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This month we’re joined by Jennifer Lockhart, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Humanities at Stanford University and recent graduate of the PhD program in Philosophy at the University of Chicago.  Click here to listen to our conversation with her.

You’re at a party. Some guy is dominating the conversation, holding forth loudly and at great length about the importance of politeness. “Politeness,” he says as he cuts off another guest’s attempt to get a word in, “is all about consideration for others. It’s about the little things, like making eye-contact,” he adds, failing to make eye contact. As you look for an opportunity to get away, you ask yourself: “What is wrong with this guy?”

Jennifer Lockhart would reply: he’s an ignorant knower. Everything that he says about politeness is true, but he doesn’t seem to be capable of applying it himself. Not that he’s aware of this, of course - he thinks he’s the politest guy around. Whatever you tell him about being polite, he just agrees enthusiastically and goes on acting in exactly the opposite way. When faced with such a person, we might wonder whether there’s anything we could possibly tell them that would have any chance of getting them to act better.

The guy at the party represents an extreme case, but Lockhart argues that the problem of ignorant knowledge is a significant one for philosophers. She traces its roots back to Aristotle, and argues that it constitutes one of the central motivations behind the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous writings. In this conversation, she explains Kierkegaard’s strategies for confronting ignorant knowledge, and discusses the relation of ignorant knowledge to some other important problems in ethics.

Mark Hopwood