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Observing Non-knowledge, and Some of the Questions I Ask Myself in the Process

With these observations in mind, I try to ascertain what could or could not be meant when one speaks of non-knowledge. People’s actions are guided by knowledge. Knowledge of others and self-knowledge are prerequisites for socialization. Hence, as Simmel (1906) noted, knowledge is an anthropological constant: “All relationships of people to each other rest, as a matter of course, upon the precondition that they know something about each other” (p. 441). There can be no societal actors without knowledge. One is just as far from being unknowing without knowledge as one is naked without a headscarf. A society without secrets is inconceivable. Ignoring knowledge and information is sensible, even rational. A society in which there is total transparency is impossible. Knowledge is never created out of nothing. Knowledge, or the revision of knowledge, arises out of already existing knowledge (not out of forms of non-knowledge). The existence of a яоя-knowledge society is just as questionable as that of a human society without language. Humans live in a complex society marked by a high degree of functional differentiation in which almost all of its members are non-knowledgeable about almost all knowledge. Knowledge in the broad sense meant in this chapter is not restricted to any particular social system in modern societies. Thus, knowledge is everywhere (Luhmann, 1990, p. 147).

It is useful to ignore information and knowledge. Each individual knows that his or her knowledge is limited. Yet people profit a great deal from knowledge they are not acquainted with. What indicators could be used to characterize a non-knowledge society empirically? Almost half of the American population is convinced that the Earth is younger than 10,000 years old. Is the American society for that reason a non-knowledge society?

Who or what is the standard of comparison when one speaks of the duality of non-knowledge and knowledge or of the relationship of knowledge to nonknowledge (as known unknowns)? Is it the individual or rather a collective? Privileging the individual is common. To put it more stringently, does the concept of non-knowledge mean a single process, a single quality (information), or the prognosis of an occurrence? How long must (or can) non-knowledge be perceptibly recognizable in order to be non-knowledge? Can cluelessness, for example, last only for seconds? Does one refer to individual forms of knowledge (or information) that the isolated individual (e.g., a scientist) or a non-knowledgeable collective does not— and cannot—have because one always proceeds selectively or is forced to filter?

Knowledge, by contrast, is a variable societal phenomenon that lies on an indivisible continuum and points to the existence of the elementary distribution of knowledge in complex societies. No clear-cut difference between knowledge and non-knowledge exists. Knowledge is a total societal phenomenon.

There is no comprehensive knowledge; nobody can know everything. Acting under conditions of uncertainty is commonplace. Knowledge of these gaps is knowledge. But knowledge of gaps does not belong in the category of nonknowledge if it is a case of negative knowledge (to the extent that one finds this designation helpful). Actually, one can often close this gap quickly because it is possible to know or find out who might know it (a task fulfilled by the role of experts, for instance). On the other hand, there are things that everyone, or almost everyone, knows or about which almost everyone is informed (e.g., the fact that almost every human has two eyes or that there is such a thing as weather or climate). There are a number of expressions that are both empirically and practically more productive than non-knowledge and nonetheless illuminate the horizon of problems that non-knowledge allegedly comprises. In the following section I limit myself to just one of these possibilities.

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