It is customary to employ the word “ignorance” as if it were a simple and singular idea, but actually the word has at least five distinct meanings, probably more. It is helpful to differentiate them.
First, there is Innocent Ignorance. This is the innocent of children and of the simple-minded who have had limited experience of life and exposure to general knowledge of the world. We tend to look at such ignorance as quaint, naive and charming.
Second, there is Willful Ignorance. This is the ignorance that stubbornly and deliberately persists even in the face of many opportunities to attain new knowledge and experience. This ignorance prefers to cocoon in an ideological ghetto or cultural enclave that is closed off to outside information and ideas rather than risk exposing its mind to what Emerson called “the wide-wide world.” It is the kind of ignorance that choosed to “ignore” rather than question, explore, investigate and engage what is going on in the larger natural, intellectual, cultural and social environment beyond its own immediate survival, safety and security needs.
Third, there is Arrogant Ignorance. This is the ignorance that confuses partial knowledge with total knowledge, and presumes to know all things. It is the pretentious “know-it-all” who looks down contemptuously upon others who do not know what he knows, or thinks he knows, and who is arrogantly ignorant of what he does not truly know and understand but assumes he knows.
Fourth, there is Domain Ignorance. This is the ignorance that is specialized in nature. There are persons who are knowledgable in one or more domains of knowledge but are ignorant of many others. It is tempting to assume that because we may have worked hard to attain a broad knowledge and deep understanding of particular domains of knowledge that we must automatically possess a broad and deep comprehension of other domains that we have investigated to nearly the same degree of inquiry as we have given to our intellectual specialties. Others may also falsely assume that because we have knowledge of one domain that we must possess an equally in-depth and refined knowledge of other domains of which we remain largely ignorance or merely rudimentary in our understanding.
Fifth, there is Enlightened Ignorance. This is the kind of ignorance that we may become aware that we possess after a lifetime of intensive and extensive study and reflection, whether of a particular domain of knowledge and dimension of experience, or of all of them together. This is what we mean by Socratic Ignorance. It is a knowledge humbled of what we do not know, and perhaps of what we cannot know in our finitude and limitations as fallible human beings. The idea has resonances Nicolas of Cusa’s idea of Learned Ignorance , of Keat’s idea of Negative Capability and of Rilke’s advice to a young poet to “live the questions.” Enlightened Ignorance brings us “full circle” to the Sense of Wonder that launched us upon our journey in the first place.
A knowledge of our ignorance, and of the different kinds of ignorance, is the beginning of wisdom.