top of page


Arien Mack, Editor


Though all fields of inquiry have to struggle with their own unwelcome truths regarding unknowability, philosophy’s relationship with unknowability is special. But philosophy’s woes regarding unknowability are all of our woes, since what philosophy reveals as unknowable are pivotal presumptions that are implicated in the general conceptual framework we all presume in pursuing our lives with some minimum degree of coherence. When philosophical reflection reveals that we are not entitled to these presumptions, then our entire grip on coherence seems to loosen. Unknowability then seems not to be localized within some highly specialized field but rather to engulf us globally.

Marina Warner, On Stories and Mythology

From the Bible to nursery rhymes, much-loved stories and poems are filled with words, images, and allusions that are baffling and resist exegesis. They may have once meant something that was generally known and understood or they may have begun as pure nonsense, but in either case, they have acceded to a state of unknowability (impenetrability). Yet these forms of literature, including fairy tales and proverbial phrases, deliver a frisson of mystery and/or absurdity that is often memorably sensuous and enticing. I explore this paradoxical state of unknowability as a source of literary pleasure, and bring in examples of vanishing or absent meanings (such as "Balm in Gilead"), and argue that they exhibit an intrinsic and valuable quality of imaginative literature, adding to its power to beckon beyond the horizon of existing knowledge.

Michael Scott, On History

Historians respond to unknowability in terms of the unknowns they would like to know and the unknowns that it is not important to know. Yet historians’ response to both kinds of unknowns is a process of constant evolution, as particular issues, places, events and themes shift back and forth between the different categories, and as historians present different arguments for knowing what is unknown about them. The issues of how oracular consultation occurred in antiquity at the great sanctuary of Delphi is a useful and insightful case-study in just how much historians are often motivated by their present in not only what kind of unknowns they seek to know, but how they seek to know them and what kind of version of the unknown past they choose to tell and accept.

Zoë Crossland, On Archaeology

Neanderthals offer a particularly good subject to study unknowability, given that they were unknown before the mid 19th century. This paper takes on the archaeology of the Neanderthals as a thought experiment about unknowability via the deep past, its traces in the present, and the constantly reconfigured fields of possibility engendered around them. How is that unfolding field of possibility involved in the way the past is known and unknown? What future unknowns are there, and how and when do they come into view as topics of study? Examining such archaeological evidence also informs on the nature of experience generally.


Gregory Chaitin, On Mathematics

This is an edited transcript of Gregory Chaitin’s address on unknowability in science and mathematics at the conference “Unknowability: How Do We Know What Cannot Be Known?” which took place on April 4–5, 2019, at The New School. Chaitin spoke on probability theory, metamathematics, algorithmic information theory, metabiology, cold fusion, and dark matter.

Stuart Firestein, On Biological Sciences

Science began as a deterministic effort to know the mechanisms that drove the universe, from gravity to energy to living organisms. This effort was successful for nearly 250 years, sparking the industrial revolution, among other advances. That changed radically with Darwin, who showed that tremendous complexity could arise out of random events with a feedback loop. This was followed by relativity, quantum uncertainty, Gödel’s undecidability principle, and chaos theory. Thus uncertainty is a fundamental feature of the universe, suggesting that a pluralistic approach to scientific understanding is more appropriate than a mono-focused deterministic program.

Gavin Schmidt, On Climate Science

The limits to knowledge in climate forecasts arise from three mechanisms. One is inherent to the complex nonlinearity of the climate system, one is related to inherent imperfection of models in representing the real world, and one is a reflection on the coupling of our knowledge of potential future states and real-world actions that may be taken to avoid some subset of them. I refer to these limits as chaos, structure, and society. I provide background on how each adds to the unknowability of climate, and demonstrate that this unknowability is limited; not all aspects of past and future climates are unknowable


Nicholas Humphrey, On Consciousness

Conscious experience would seem to be unknowable at two levels. The privacy of consciousness means we each know something no one else can know. The explanatory opacity of consciousness means we know something no theorist knows how to explain. These two issues tie into each other in revealing ways.

Alan Page Fiske, On Anthropology

A person may know a social emotion by its essential components: as a salient event in a relationship, as a set of sensations, as a motivation, by its positive or negative valence, and by its labels. An alternative taxonomy of ways of knowing an emotion distinguishes experiencing or remembering an episode as a moment in life, semantically conceptualizing it, having the capacity to evoke it, representing its perceptual gestalt, and associating the feeling with a particular stimulus. Knowing an emotion in one of these ways does not imply knowing it in any other way, and they are not directly inter-translatable.

Linsey McGoey, On Sociology

This article canvases recent concepts, theories, and disciplinary frameworks advanced by the new “ignorance studies,” exploring the relationship to unknowability and other forms of absent knowledge. I also introduce the terms “micro-ignorance” and “macro-ignorance.” I define micro-ignorance as daily, individual acts of ignoring. Macro-ignorance, on the other hand, is the sedimentation of individual ignorance into rigid ideological positions or policy perspectives that obscure their own mistaken assumptions from adherents, leading to new patterns of individual micro-ignorance. The unknown requires more humility and honesty about the limits of knowledge. The article underscores the revolutionary epistemological advantages of knowing more about ignorance.


bottom of page