation of the societal roles of knowledge?

In my view the societal phenomena perceived as non-knowledge can be better captured by other terms, such as “systemic ignorance” (Moore & Tumin, 1949, p. 789), that express how a lack of knowledge or information is manifested in modern societies and how people can deal with knowledge gaps. In any case, two keys to recognizing the myth of non-knowledge are the concept of knowledge itself and the complicated question of distinguishing between information and knowledge.

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