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Note on society: distinguishing non-knowledge.

Abstact: In the following essay, reference is made to the ambivalent position of non-knowledge between ensuring the production of scientific knowledge and risky decision-making. It will also be shown that this ambivalence is the result of system-internal operations and not of external facts, on which "incomplete constructivism" essentially depends. Finally, it is shown that the concept of risk marks the interface where modern society oscillates between experience (cognition) and action (risk) and that even this state is due to its own operations and not to an overall insight into some better option. Basically, the argument of this article demonstrates fundamental modes of framing uncertainty in modern society.

Resume: L'auteur se penche sur la place ambivalente du non-savoir entre la production de connaissances scientifiques et la prise de decision a risque. Il montre que cette ambivalence est le resultat d'operations propres au systeme et non pas de facteurs externes -- d'un constructivisme inacheve . Il conclut que la notion de risque caracterise cette interface ou la societe moderne oscille entre l'experience (cognition) et l'action (risque); et que cette situation est le produit de fonctionnements internes plutot que d'une perception ou d'une representation d'ensemble d'options meilleures. En bref, le present article releve des modes d'apprehension de l'incertitude dans la societe d'aujourd'hui.

1. Knowledge and Consensus

In the tradition of the sociology of knowledge, non-knowledge (equivalent: lack of knowledge, ignorance) is largely viewed as a kind of deviation from true knowledge, e.g. in the shape of interest-driven ideology. Behind this is the honourable assumption that social interaction is based on consensus, on shared knowledge (see critically Smithson 1985). Attempts to revise this naive position of a single true knowledge have remained half-hearted to the extent that they have retained the essential distinction between construction and reality, and thus the distinction between construed reality and non-construed reality. This distinction always leads to a devaluation of non-knowledge, since -- notwithstanding all kinds of qualification by the sociology of knowledge -- the quality of a comprehensible, knowable reality sui generis is pervasive. If then, neither true knowledge nor consensus can any longer be viewed as the foundation of social interaction, then non-knowledge cannot simply be implicitly devalued. It should rather be explicitly named and described.(1) This is possible if non-knowledge is (literally) regarded as the other side of knowledge, and thus as the other hall of a distinction. Non-knowledge can then be distinguished (from knowledge) and be -- independently -- labelled.

Knowledge (or cognition) is fixed as a case of the application of observation operations, just as is the case in the perspective of action.(2) This suggests the operative relevance of non-knowledge not only for cognitive operations, but for the entirety of communicative operations, and thus also for social action: unity may be seen in risk, but precisely this assumes the difference between specific and unspecific non-knowledge. In specific non-knowledge (e.g. unknown ways of transmissibility of the BSE-agent related to knowledge on BSE-symptoms), we are dealing with a science which is operating along already known solutions which create new non-knowledge and thus cannot rid itself of the shadow of uncertainties. Unspecific non-knowledge (e.g. unknown ways of transmissibility of the BSE-agent related to perception of high risk or catastrophe) is the presupposition of actions or decisions, which exploit ignorance (March/Olsen 1995, 199ff). Ignorance is used for increased preparedness to take preventive action in the face of risk-aversion like import bans against British beef. Risk as a more or less calculated decision is a result of perceiving specific non-knowledge as a resource for risky action and less so for cognition. So non-knowledge proves productive for observation operations, both as cognition and as action(3) -- and not as a secondary horizon needing to be narrowed. Or, put in another way: There appear to be structural effects of non-knowledge on cognition and action, without which one would somehow arrive at normatively consented actions and scientifically controlled cognition -- in a society which now permits both things only in a remarkably restrictive manner.

II. Construction

It is, in principle, to be assumed that non-knowledge (here in the context of ecological dangers) triggers attributions of ambiguous danger situations to unambiguous options for action, which are, in principle, contingent as attributions and thus contain an insoluble element of construction.(4) Attributions are not necessary in any urgent sense. There are, in principle, two theories on the concept that communication on danger may be regarded as the communication of non-knowledge and that one is thereby faced with processes of attribution. On the one hand, this is the theory of "reflexive modernisation" represented by Ulrich Beck (Beck 1986/1988) and, on the other hand, this is the constructivist systems theory represented by Niklas Luhmann (Luhmann 1997). For all of his recognition of the element of "construction", Beck starts from a realistic concept of danger (Adams 1995: 195) while Luhmann bas developed a constructivist concept of danger (Luhmann 1990/1991 a). A realistic concept of danger transforms technological and ecological risks by reference to expanding damage functions (nuclear power/genetic engineering), expansion of markets (asbestos, Bhopal) and aggregation effects (the climate/overuse of resources) into an image of global dangers (Beck 1986/1988; Beck/Giddens/ Lash 1996). The consequence is the primacy of the "ecological issue" in normative science policy (Beck et al. 1996).(5) With the mainstream of sociological risk theory (Clarke 1992; Hilgartner 1992; Renn 1992; Wildavsky 1995), the theory of "reflexive modernisation" shares the premise that the world is on the one hand construed -- mostly in the sense that it is perceived -- while, on the other hand, consisting of objectifiable facts, which are in effect only accessible to science.(6) This "incomplete constructivism" depends on the strange, but also strangely resistant, assumption that "independently given facts" (dangers/risks) simultaneously are subject to contingent activities of construction. One must then simply determine which constructions best "match" the facts. "But which societal observation of ecological problems is the `right' one? Which social construction of the problems is able to distinguish between the construction and the reality of the problems? The answer is: science" (van den Daele 1996:422). This (kind of) argument indicates an "incomplete constructivism": The social world contains constructions but "the world" is by no means a construction.

This imputation of an unrivalled observability of ecological dangers and their impacts by a science regarded as authoritative is not simply to be confronted with the counter-position of poly-contextural observation conditions.(7) That is too simple. It should rather be emphasised that the apparently external position of "incomplete construction" was always an internal operation of ecological communication, whose self-generated internal values like risk aversion (rather Beck 1986; Janicke 1986 et al.) or risk preparedness (rather Wildavsky 1989; LaPorte 1981 et al.) it only reinforces without being able to see this latent operation, due to the "external" observer function.(8) On this basis, it is also not possible to discern that the attribution of harmful impacts to definitely recognised causes or to the uncertain risk/danger complex is a decision which could be different (contingent) and does not indicate a rational versus an irrational approach to the use of knowledge which is regarded as authoritative. And this in turn has an impact on the possible use of the concept of non-knowledge. This concept may simply be regarded as an as-yet unsolved problem of information, as specific non-knowledge in the context of science. The complementary concept of unspecific non-knowledge cannot be achieved from the position of "incomplete constructivism," or if so, only in the shape of an "arbitrary construction" (e.g. Beck's "Nicht-Wissen-Wollen," "not wishing to know").

In contrast, we assert in the following that scientific specification of non-knowledge is increasingly de-valued by attribution to risk,(9) to an open future, and that this frequently focuses on the ambiguous term of specific non-knowledge: as a scientific problem non-knowledge refers to the opposite of certain knowledge of science, and as risk it refers to the opposite of unspecific non-knowledge, to that which is communicated within society as a (possible) catastrophe. Specific non-knowledge has also left the niche of scientific solutions of problems to enter the universal context of risky time bindings. Empirical indicator of specific non-knowledge as risk is a partial rejection of knowledge (e.g. expert dissent) and of unspecific non-knowledge it is the complete rejection of knowledge (e.g. unconditional import bans versus conditional import restrictions on British beef). These indicators also demonstrate specific and unspecific non-knowledge as operative terms -- not simply as observable facts.

The figure, which is drawn with reference to an article by Funtowicz and Ravetz may show what I mean:


* Decision Stakes are observer-dependent (see Brunsson 1985)

* Systems Uncertainty is observer-dependent (ibid.)

* Therefore, the boundaries between the 3 types are polycontextural or non-linear (see Japp 1996)

* Participative democratization (manifest dissent) of PNSc (Funtowicz/Ravetz) will probably intensify conflicts (up to complete rejection of available information, e.g. nuclear waste disposal; ibid.)

* Pragmatic agreements (latent dissent) will probably decrease conflict (to partial rejection of available information, e.g. burning of hazardous wastes; see Luhmann 1991)

* Unlike participative democratization, pragmatic agreements will not always be possible (different thresholds of catastrophies; see Rescher 1983)

The three types of problem-solving strategies are roughly equivalent to the indicated three types of uncertainty-framing.

III. Theories

Empirically supported studies (Fowlkes/Miller 1987; Stallings 1995) on technological and ecological accidents suggest a distinction between certain (scientific) knowledge,(10) specific non-knowledge,(11) and unspecific non-knowledge(12) as basic "framing devices." The question is which theories make an issue of the observation possibilities of these forms. Two such recourses to the problem of the observation of non-knowledge will be discussed in the following.

Merton (1987) gives a central position to the difference between certain scientific knowledge and specified ignorance. He is dealing with the development of science and thus with distinguishing "useful non-knowledge" from a "manifestly dysfunctional kind". Specified ignorance serves to transform non-knowledge into knowledge. Scientific cognition processes "... repeatedly adopt the cognitively consequential practice of specifying this or that piece of ignorance derived from having acquired the added degree of knowledge that made it possible to identify portions of the still unknown. In workaday science, it is not enough to confess one's ignorance: the point is to specify it. That, of course, amounts to instituting, or finding, a new worthy, and soluble scientific problem" (Merton 1987:8). The production of knowledge is regarded as the simultaneous production of specifiable and specified non-knowledge. Criteria for these specifications rest in the respective paradigmatic programmes. Merton demonstrates this concept for the development of the theory of deviant behaviour: Each scientific solution (e.g. answers to the question of the origin of deviant behaviour) generates connectable problems, specifiable non-knowledge (e.g. with respect to the passing on of deviant behaviour). The specification of non-knowledge directs problem seeking as a condition for scientific problem solutions. Non-knowledge here has temporary nature and is as such a driving moment of the normal production of scientific cognition.(13)

Luhmann discusses the constitution of non-knowledge in the context of recursive networks of self-referential observations and the unmarked spaces which these observations simultaneously produce (1990:68ff.). Observation cannot observe itself and that is the basic reason why an horizon of non knowledge will be co-produced by any cognitive operation -- it cannot be "reduced" in a Mertonian sense. This cooperation of cognition and blindness shows the ambivalence of specifiable knowledge: it may be perceived as a prerequisite for cognition or for risk -- depending on the perceiving observer. In the present context, however, it is the distinction between specified and unspecified non-knowledge that is of interest. Unspecified non-knowledge refers to the complete refusal of positive knowledge and induces a definite transition from cognition (what is the BSE-agent?) to action (import bans!). However, the case of specified non-knowledge displays ambiguity: For some observers it implies a burden of risk (see Weinberg as early as 1972), for others it is a resource for cognition. But increasingly the risk option is gaining public attention. This can be documented by the public dissent among experts with regard to the possible "risks of veracity".

In this context, it is possible to assume that specified non-knowledge leads at best to weighing up of risks, while unspecified non-knowledge leads to catastrophic risk constructions, bringing with them categorical imperatives of avoidance. This can be observed in the case of BSE: The affected parties (the continental general public) attribute to unspecified non-knowledge (complete refusal) and link this with catastrophe risks -- in accord with risk aversion. The decision-makers (British politicians) attribute to specified non-knowledge (partial refusal) and link this with pragmatic weighing of risks -- in accord with risk preparedness. The one party invests more, the other less, trust in the capacities of scientific absorption of uncertainty: the "same facts" and different observers. For a second time, the result is that the difference between the perspectives of cognition and risk does not represent any kind of objective fact, but is the operational result of divergent observers. One can see this particularly well by the fact that for one observer (Merton) specific non-knowledge is the cause for effort for certain cognition, while for the other (Luhmann) it is the occasion for reflection (but also certain!) on risks. At any rate, one cannot say that the orientation toward gain of cognition is "true" while the orientation toward risk is "false". In contrast to this, in the modern society both options of framing uncertainty have similar probabilities of acceptance.(14)

The form of knowledge that interests us here is ecological knowledge. This knowledge is confronted by ecological non-knowledge as an unmarked space. Then we have problems which cannot be solved in their existing form, they cannot be specified (e.g. the BSE-agent) and any positive knowledge will be refused completely (by the non-British public). This means that somewhere there is specified non-knowledge which is not completely but partially contested. Parts of the European scientific community may see it this way and parts of political regimes may exploit this perception for a risky option (British BSE politics). These different perceptions of ecological knowledge will be displayed as political options based on different scientific frames for problem solution (Luhmann 1992a/1995). To add plausibility to this argumentation, one may point to distinctions between social and ecological causalities, which in the one case appear difficult to control (e.g. unemployment), but in the other case appear to be uncontrollable (greenhouse effect).(15) A re-entry of the distinction between society and environment on the environmental side would add nothing in the way of information, would not initiate communication. Re-entry only makes visible that the environment does not make connectable communication possible for society.(16) On the side of the society, the re-entry indicates ecological knowledge as "ecological description of society" in the double sense of meaning (Japp/Krohn 1996): a social construction of ecology and also an ecological construction of society. Thus we come to the implication that the natural environment as a construction within the social system only generates more or less valid connections, but no substantial truths by the natural sciences and as such is not amenable to (sociological) observation.

IV. Re-entries

Normally, in the scientific generation of knowledge as in the daily use of information, it is assumed that we are dealing with knowledge about the world and that the production of this knowledge is also part of this single world. Re-entries (Luhmann 1993) show that knowledge is nothing but the result of operations within society -- without any "substantial" contact to a "world outside." Thus the distinction between knowledge and non-knowledge can be introduced into communication and thus into other distinctions, in particular into itself, but not into anything else-- not to mention into "the world". The external reference of knowledge is the result of operations within the system -- the form of re-entry makes this visible by means of a distinction (observation) applied to itself. Beyond the self-referential origin of all knowledge on the world, re-entries demonstrate that information (e.g. on whether in doubtful cases we are dealing with certain knowledge or risks) is based on operations, which rely less on information than on the recursiveness of the respective system-internal operations which on their part use "information about the world." Without this external reference there would be too much confusion. According to the constructivist theory of knowledge, each communication generating knowledge must obscure a complementary area in order to generate itself and is unable to observe this in the process. Nonetheless, this complementary area of non-knowledge can still be instructive, if -- through its re-entry on the side of knowledge -- it is distinguished as specified non-knowledge for the generation of knowledge. Thus the difference between re-entry in risk (1) and re-entry in science (2) is decisive:

The re-entry on the side of knowledge unifies the distinction as a cognitive problem, while re-entry on the side of non-knowledge continually brings the joker of an open future into play,(17) thus reproducing non-knowledge as an unmarked space despite all attempts at calculation. And this is not due to an account of outdated knowledge, but despite all knowledge, that is dependent on other distinctions, by other observers(18) -- but by no means as arbitrarily as "incomplete constructivism" might argue. The ecological communication of society operates with re-entries to resolve the paradox surrounding the unity of knowledge and non-knowledge. The result are cognitive perspectives and risk perspectives, and it should be pointed out that the latter have not simply been "added", but "complement" the former perception in a constitutive manner. If the (specifiable) problem and its (specifiable) solution are drawn that far apart that the solution is something that is only imaginable in the open future, we are dealing with a different, irreducible context of distinction, with a different observer. And this exchange of the relevant distinctions indicates nothing less than the transition from the relevance attribution achieved in societal communication from science to risk, from methodically resolvable problems to those that can only be decided.

No matter whether re-entries take place on the side of knowledge or on that of non-knowledge: it documents the irreducible dependence of "certain knowledge" on operations. To that extent, even knowledge viewed as certain is infected by contingency and the risk formula emerges as a product of fission: specific non-knowledge does not simply occur in the world, but it becomes real as the result of cognitive operations of a social system and divides into knowledge or risk (or even catastrophe-avoidance) -- and this cannot be known before the operation. Re-entries in our case point to the irresolubility of non-knowledge (temporal dimension), to the unachievability of rationality (factual dimension) and to the irresolubility of dissent (social dimension) in matters of risk. They point to structural lack of transparency, which yields internal values (knowledge/risk) dependent on operations. If we did not know of re-entries (and incomplete constructivism does not) we could not show that the distinction of cognition and risk is operational and not substantial.

V. Experience and Action

Risk denotes the latent unity of specific and unspecific non-knowledge. Ecological knowledge is embedded in non-knowledge operatively generated at the same time. This condition favours knowledge as provisional and a political culture of unconvinced understanding (Luhmann 1991). This logic of the provisional, which is generated by the inevitable co-production of unmarked spaces, manifests itself as an effect of problem resolution in the temporal dimension of societal non-knowledge.(19) One should first think of the sequentiality of provisional understanding in politics, but also of other forms of time-bound complexity which obviously depend more on specified non-knowledge than on certain knowledge.(20) In these communication links, we are at core dealing with risky decisions, which do not use specific non-knowledge as the occasion for more (positive) cognitive undertakings, instead using them as the occasion for worry about future consequences: We are dealing with the "interface" between science and the unknown, and, as already stressed, this is no generally accessible fact, but an effect of different (and in contrast to "incomplete constructivism", not hierarchically classifiable) observation operations. This manifests itself in the fact that in the case of risk, the uncertainties of non-knowledge are dealt with by decision-making, and that in the case of cognition they are dealt with by the application of methods and the generation of hypotheses, and that society figuratively waits to see whether speed (risk) or methodical problem solving is "better".

In all, society is by no means satisfied simply with a category of non-knowledge which could be dissolved into science by means of paradigmatic specification (Beck 1988, Wildavsky 1989). Instead, it makes non-knowledge which is essential for risk operations temporary by means of the constitutive difference between past and future. It is decisive in the threefold sense that it forces cognitive specification and that it stabilises preferences for exploratory action in the shape of ignorance (March/ Olsen 1995: 229) -- and thus willingness to take risks (Brunsson 1985). Furthermore non-knowledge generates complete refusals of any knowledge with the result of rigid prevention or fundamental opposition. Thus we conclude in the area of acknowledged but differently acknowledged uncertainties with three basic kinds of framing uncertainty: cognition, risk-taking and catastrophe avoidance. All kinds of organisational learning (March/Olsen 1995: pp. 197) are placed (increasingly) on the medium level and not on information processing or "rational calculation" only.

In summary, re-entries lead knowledge and non-knowledge away from the dimension of cognitive operations closer to the classical difference between experience and action. At the same time they lead to confront the question of whether modern society should rely on cognition (,,the knowledge society") or on action ("the risk society"). On account of structural effects and not because of higher convictions, only an oscillation (with system-specific re-entries) is apparently conceivable, and if all goes well, this is, as is well-known, without rationality, without consensus and without guarantee of success. This is due to the condition that we do not have "control" over structural uncertainties but frames.

(1). This is also postulated by Smithson (1985)

(2.) The term "observation" is defined as drawing a distinction and marking one of its sides (simultaneously!: Luhmann 1990/1993).

(3.) Some speak of a "resource".

(4.) see Fowlkes and Miller (1987) and numerous other studies on coping with desaster.

(5.) The constructivist counter-position was introduced by Luhmann (1986) as "ecological communication".

(6.) This also applies to "social constructionists" who develop an "environmental sociology" referring mainly to "claims making activities" as units of construction (Hannigan 1995; Stallings 1995).

(7.) This could be formulated as follows: "Any message is rather something that from some other position can be made an issue of as being about a potential risk (...). The concept of the compossibility of the functional systems of society comes under great pressure. The semantics reacting to this are the self-endangering society" (Fuchs 1992:135; emphasis in the original).

(8.) In order to do this, the concept would need to be equipped with an "autological conclusion" ability (Luhmann 1997:pp. 1128).

(9.) Specification then takes place as a problem of decision-making.

(10.) Frequently linked with the decision-makers' or originators' perspective of normalisation rhetoric. In all events knowledge whose validity is not doubted by the majority of observers. "Operative causality", which must be assumed daily, serves as an indicator.

(11.) Frequently linked with dissent among experts.

(12.) Frequently linked with (aggressive) claims of those affected.

(13.) Weinberg (1972) discusses a particularly important form of specific non-knowledge for modern "risk societies", which does not, however, lead beyond the central distinctions between scientifically certain knowledge and specific non-knowledge, on the one hand, and specific non-knowledge and unspecified non-knowledge on the other: In cases of low-probability damage, but extremely high costs of proof (low atomic radiation, occurrence of a nuclear melt-down) Weinberg speaks of "metascientific questions", which society tolerates as "practically negligible remaining risks". However, there may be observers who view this quite differently. As can be shown, this depends on specific "catastrophe thresholds" (Rescher 1983).

(14.) Contrary to the (much older) religious option.

(15.) Ecological catastrophes "break up the conception of reality of individuals which are oriented towards facts and causality and the communicative (oral) practice of society. They can no longer be transformed into manageable, connectable knowledge, even if there are such things as calculations, half-life values etc." (Luhmann 1992a: 167)

(16.) This is, so to speak, the dimension, in which no distinctions are possible: the unmarked space. How is it possible to conceive that re-entry is non the less accomplished? For example, when sociologists make an issue of the environment of society and project the emerging difference onto ecological knowledge -- as if there were such a thing as continuum of knowledge. The result is sometimes termed "dialectic" and sometimes "interdisciplinary" (see for example Gramling/Freudenberg 1996). We assume that there is no operative contact between society and its environment and therefore also no continuum of knowledge. All of this is only possible within society and thus inevitably constructive. The status of re-entries becomes obvious in this context: re-entries resolve the paradox of the unity (society) of a difference (society/ environment) by means of the re-entry of the difference into one of its sides as unity: this unfolds its differentiation in its own context of operation (see Bechmann/Japp 1997).

(17.) The distinction between calculable and uncontrollable complexity is, in contrast, important but secondary, since it depends on the distinction between the past and the future: only complexities which are not static are uncontrollable. But this too is a matter of distinction, and not an unambiguous finding. Thus scientific facts primarily show that "science has simply removed the issue from the realm of risk; it has not solved the problem of how to proceed in the absence of agreed facts" (Adams 1995:203).

(18.) "The differentiation of a specialised functional system of science can only take place if relevant non-knowledge is specified. Only in this way is non-knowledge the occasion for efforts to generate knowledge. Thus, to launch efforts for the generation of knowledge, unspecified non-knowledge has to be distinguished from specified non-knowledge" (Luhmann 1995:177). It is only this bifurcation that makes access to research industry related and access to risk related non-knowledge at all distinguishable. "Uncertainty defined by Knight is inescapable. It is the realm not of calculation but of judgement. There are problems where the odds are known, or knowable with a bit more research, but these are trivial in comparison with the problems posed by uncertainty. Blake's picture of Newton concentrating on making precise measurements with a pair of callipers while surrounded by the mysterious "sea of time and space" is an apt metaphor for the contribution that science is capable of making to the resolution of controversies rooted in uncertainty. Newton's approach can only deal with risk as narrowly defined by Knight and the Royal Society -- as quantifiable probability" (Adams 1995:26, emphasis in the original).

(19.) From this angle it is worth asking again whether non-knowledge is not the central medium of modern (ecological) communication and not knowledge itself.: "Is the common shared assumption still justified that more communication, more reflection, more knowledge, more learning, more participation -- that more of all of this would have positive, or at least no negative, impact?" (Luhmann 1991:90)

(20.) "This corresponds to the modern type of expert, that is the specialist, whom one may ask questions he cannot answer, and whose rise may also be attributed to the mode of uncertainty. This also corresponds to the modern figure of the catastrophe, meaning the case that one at no prices desires, and for which one is unwilling to accept probability calculations, risk calculations or expert opinions" (Luhmann 1992b: 141).


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Author:Japp, Klaus P.
Publication:Canadian Journal of Sociology
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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