Guerrero and the Effects of Claims About “Ignorance” for Change in Philosophy

Over at Daily Nous, Alexander Guerrero has written a very instructive guest post that provocatively builds upon interventions that, in the past, he has made about the eurocentrism, ethnocentrism, and Anglo-American concentration of philosophy curricula.

Guerrero’s post is both informative and challenging, providing recommendations and advice to philosophers about how they can expand the purview of the sorts of courses that they offer in ways that more vividly and equitably represent the global spectrum of philosophical thinking. The opening line of the post is this: “The profession of philosophy and the education of philosophy students—at both the undergraduate and graduate level—must change.”

As expansive as Guerrero’s ideas about why and how philosophy must change are in some senses, they are limited in scope in other respects. In the post, Guerrero appeals to the longstanding observation (pointed out by many people both inside and outside of the discipline) that philosophy, as practised in Northern and Western countries at least, is overwhelmingly white and male.

Yet this observation, if left decontextualized and uncomplicated, relies upon an overwhelming disregard for other axes of power (such as the apparatuses of disability, class, sexuality, and age) with which the apparatuses of gender and race are co-constitutive, recapitulating the bias that gender and race are isolatable from these other axes of power and more fundamental to philosophical thinking, identity, social organization, political systems, and other aspects of human existence than are the apparatuses of disability, class, and so on with which gender and race are produced.

As a disabled feminist philosopher of disability, I want to both contest Guerrero’s assumptions in this regard and encourage him to read more widely in the burgeoning fields of philosophy of disability and disability studies especially. In particular, I want to recommend that Guerrero read my book Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. If Guerrero were to do so, he might reconsider another way in which ableism has conditioned his guest post at Daily Nous. That is, he might recognize that his overall argument in the post and in particular his claims about “cycles of ignorance” rely upon ableist and classist assumptions and values that I critique in the first chapter of the book.

I have copied below the relevant section of my book’s first chapter. In doing so, I hope to motivate Guerrero and other philosophers (including feminist philosophers) to rethink their persistent use of the term ignorance as a means to identify practices of knowing and disregard that they don’t like, want to challenge, and aim to reform.

It might interest philosophers who (persistently) use the term ignorance in this way that Charles Mills himself was aware of the critique of his phrase “epistemology of ignorance” that Stacy Clifford Simplican introduced in The Capacity Contract. You can read his review of Simplican’s book (a review that he once sent to me) here.

I am not sure whether Charles read my elaborations of Simplican’s critique in the first chapter of my book. The subject did not arise in any of our communications in person or on email. Nevertheless, he did once nod his head, saying “yes” and telling me about his review, when I pointed out to him that the notion of an “epistemology of ignorance” is ableist. I believe that Charles continued to grapple with the significant challenge that Simplican’s critique posed to a number of his ideas.

My critique of the idea of an epistemology of ignorance and my elaboration of Simplican’s argument appear below.


From pages 41-44 of Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability (University of Michigan Pres, 2017):

Some philosophers of disability identify the collective refusal of philosophers to critically interrogate disability as an “epistemology of ignorance.” For more than two decades, a variety of philosophers have used the term epistemology of ignorance to refer to a form of active refusal to attend to certain understandings of and knowledge about social relations of power and oppression. In The Racial Contract, Charles Mills writes that the racial contract between white people prescribes for them an “inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance, a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made” (1997, 18). White supremacy, Mills points out, involves a concerted and sustained agreement among whites to engage in an epistemology of ignorance about the actual relations of power and oppression in society. Philosophers of race and feminist philosophers (among others) have subsequently used Mills’s idea of an epistemology of ignorance to develop an emerging area of inquiry that has come to be referred to as “ignorance studies.”  In the introduction to their edited collection on race and epistemologies of ignorance, for instance, feminist philosophers Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana (2007, 1) remark that although ignorance is commonly thought to be a gap in one’s knowledge that can easily be remedied, sometimes what we do not know is a lack of knowledge or an unlearning that is actively produced for the purposes of domination and exploitation. As Sullivan and Tuana explain it, these “unknowledges” may be either consciously produced or unconsciously generated and supported.

My argument is that this discourse on epistemology of ignorance itself enlists a refusal to know, that is, a refusal to acknowledge itself as subjugating. Indeed, there are at least two reasons why it is a mistake for philosophers of disability to adopt the notion of an epistemology of ignorance in order to describe the stubborn indifference of (most) philosophers to the urgent philosophical, political, and social questions that disability raises. First, the idea of an epistemology of ignorance is ableist. Although philosophers who use the idea of epistemologies of ignorance are adamant that their idea refers to far-reaching structural and institutional determinants of knowledge and not to a mere gap in a given individual’s knowledge, they seem unable to describe the idea in any detail without reference to some “lack” or “deficit” of cognitive capacity. That is, proponents of the idea of epistemologies of ignorance claim to advance an externalist understanding of the relation between epistemology and domination; yet, their arguments invariably resort to internalist understandings of cognitive phenomena to make their case. Indeed, philosophical discussions of epistemologies of ignorance are peppered with ableist metaphors and other references to cognitive impairment and disability, metaphors and references that, in some respects, serve to paradoxically depoliticize and naturalize the states of affairs to which they are intended to refer: “obliviousness,” “delusion,” “collective amnesia,” “blindness,” “moral blindness,” and “cognitive dysfunction,” to name only a few.

Stacy Clifford Simplican (2015), writing about the uses of Mills’s theory for the idea of a capacity contract that addresses cognitive disability, argues that although an epistemology of ignorance captures many components of domination, the language of ignorance is inappropriate for an emancipatory project that revolves around cognitive disability. Mills’s notion of an epistemology of ignorance is unsuitable, Simplican remarks, because “the familiar Enlightenment category of ignorant/cognizant maps onto morally wrong/right. For Mills,” Simplican writes, “ignorance shrouds the morally inferior, whereas the cognitively superior are also morally superior. Better politics demands smarter people” (88). In short, although the idea of an epistemology of ignorance may seem useful in the short term for philosophy of disability, the idea seems counterproductive to the achievement of long-term aims in the field.

Second, the language of ignorance/knowledge and its association with moral inferiority/superiority has classist implications. It just is the case that people’s socioeconomic positions significantly condition (among other things) their levels of literacy, access to education, access to technology, social mobility, access to nutritious food and safe shelter, and involvement in a community or some other kind of social arrangement. If people have limited opportunities to avail themselves of these resources and features of modern life, their prospects for acquiring knowledge are severely restricted. As Evan Thompson points out, drawing on the work of Merlin Donald, the human brain is a cultural brain adapted to symbolic culture and must be embedded in a cultural environment. Cultural materials and processes are so densely intertwined with the development and functioning of the brain, Thompson notes, that they operate as a necessary part of human cognition (Thompson 2016, 17; Thompson 2017, 58; Donald 1991, 2001). An epistemology that does not take account of how cultural materials and processes condition, among other things, what people learn; what they know; what knowledge and information they seek; whether they learn; what, whether, and why they remember; how they know; and the extent to which they can learn and know seems elitist and outdated. Thus, I replace the term epistemology of ignorance with the more encompassing term epistemology of domination (as I did at the outset of this chapter). The latter term, I maintain, can accomplish the conceptual work that needs to be done to capture important elements of the relation between epistemology and domination that the former term was designed to encapsulate, while bypassing the ableist and classist connotations of the term epistemology of ignorance that, for many people, compromise its use and indeed its centrality in a critical epistemology.17

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.