Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration


Concept for a focus group at the Institute for Advanced Study, University of Konstanz, 2011/2012

The Knowledge Society vs. the Non-knowledge Society

According to a popular self-descriptive formula, modern societies understand themselves as knowledge societies. In the Enlightenment tradition, knowledge is here conceived as a valuable resource meriting expansion; and non-knowledge as unproductive and harmful. But this viewpoint finds itself confronted with an increasing number of widely differing problems. For one thing, in view of perfected technologies of information and surveillance, the question of the right to passive and active non-knowledge looms in an ever-more urgent way. (Among the issues in play here are data protection, video surveillance, customer profiling, gene screening, and medical prognostics.) For another thing modern societies have to struggle with the paradoxical phenomenon of socially-connected uncertainty, for instance in the realm of risk-focused technologies, as itself a consequence of rapid scientific development. The growth of knowledge, in other words, is accelerating non-knowledge at an existentially threatening pace. For this reason, in an ironic inversion we now find references to our society as a non-knowledge society (Ulrich Beck). It follows from this second diagnosis that precisely in the age of knowledge-intensive technologies, we need to become accustomed to an irreducible, persistent non-knowledge: a development in turn necessitating new ways of cognitively and institutionally approaching the unforeseeable results of scientific progress. What is here crucial , then, is how systematic non-knowledge can be managed and at the same time transferred to decision-making constellations. For this reason, as centers of knowledge production, the universities are among the major bodies facing the task of revising their epistemological premises.

The Cultural Practice of Non-Knowledge

In a framework of research on culture, one promising approach to this complex of problems is to analyze various cultural practices of non-knowledge, as manifest in many if not all societies. In a first typological effort, we will here need to distinguish non-knowledge that is socially relevant from that which is socially irrelevant; “knowing” non-knowledge from “unknowing” (paradoxical combinations we encounter inevitably, and in the most varied possible gradations); simple ignorance from non-knowledge that is feigned or fictive. In addition, in all cases we will need to pay attention to the intricate relation between non-knowledge and silence, the non-articulable and what is not articulated.
If in place of such a typology we begin with the formation of social order, then the classification takes the shape of three strategic dimensions:

  1. cultural procedures meant to overcome states of non-knowledge (dream interpretation, prophecy and soothsaying, scholarly-scientific research);
  2. procedures through which non-knowledge is encoded in communication, in order to render it applicable in the same way as knowledge (trust, belief, strategies for simplifying decisions in the mode of so-called satisficing, probability, risk-calculation); and finally
  3. procedures meant to stabilize social figurations through non-knowledge (tact, secrecy, latency).

Normative and Functional Justifications of Non-Knowledge

This tentative overview already makes clear that knowledge and the desire for knowledge, on the one hand, non-knowledge and the desire for non-knowledge, on the other hand, are socially anchored in complex codes of cultural behavior and finely segmented norms. The problem does not lie in the existence of norms for both knowledge and non-knowledge but rather in their interference. Emerging here are ambivalences, hence evaluative insecurities, that stamp social discourse in a manner basically not yet explored. There are normative and functional justifications of non-knowledge each of which has its counterpart in a norm of desired knowledge defined by “nevertheless” and “more than ever.”

Normative justifications of non-knowledge are familiar to us in an array of principles tied to three covering categories: the protection of basic rights, the guarantee of security, and the protection of intellectual property. Examples are the right to informational self-determination; the ban on torture in criminal prosecutions; the right to non-knowledge in the framework of genetic diagnostics; protection of classified information; personal-data secrecy; tax secrecy; the array of classified governmental activities; de facto and time-bound limitations placed on access to archival material; and the protection of intellectual property through patents and copyrights.

Not one of these principles is without controversy and many of them are simply reversible within public discourse. Protection of classified information, personal-data secrecy, and limitations placed on access to archival material are confronted with the imperative of democratic transparency, the basic right to scientific freedom, and necessary state control. Recently large-scale campaigns have emerged against the legal dampening of the spread of knowledge through patents, copyrights, and the regulation of the internet; the focus here is on the immoral effect of patents in respect to the fight against epidemic diseases such as aids; the danger of a re-privatizing of public sources of knowledge (for instance in the offer of online periodicals by scholarly libraries; and the undemocratic impact of a limitation on access to information on the internet. We are familiar with functional justifications of non-knowledge from institutional theory, organizational theory, and psychology. Institutionalization effects rest on that which is not self-evident becoming so, and to that extent on the approving acceptance of non-knowledge about alternatives. In this respect Arnold Gehlen speaks of the effect of both “unburdening,” Entlastung, and nonscrutinized “background fulfillment,” and their contribution to the emergence and stabilizing of institutions. Related to this is the idea of complexity reduction as stamped by Herbert A. Simon and his concepts of the bounded rationality of organizational behavior. According to Simon, organizations do not mainly steer the behavior of their members through hierarchic or explicit rule-bound control, but rather through a control of premises that keeps both knowledge and the desire for it within narrow boundaries from the start. Likewise, Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonances circumscribes an elementary psychological mechanism of desired or accepted non-knowledge: inconsistencies between norms of action and real action prompt a bridging through intended non-knowledge, taking the form of contra-factual denial or reinterpretation. The paradoxical effects that the “management” of non-knowledge has within political organizations can be seen in mechanisms of successful failure–acting in a deliberately fruitless way that nevertheless offers relief from further responsibility (W. Seibel).

The functional justifications of non-knowledge have been critically discussed from both a pragmatic and ethical perspective. Viewed pragmatically, the “unburdening” effects of institutions and complexity reduction through organizational structures appear as risk-control, over-direction, and lessened learning capacity. In the relevant literature, the catch phrases are organizational blindness, costs of routine, and stabilization of given power-relations (Karl W. Deutsch: “Power is the ability to afford not to learn”). What ethically motivated criticism bring into focus above all else are the psychological effects of institutionalization, which—in line with the above—render things far from self-evident, things that can indeed be monstrous, back into the self-evident (Zygmunt Baumann, Modernity and the Holocaust, 1989).

The praise heaped on knowledge and non-knowledge and the scandalization of each—both aspects of this process sometimes seeming to have an erratic tenor—can hardly be explained otherwise than through these opposing conceptions. Examples abound in the daily news: hence the right to ignorance concerning possible inherited disease and its consequences, anchored in a German law of 2009, is broadly considered significant ethical progress; but in other realms a desire not to know is thought of as a strong ethical lapse—for instance in the context of the notorious sexual abuse within Catholic educational institutions. On the one hand, in regards to private bank-data, the state’s claim to a right to know for the sake of fighting organized crime—as expressed, for example, in the transfer of data from European Union banks to the USA—is rejected (in the above case by the European Parliament). On the other hand, in order to acknowledge the state’s claim to such data to fight tax evasion, the use of illegal data suppliers is accepted.

Non-Knowledge und Social Integration

The last examples underscore that at present modernized industrial societies handle the imperative to augment knowledge in a highly flexible manner, here making use of the at first sight contra-evidentiary phenomenon of a cultural functionality of non-knowledge. When we should opt for not taking note, or for collective denial, and when to the contrary for breaking through conventions of silence by agreeing on rule changes or in crisis mode, depends on whatever circumstances of power and interest prevail. In any case, it appears that generally the functionality of collective non-knowledge is closely tied to the way societies assure the endurance of their structures of order. This in no way takes place by solely favoring an unchecked flow of information. To the contrary: the hypotheses seems reasonable that many practices of non-knowledge strengthen social integration and help prevent disintegration. (Importantly, integration should here not be understood as a necessarily positive value, to be privileged vis-à-vis disintegration—secrecy-centered criminal organizations are sometimes highly integrated.)

The form of the withheld knowledge has been relatively well researched in a functionalist perspective. Already Georg Simmel made clear that social relations not only require acquaintance but also a certain level of mutual concealment. Asymmetries of power are regularly tied to the unequal distribution of knowledge. It is a fundamental principle that societal differentiation corresponds to the production and stabilization of communicative boundaries, which are always also boundaries of shared knowledge.

The stability of societal norms similarly depends on collectively organized non-knowledge. Hence according to Heinrich Popitz, the unknown quantity in the realm of crime-fighting has a preventive effect in that it keeps the sanctioning apparatus from being overburdened. In addition, complete knowledge of the entire scope of a norm’s transgression would call the norm’s validity into question. Frequently non-knowledge, even feigned non-knowledge serves to prevent the surfacing of normative conflicts. In the complexity of their life circumstances, human agents are often duty-bound to irreconcilable rules they can only simultaneously follow if they refrain from explicating them or fixing them in writing. A regulated form of non-knowledge allows elastic behavior, indeed even unavoidable incoherence of role, without this having to immediately be treated as a manifest contradiction. Informal social rules that are only weekly articulated appear to enjoy such protective latency to a special degree. Prohibitions also seem to be protected from discursive treatment in this way. Taboos reduce the expenditure on explicit regulation and prevent confrontations and conflict. In the process, the taboo itself often ends up tabooed, surrounded with an aura of verbal timidity and corresponding “knowledge avoidance.”

All this considered, it nevertheless is clear that collectively stabilized non-knowledge can have catastrophic effects, either because it prevents social processes of self-correction or because necessary accommodations to the environment thus remain absent. Systemic crises like the near-collapse of the world financial system in 2008 are examples of how functional systems can move toward catastrophe through aggregated non-knowledge (for instance in the form of derivatives).

The Coexistence of Knowledge und Non-Knowledge

An especially interesting area of study in this research field is made up of situations in which the collectively constructed barriers of non-knowledge are broken through. Above all two scripts are available for such a puncturing of the membrane of silence: in the first place, we have scandal, as society’s reaction to what it latently has always known and now, at least temporarily, can no longer silently cover over. In the second place, we have certain rituals of collective remembrance through which a social group brings something to mind that without the ritual frame would spark embarrassment or other types of avoidance behavior. One such ritual is the type of prayer service, in which all deficits of morality, charity, and simple humanity produced through the “path dependence” of human thought and behavior—a dependence manifest in the various forms and expressions of everyday rationality—can be spelled out and ritually lamented. The example shows that beyond all partial realities, societies cultivate comprehensive truth-centered semantic systems—that they consistently bring with them a refutation of their bounded rationalities and keep it active to a certain degree. They measure themselves against a morality that cannot be fulfilled under the milieu-specific circumstances of daily action; and in this way they hold such circumstances in a state of abstract deficiency—which, however, can be rendered very concrete and socially significant when the occasion merits (for example, to assign guilt in times of crisis). In general complex societies dispose of a wide range of possibilities for cultivating various aggregate conditions of knowledge and non-knowledge alongside one another. In this way even directly contradictory truths can circulate simultaneously, communicating as it were on different frequencies that remain separated from each other by invisible communicative hurdles.


Peter Wehling (ed.): Vom Nutzen des Nichtwissens. Sozial- und kulturwissenschaftliche Perspektiven. Bielefeld: Transcript 2015.

Roy Dilley, Thomas G. Kirsch (ed.): Regimes of Ignorance. Anthropological Perspectives on the Production and Reproduction of Non-Knowledge. New York/Oxford: Berghahn 2015.


Marcus Twellmann (ed.): Nichtwissen als Ressource. Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2014.


Birger P. Priddat, Alihan Kabalak: Ungewissheit als Herausforderung für die ökonomische Theorie. Nichtwissen, Ambivalenz und Entscheidung: Konstanzer Beiträge zum Nichtwissen in der Ökonomie, 1. Marburg: Metropolis, 2013.