vol. 25 no. 3, September, 2020

Book Reviews

Salecl, Renata. A passion for ignorance. What we choose not to know and why Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020. [10], 194 p. ISBN 978-0-691-19560-5 £22.00

Almost from the beginning of the investigation into human information behaviour the avoidance of information has been recognized as part of such behaviour. lt has been most closely explored in the field of health information, where the concepts of monitoring and blunting were evolved to explain why some people, when faced with the knowledge that they are suffering from a serious, possibly fatal, disease, will actively seek out further information, while others will actively avoid such information (Steptoe and O'Sullivan, 1986). The blunters prefer to remain, as we may say, ignorant of the course of the disease, of the nature of treatment and its consequences, and so on.

Not surprisingly, the author of this intriguing little book (only 154 pages of text) devotes an entire chapter to the Denial of illness, without actually mentioning the work of Steptoe and O'Sullivan and numerous others who have explored the blunting phenomenon. In this chapter, however, the author draws attention to some interesting conditions for maintaining ignorance of health matters. An important one is that 'the ability of an individual to maintain his or her ignorance, wilful or otherwise, is dependent on others being willing to collude in protecting that ignorance.', citing the case of Maria who ignored the doctors' description of her problem (which could have been cancerous), preferring to hold to the notion that her tumour had not been cancerous. This ignorance was, in effect, supported by the doctors who did not press their prognosis upon Maria, and by her husband, who took on to himself, the anxiety that Maria would otherwise have experienced.

This denial of health conditions can go extremely deep into the psyche, resulting in the condition of anosognosia, which can be the result of brain damage, but which also seems to arise out of a psychological response to an illness, for example, in the case of anorexia nervosis. At the extreme, a partially sighted person may refuse to acknowledge their condition, blaming the lighting conditions or their glasses for the problems they experience.

The author goes on to link the denial of illness to the denial of death, noting that Freud linked the general concept of denial to the fear of death. Some go so far as to invest in having their bodies cryogenically frozen, in the hope (so far not realised) that at some point in the future they can be resurrected and live again. Wikipedia notes one of the problems associated with this idea:

Economic reality means it is highly improbable that any cryonics corporation could continue in business long enough to take advantage of the claimed long-term benefits offered. Early attempts of cryonic preservations were performed in the 1960s and early 1970s which ended in failure with companies going out of business, and their stored corpses thawed and disposed of. (Cryonics, 2020)

Presumably the persons concerned would have great difficulty in getting their money back!

Denial of illness and of death are just part of the 'passion for ignorance' of the title. I've dealt with Chapter 4 because of that association with the study of blunting in information behaviour research. The author also discusses ignorance and denial in relation to war, focussing to a significant extent on the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia (understandably, as the author is Slovenian), where attempts to hide the truth of genocide ultimately failed. Denial and a preference for ignorance also affect family life, with facts about birth and ancestors being "forgotten"; so that criminals in our families in generations past are either genuinely forgotten, or never mentioned, and illegitimate children may grow up not realising that "aunty" is, in fact, their mother.

The author also notes that 'Love is blind' (Chapter 5), and that relationships often depend upon preferring to remain 'ignorant' of a partner's shortcomings, in order to maintain the relationship. She notes that Shakespeare had something to say about this (as he did about so many things!):

Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes
that they behold, and see not what they see?

This is a well-written account of the nature of ignorance by a philosopher and sociologist, illustrated by numerous case studies of ignorance in different contexts. It will repay anyone interested in this problem, whether philosopher, sociologist, or information scientist.


Cryonics. (2020). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryonics

Steptoe, A. & O'Sullivan, J. (1986). Monitoring and blunting coping styles in women prior to surgery. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 25(2), 143-144. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8260.1986.tb00683.x

Professor Tom Wilson
September 2020

How to cite this review

Wilson, T.D. (2020). Review of: Salecl, Renata. A passion for ignorance. What we choose not to know and why. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020. Information Research, 25(3), review no. R698 http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs698.html

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.