Ignoramus et ignorabimus

The Latin maxim ignoramus et ignorabimus, meaning "we do not know and will not know", represents the idea that scientific knowledge is limited. It was publicized, in this sense, by Emil du Bois-Reymond, a German physiologist, in his publication Über die Grenzen des Naturerkennens ("On the limits of our understanding of nature") of 1872.

Emil du Bois-Reymond, (1818–1896), promulgator of the maxim ignoramus et ignorabimus. (Heliogravure of a painting
by Max Koner.

Seven World Riddles

Emil du Bois-Reymond used the phrase ignoramus et ignorabimus while discussing what he termed seven "world riddles", in a famous 1880 speech before the Prussian Academy of Sciences.

He defined seven "world riddles", of which three, he declared, neither science nor philosophy could ever explain, because they are "transcendent". Of the riddles, he considered the following transcendental and declared of them ignoramus et ignorabimus:[1] "1. the ultimate nature of matter and force, 2. the origin of motion, ... 5. the origin of simple sensations, a quite transcendent question."

Hilbert's reaction

David Hilbert, a widely-respected German mathematician, suggested that such a conceptualization of human knowledge and ability is too pessimistic, and that by considering questions unsolvable, we limit our understanding.

In 1900, during an address to the International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, Hilbert suggested that answers to problems of mathematics are possible with human effort. He declared, "In mathematics there is no ignorabimus.",[2] and he worked with other formalists to establish foundations for mathematics during the early 20th century.

On 8 September 1930, Hilbert elaborated his opinion in a celebrated address to the Society of German Scientists and Physicians, in Königsberg:[3]

We must not believe those, who today, with philosophical bearing and deliberative tone, prophesy the fall of culture and accept the ignorabimus. For us there is no ignorabimus, and in my opinion none whatever in natural science. In opposition to the foolish ignorabimus our slogan shall be: Wir müssen wissen — wir werden wissen.[4] ('We must know - we will know.')

Answers to some of Hilbert's Program of 23 problems were found during the 20th century. Some have been answered definitively; some have not yet been solved; a few have been shown to be impossible to answer with mathematical rigor.

During 1931, Gödel's incompleteness theorems showed that answers to some mathematical questions cannot be answered in the manner we would usually prefer.

Sociological responses

The sociologist Wolf Lepenies has discussed the ignorabimus with the opinion that du Bois-Reymond was not really pessimistic about science:[5]

—it is in fact an incredibly self-confident support for scientific hubris masked as modesty—

This is in a discussion of Friedrich Wolters, one of the members of the literary group "George-Kreis". Lepenies comments that Wolters misunderstood the degree of pessimism being expressed about science, but well understood the implication that scientists themselves could be trusted with self-criticism.

See also


  1. ^ William E. Leverette Jr., E. L. Youmans' Crusade for Scientific Autonomy and Respectability, American Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 1. (Spring, 1965), pg. 21.
  2. ^ D. Hilbert (1902). "Mathematical Problems: Lecture Delivered before the International Congress of Mathematicians at Paris in 1900". Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society. 8: 437–79. doi:10.1090/S0002-9904-1902-00923-3. MR 1557926.
  3. ^ a b Hilbert, David, audio address, transcription and English translation.
  4. ^ a b "wissen" refers to the term "wissenschaft" and educator Wilhelm von Humboldt's concept of "bildung." That is, education incorporates science, knowledge, and scholarship, an association of learning, and a dynamic process discoverable for oneself; and learning or becoming is the highest ideal of human existence.
  5. ^ Lepenies, Wolf (1988). Between Literature and Science: the Rise of Sociology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 272. ISBN 0-521-33810-7.

Agnosticism is the view that the existence of God, of the divine or the supernatural is unknown or unknowable. Another definition provided is the view that "human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist"The English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley coined the word agnostic in 1869, and said "It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe."

Earlier thinkers, however, had written works that promoted agnostic points of view, such as Sanjaya Belatthaputta, a 5th-century BCE Indian philosopher who expressed agnosticism about any afterlife; and Protagoras, a 5th-century BCE Greek philosopher who expressed agnosticism about the existence of "the gods".Agnosticism is the doctrine or tenet of agnostics with regard to the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena or to knowledge of a First Cause or God, and is not a religion.

Arturo Carsetti

Arturo Carsetti is an Italian Philosopher of sciences and former Professor of philosophy of science at the University of Bari and the University of Rome Tor Vergata. He is the editor of the Italian Journal for the philosophy of science La Nuova Critica founded in 1957 by Valerio Tonini. He is notable for his contributions, also as a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, to philosophy of science, epistemology, cognitive science and philosophy of mind.

David Hilbert

David Hilbert (; German: [ˈdaːvɪt ˈhɪlbɐt]; 23 January 1862 – 14 February 1943) was a German mathematician and one of the most influential and universal mathematicians of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Hilbert discovered and developed a broad range of fundamental ideas in many areas, including invariant theory, calculus of variations, commutative algebra, algebraic number theory, the foundations of geometry, spectral theory of operators and its application to integral equations, mathematical physics, and foundations of mathematics (particularly proof theory).

Hilbert adopted and warmly defended Georg Cantor's set theory and transfinite numbers. A famous example of his leadership in mathematics is his 1900 presentation of a collection of problems that set the course for much of the mathematical research of the 20th century.

Hilbert and his students contributed significantly to establishing rigor and developed important tools used in modern mathematical physics. Hilbert is known as one of the founders of proof theory and mathematical logic, as well as for being among the first to distinguish between mathematics and metamathematics.

I know that I know nothing

"I know that I know nothing" is a saying derived from Plato's account of the Greek philosopher Socrates. It is also called the Socratic paradox. The phrase is not one that Socrates himself is ever recorded as saying.

This saying is also connected or conflated with the answer to a question Socrates (according to Xenophon) or Chaerephon (according to Plato) is said to have posed to the Pythia, the oracle of Delphi, in which the Oracle stated something to the effect of "Socrates is the wisest."


Ignoramus may refer to:

Latin for "we do not know"

Ignoramus, a college farce written in 1615 in Latin by George Ruggle

An ignorant person or dunce (as a consequence of Ruggle's play)

A verdict by a Grand Jury, meaning "we do not know of any reason why this person should be indicted on these charges"

Ignorance management

Ignorance management is a knowledge management practice that addresses the concept of ignorance in organizations.

Index of philosophy of science articles

An index list of articles about the philosophy of science.

There are known knowns

"There are known knowns" is a phrase from a response United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave to a question at a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) news briefing on February 12, 2002 about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.Rumsfeld stated:

Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

The statement became the subject of much commentary, including a documentary by Academy Award–winning film director Errol Morris.

Transcendence (philosophy)

In philosophy, transcendence conveys the basic ground concept from the word's literal meaning (from Latin), of climbing or going beyond, albeit with varying connotations in its different historical and cultural stages. It includes philosophies, systems, and approaches that describe the fundamental structures of being, not as an ontology (theory of being), but as the framework of emergence and validation of knowledge of being. "Transcendental" is a word derived from the scholastic, designating the extra-categorical attributes of beings.

Werner Leinfellner

Werner Leinfellner (January 27, 1921 – April 6, 2010) was professor of philosophy at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and at the Vienna University of Technology. After recovering from life-threatening wounds during World War II, he studied chemistry and physics at the Universities of Vienna and Graz, eventually turning to the study of the philosophy of science, and receiving his Ph.D. in 1959. He moved to the United States in 1967, in part, because of problems faced by empirically oriented philosophers in obtaining academic positions in Austria and Germany. He is notable for his contributions to philosophy of science, as a member of European Academy of Sciences and Arts, for founding the journal Theory and Decision, for co-founding Theory and Decision Library, and for co-founding the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society and International Wittgenstein Symposium.

William C. Wimsatt

William C. Wimsatt (born May 27, 1941) is professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy, the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science (previously Conceptual Foundations of Science), and the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago. He is currently a Winton Professor of the Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota and Residential Fellow of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science. He specializes in the philosophy of biology, where his areas of interest include reductionism, heuristics, emergence, scientific modeling, heredity, and cultural evolution.

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