It seems obvious that knowledge is more powerful than ignorance, that facts are preferable to fallacy, and that truth is a matter of patient empirical investigation. And especially since the Enlightenment period, when scholars and theologians such as Immanuel Kant exhorted people to ‘dare to know’ differently (to use Kant’s arresting phrase), a cleavage grew more pronounced between the realm of religion and the realm of secularism. Secularism was upheld as the space of science and reason, while religion was seen as the domain of different types of truths, those less ‘rational’ than scientific reason. We might not have the capacity to ‘know’ God fully and absolutely, the new thinking seemed to suggest, but we can know ourselves. There is nothing in men and women beyond human consciousness, given enough time. The spectre of complete omniscience seemed tantalisingly possible to many nineteenth-century thinkers who took up the gauntlet launched by Kant.
Early social scientists such as Auguste Comte hoped to develop a new science of society that took on board the best available evidence and applied it in the impartial service of humankind. Statesmen establishing new republics declared their commitment to a new politics of knowledge, insisting that knowledge will always triumph over ignorance. The US statesman James Madison reflected this certainty when he wrote, ‘Knowledge will forever govern ignorance.’
To many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thinkers, the attitude between knowledge and ignorance seemed obvious – one is good, the other bad – and the relationship between them appeared to be clear and linear, with ignorance gradually giving way to knowledge, like a blurred window wiped clean. Throughout the twentieth century, this impression continued. Vast subfields within the social sciences emerged advancing the study of how knowledge is obtained and diffused. The study of knowledge and knowledge attainment is a core aspect of economics, sociology, psychology and anthropology, to name simply four disciplines. For a long time, there was no parallel field or fields dedicated to the opposite: the study of ignorance and how societies and individuals often thrive from the deliberate effort not to know the consequences of their own individual or collective actions.