Skip to content

Why Write the History of Ignorance?

Read the introduction to the journal’s special issue “Histories of Ignorance” here.

Lukas M. Verburgt


Peter Burke


When I first spoke about the history of ignorance at a conference held in the Netherlands in 2019, the response was largely negative. Some people didn’t see the point of it. Others were even slightly upset. This surprised me. My aim had merely been to ask some basic questions about what we would like the history of knowledge to be. After all, the conference was titled “Towards a History of Knowledge.” Why write a history of knowledge to the exclusion of ignorance? Doesn’t this reinvoke the kind of old historiographical habits that the history of knowledge tries to shake loose?

The negative response also stimulated me. First, it made me wonder about the reasons for it. I soon realized that there is, indeed, something counter-intuitive, or strange even, about studying ignorance. (As Peter once said: no one would like to be called a ‘Professor of Ignorance’!) Second, I set out to examine what exactly makes the historical study of ignorance so counter-intuitive. One reason is obvious enough: It goes against some of our most deeply held intuitions about what knowledge is and how knowledge develops over time. In brief, the assumption is that knowledge conquers ignorance, and that’s the end of it. Other reasons are more complex, having to do with historiographical considerations. For instance, we can’t study ignorance by means of historicism and let historical actors define what it is—this would mean that they would have to know what they do not know. But we also want to avoid falling in the trap of Whiggism, using our own knowledge as a standard for determining what people in the past were ignorant of. Hence, in order to be able to write a history of ignorance, we need to find an alternative for both historicism and Whiggism.

This seems a daunting task. At the same time, the simple fact that we know that ignorance has a history, even if merely as the “dark” side of knowledge, suggests that historians should find out how to write it. For a few weeks after the conference, I felt rather alone in this conviction, not knowing whether I would ever act upon it. Enter Peter…

“A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America” from Edward Quin’s Historical Atlas (1830). 


When I work on a given topic, I have the habit of turning it upside down or inside out to see how it appears from an unfamiliar angle. When I was studying the social history of language, for instance, I wrote a piece called “Notes for a social history of silence,” suggesting that silence, like language, has a meaning, or rather meanings in the plural. Silence may express a variety of feelings (from modesty to fear), according to the kinds of person who is silent and to the situation.[1] When I was writing the second volume of my Social History of Knowledge (2012), I devoted a chapter to the loss of knowledge—or the growth of ignorance—which in the days of paper encyclopedias could be measured by the articles that were left out or reduced in size in successive editions (compare the articles on Cicero, Luther or Charles V in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and in the New Encylopaedia Britannica of 1974). In 2019, at a conference on Ernst Gombrich in Hangzhou, I mentioned the history of ignorance in the discussion, and it seemed both to surprise listeners and to awaken their interest. Afterwards the organizer of the conference, Professor Cao Yiqiang, invited me to give the Gombrich Lectures on this topic the following year.

The lectures have not been given yet, owing to Covid, but the invitation crystallized my idea of writing a book on this topic, which I expect to finish soon, although research on a topic such as this could go on forever. Unlike Lukas, I’ve been lucky enough not to encounter criticism when I’ve spoken about ignorance in lectures. I have discussed the triumphalist or Whig interpretation of intellectual history (in Condorcet, for instance) in terms of the defeat or at least the retreat of ignorance, but made it clear that my own position can be summed up in an epigram of Mark Twain’s: “We are all ignorant, just about different things.” The point was made again in historical terms in a book by C. S. Lewis, who is more famous today for his fiction, but wrote a history of sixteenth-century literature that I read when I was in the sixth form at school. What impressed me was his chapter on “new learning and new ignorance.” The point was recently confirmed in the Observer of August 29, 2021, in which it was noted that a new edition of The Oxford Junior Dictionary has dropped the words “buttercup,” “catkin” and “conker” as if these things have become unfamiliar to the younger generation, filling the space with “broadband,” “chatroom” and “celebrity.”

There are of course problems in writing the history of an absence. As a hard-nosed empiricist would say: “What are the sources?” Referring to successive editions of encyclopedias is only a small part of the answer. Another approach, adopted in the book Terra Incognita (2020) by the French historian Alain Corbin (whose original choices of topics for research include the history of smells and bells), is a retrospective history of discoveries, each one of them revealing what was not known earlier. It would also be possible either to widen the idea of ignorance to include confusion, misinformation or prejudice, or, if you prefer the precise definition of ignorance as the absence of knowledge (as I do), to discuss the relation of ignorance to its neighbors, reconstructing a network of concepts in the manner of Reinhart Koselleck and his colleagues in the collective enterprise of Begriffsgeschichte.

A social historian will want to ask in addition, Who was ignorant of What and Who keeps Whom ignorant of What, When, Where, Why and with What Consequences? I must confess that when I began research for a book about ignorance I framed it, like my earlier books about knowledge, in academic terms, but the challenge to include the place of ignorance in general history was impossible to ignore, and so I have written about ignorance—and its associate, misunderstanding—in everyday life business, politics, and war as well as in the practice of science and scholarship. I must also confess, in conclusion, that no previous book of mine challenged me so much, and that no previous book was (and remains) such fun to write!

Lukas and Peter

Eventually, the two of us became acquainted after we found out that we shared the conviction that the historical study of ignorance is worth pursuing, and had actually both written on it.[2] This was around the time of the Journal for the History of Knowledge’s call for proposals for its Fall 2021 Special Issue. We soon set to work, and found out that there were others interested in, and sometimes already working on, histories of ignorance. It is our hope as co-editors of the Special Issue “Histories of Ignorance,” that more historians will join this endeavor, perhaps inspired by the same experience that Peter had when writing his forthcoming book. Researching the history of ignorance is a challenge—and a really enjoyable one at that.

[1] P. Burke, ‘Notes for a social history of silence in Early Modern Europe,’ in The Art of Conversation (Cambridge, 1993), 123–141; P. Burke, ‘The spaces of silence,’ in Silence. Schweigen: Über die stumme Praxis der Kunst, ed. A. Beyer and L. Le Bon (Berlin, 2015), 5–16.

[2] Peter Burke, “Response,” in The Journal for the History of Knowledge 1.1 (2020) 7, 1–7; Lukas M. Verburgt, “The History of Knowledge and the Future History of Ignorance,” in KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge 4.1 (2020): 1–24.

%d bloggers like this: