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The current intense debate among social scientists, with its radical polarization of knowledge and non-knowledge, is like an echo from a lost world or the wish to be able to live in this lost, but secure, world. It was a world in which knowledge was reliable, objective, ontologically well-founded, truthful, realistic, uniform, and undisputed. It was a world in which scientific knowledge was unique and the profane world of nonscientific knowledge was largely disqualified. It was a world in which more knowledge alone—such as that which enables one to act successfully in practice—was always superior to having no additional knowledge (knowledge bias). The world of unquestioned knowledge has vanished. Unclear is whether the disappearance of such knowledge is a real loss, as one is evidently supposed to believe from talk of the divide between non-knowledge and knowledge, or whether it is a form of intellectual emancipation.
The difference between knowledge and non-knowledge is an old European antithesis with an ancestry harking back to premodern cultures. The old European tradition of a dichotomy of non-knowledge and knowledge becomes apparent especially in the attribution of persons or groups to one of these two categories. Such ascription holds that the unknowing person or, more generally, the unknowing social class is not only helplessly exposed to the power of knowledge but also pitiable and backward. And inasmuch as the occurrence of non-knowledge applies to other societies and cultures, it is foreign knowledge—not one’s own—that is non-knowledge. As described by Fleck (1935/1979): “Whatever is known has always seemed systematic, proven, applicable, and evident to the knower. Every alien system of knowledge has likewise seemed contradictory, unproven, inapplicable, fanciful, or mystical” (p. 22).
For that reason these traditional deliberations on the great divide between knowledge and non-knowledge come nowhere close to resolving the dilemma described by Luhmann (1991): “Is the generally held assumption that more communication, more reflection, more knowledge, more learning, more participation—that more of all of this would bring about something good or, in any sense, nothing bad—at all justified?” (p. 90, my translation). The emerging political field of knowledge politics is dedicated to this societal dilemma posed by the risks of knowledge (Stehr, 2003).
One should not insist on an absolute antithesis of knowledge and non- knowledge—there is only less or more knowledge and those who know something and those who know something else. The practical problem is always to know how much or how little one knows in a given situation. A person is not either knowledgeable or unknowing. A person has more knowledge in one context than in another: A person may know a great deal about tax regulations but hardly anything about playing golf.
Actors (including scientists) react to complex societal forms by simplifying mental constructs of these relationships. The mental constructs are, in fact, incomplete inasmuch as they do not depict reality in its full complexity. These simple models change, react to the unexpected, but are hardly non-knowledge. One of the advantages of liberal democracies is the consciousness that omniscience can be dangerous and that safeguarding privacy must remain a form of sanctioned ignorance.
Acknowledgements Robert Avila translated an early draft of this chapter from German. I am grateful to Jason Mast for his critical reading of the text. Volker Meja offered useful editorial advice. An initial version of the chapter was published as an article entitled “Knowledge and nonknowledge,” in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies, 8, 3-13, 2012. For the purpose of this edited volume, the argument of that text has been considerably extended and enlarged.
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