will to ignorance, will to truth, and the recognition heuristic

In section 24 of Beyond Good and Evil, titled “O sancta simplicitas!” Nietzsche marvels at the “simplification and falsification” in which people live, “how we have been able to give […] our thoughts a divine desire for wanton leaps and wrong inferences! how from the beginning we have contrived to retain our ignorance in order to enjoy an almost inconceivable freedom, lack of scruple and caution, heartiness, and gaiety of life — in order to enjoy life!  And only on this now solid, granite foundation of ignorance could knowledge rise so far — the will to knowledge on the foundation of a far more powerful will: the will to ignorance, to the uncertain, to the untrue!  Not as its opposite, but — as its refinement!”

This lovely passage has been variously interpreted as indicating that 1) Nietzsche is a nihilist about truth [i.e., he believes that there’s no such thing as truth]; 2) Nietzsche is a skeptic about knowledge [i.e., he believes that people never or rarely know anything]; 3) Nietzsche is a dialetheist [i.e., he thinks that some propositions are both true and false]; and much else.  While I’m dubious of these extreme readings, I do find the passage quite radical in its import.  What could it mean for the will to ignorance to be the foundation of the will to truth, or for the will to truth to be a refinement of the will to ignorance?  One reason the extreme interpretations are almost certainly wrong is that the conflict or tension that Nietzsche wants to emphasize is not one of content, nor one of beliefs, nor one between beliefs and reality.  Instead, he’s talking about a desiderative or conative tension: a contrast between the will to ignorance and the will to truth.

Let’s be baldly literalistic and gloss ‘will to ignorance’ as the desire not to know (whether it’s a desire for false belief, no belief, or unwarranted belief) and ‘will to truth’ as the desire to know.  How could someone’s desire to know be grounded in her desire not to know?  Well, desire to know what, and not to know what?  Desires, like other propositional attitudes, are individuated in part by their contents.  Does the will to truth have the same content as the will to ignorance?  Is Nietzsche claiming that what we want to know and what we want not to know is exactly the same proposition (or set of propositions)?  I think not.  Instead, I contend that the will to ignorance is associated with a whole host of propositions, of which one must be ignorant if one is to know some other, much smaller, set of propositions.  In order to know that p, one must fail to know that q and r and s and t and….  Why would that be?

One avenue to pursue at this point is raised by Borges in his terrific short story, “Funes, the Memorious.”  Funes is panmnemonic: he remembers everything that ever happens to him.  Instead of being a blessing, this is a curse.  He ends up hiding in a dark room, overwhelmed by his memories.  Because he cannot forget, he deliberately avoids engaging with the world.  His mind becomes cluttered with useless memories of trivia.  Perhaps what Nietzsche is saying is that we need to forget, to gloss over, to be ignorant of much trivia, if we are to know anything of value.

This is a purely instrumental reading of BGE 24: will to truth is based on will to ignorance because, for creatures with limitations like ours, it just so happens that you can only know so much, and so to know important things you need to be ignorant of much else.  It’s a plausible reading, but I think it misses something crucial by making the link between will to ignorance and will to truth purely instrumental.  Consider another possibility: that ignorance of some facts is intrinsically related to knowledge of others.  How might that be?  Well, it’s often possible to infer from the fact that you don’t know.  “If I haven’t heard of it, it doesn’t exist.”  Or at least, “If I haven’t heard of it, it’s not big/important/interesting.”  As it turns out, some of the heuristics and biases research in cognitive psychology of the last 40 years supports exactly this idea.  Consider the availability heuristic and the recognition heuristic. When people infer in accordance with the availability heuristic, they treat ease of recall as an index of probability, frequency, importance, etc.  The easier it is to think of instances of category X, the more common, probable, important Xs are.  The availability heuristic seems to explain why people typically estimate that more words of the form ‘—-ing’ than of the form ‘—–n-‘ will be found in a given stretch of prose.  They think of four-level verbs, then form participles based off of them to generate examples of the former, but don’t for the latter.  So, even though it’s impossible for there to be more seven-letter words ending in ‘ing’ than seven-letter words whose penultimate letter is ‘n’ in a given stretch of prose, more such words are available, which leads them to guess that they’re more frequent.

The recognition heuristic is something like a limit case of availability; when people infer in accordance with this heuristic, they treat mere recognition as an index of probability, frequency, importance, etc.  If one recognizes X but not Y, then Xs are more probable, common, important than Ys.  If someone has been exposed to a large-but-not-comprehensive and unbiased sample, this heuristic is a decent way to make inferences.  Gerd Gigerenzer has shown, for instance, that Germans are as good as (and often better than) Americans at saying which of two American cities has a larger population.  How do they do this?  It’s not because they have more knowledge of American geography than Americans do.  (The converse effect is also found: Americans are as good as, or better than, Germans at saying which of two German cities is more populous.)  What seems to happen is that, whenever Germans recognize the name of one city but not the other, they infer that that city is larger than the other.  Since they tend to have heard of bigger cities, such inferences are surprisingly accurate.

Crucially, you can’t use the recognition heuristic if you recognize too much; it’s most useful when you’re at the Goldilocks point of being acquainted with enough but not too much.  When people use the recognition heuristic, they don’t just maintain a healthy level of ignorance; they actually harness their ignorance to make respectable inferences.  So it might even be adaptive in some circumstances to aim for ignorance, provided it’s ignorance of the right kind.  In more Nietzschean terms, sometimes the will to truth might depend intrinsically on the will to ignorance.

This brings me to one last point, which I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently: can heuristics be considered intellectual virtues?  The recognition heuristic is an extreme case, as I mentioned, but perhaps that will shed some light on the question.  If an intellectual virtue is a disposition that someone who wants to know would want to have, it’s hard to argue that (the disposition to use) the recognition heuristic is an intellectual virtue.  To want to use the recognition heuristic is to want to be sufficiently ignorant, which runs counter to the global desire to know.   Furthermore, it’s unclear whether the recognition heuristic, applied indiscriminately, is sufficiently reliable.  A 1999 paper that Gigerenzer co-authored famously argued that using the recognition heuristic to pick stocks beat the overall market.  “If I’ve heard of it, it must be a winner!”  Well, as it turned out, that was at best a good heuristic to use in a bull market.  Michael Boyd replicated the study and found that it would be better to pick stocks at random than to use the recognition heuristic during a bear market.

A little knowledge may indeed be a dangerous thing.

3 thoughts on “will to ignorance, will to truth, and the recognition heuristic

  1. Two things.

    First, I want to take issue with what you say here:

    “If an intellectual virtue is a disposition that someone who wants to know would want to have, it’s hard to argue that (the disposition to use) the recognition heuristic is an intellectual virtue. To want to use the recognition heuristic is to want to be sufficiently ignorant, which runs counter to the global desire to know.”

    Something’s gone wrong here. To desire that one have a disposition is not to desire that the disposition’s triggering conditions obtain. I desire to be disposed to respond well to insults, but I don’t desire to be insulted. (The disposition to use) the recognition heuristic should be thought of as a disposition to make judgments in a certain way given triggering conditions that include being relatively ignorant about a given subject matter. I can quite coherently desire that I be knowledgable about all subject matters, while at the same time recognizing that this is an unrealizable desire, and so also desiring that I have a somewhat reliable fallback strategy for subject matters about which I know little. So it seems that (the disposition to use) the recognition heuristic can straightforwardly be an intellectual virtue, as long as one is disposed to use it only in circumstances in which one is ignorant in the right ways.

    Second, your discussion here reminds me of another well-known (and oft-Postmodernized) bit of Nietzsche, from his unpublished essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”.

    First his theory of concepts:

    “In particular, let us further consider the formation of con- cepts. Every word instantly becomes a concept precisely insofar as it is not supposed to serve as a reminder of the unique and entirely indi- vidual original experience to which it owes its origin; but rather, a word becomes a concept insofar as it simultaneously has to fit countless more or less similar cases—which means, purely and simply, cases which are never equal and thus altogether unequal. Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept “leaf ” is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual dif- ferences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects. is awakens the idea that, in addition to the leaves, there exists in nature the “leaf “: the original model according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted–but by in- competent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trustworthy, and faithful likeness of the original model.”

    And, a paragraph later, comes the well-known line about truth:

    “What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions—they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.”

    So, insofar as we want to include this in the body of work on which you’re attempting to perform hermeneutic reconstructive surgery, it supports a much more radical reading of Nietzsche’s knowledge-through-ignorance idea than the one to which you’re inclined. And of course I know that this was written almost 13 years earlier than BG&E, and that he never published it, and that people like Leiter have argued that we not include it in the official Nietzsche canon on those grounds (and, you know, I’m sure he likes to ignore the passage because it because it helps him to resist the really crazy Foucauldian readings of Nietzsche that are out there). But I think this stuff is obviously relevant to the theme of your post, and I doubt that Nietzsche changed his views quite so radically from the early stuff to the later stuff as some would like to think.

    • On the recognition heuristic: Thanks, and point taken. There are heuristic fanatics such as Gigerenzer who sometimes seem to advocate strategic ignorance as a way to harness the recognition heuristic, but you’re right that it’s possible to approve of the heuristic in a more limited way. The question should be, as you suggest, whether people are (or at least could be trained to be) disposed to use the recognition heuristic in the right circumstances. That’s a tough question, but I fear that the answer is that they overuse it.

    • On Nietzsche:

      * I agree that “On Truth and Lie” shouldn’t be entirely ignored, but I think that — like the notebooks and the rest of the Nachlass — it shouldn’t be used as the sole source of evidence for an interpretive claim. That said, there are other passages in Nietzsche’s published writings that seem to agree with the “theory of concept formation” that you quote, so I’ll spot you that.

      * I’m therefore inclined to say that it’s a pity Nietzsche has such a silly philosophy of language. He should have read Quine’s “Identity, Ostension, and Hypostasis”! Basically, Nietzsche seems to be committed without argumentation to the idea that if you class an object under a category, you somehow lose the capacity to think of it as anything other than a member of an equivalence class. In partial defense of his claim, there are a few things one could say. First, it might make it harder to think of an object’s idiosyncracies if one thinks of it first and foremost as a representative of some category. Second, perhaps some people sometimes do lose the capacity to think of an object’s individuating characteristics once they’ve classified it. I suppose racism sometimes works in this way, where an individual is treated as nothing more than a representative token of some type. If this is right, perhaps a limited version of Nietzsche’s idea could be salvaged.

      * I readily admit that the knowledge-based-on-ignorance thesis I was exploring isn’t as radical as what Nietzsche claimed in “Truth and Lie” or BGE. I was more hoping to find something that was defensible in the ballpark of what he says. Just as he couldn’t really have read Quine, he couldn’t have read Kahneman and Gigerenzer. Nobody’s perfect.

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