Knowledge, that human practice

Ordinarily, we think knowledge is having in one’s head some kind of story or an explanation that matches how Things Really Are. This ordinary conception has at least two problems. First, it assumes that there is a way Things Really Are – that some particular story or explanation is successful at capturing that way, and there can’t be multiple stories or accounts which are all successful, in their own ways and for different reasons. Second, it presumes that knowledge is simply a kind of match-up between what’s in one’s head and what’s in the world, and so it ignores all of the signals and indicators we use in determining whether someone has knowledge. Arguably, it is these signals and indicators that really are what knowledge is, rather than some sort of spiritual sympathy between mind and world.


Frank Bacon, 1561-1626

Francis Bacon was being much more realistic when he insisted that knowledge is power. Some sorts of knowledge allow us to get things done, and it really doesn’t matter what chattering noises we produce in the doing. If a sailor can cross an ocean and end up where he wants to go, then he has knowledge, regardless of whether he’s been using a GPS or Sacro Bosco’s Spheres. This is practical knowledge. Other sorts of knowledge aren’t so immediately practical, and here it gets tricky. Sometimes what needs to get done is something social, political, or cultural, and it’s not so much a matter of “getting it done” so much as providing a useful overall perspective. What makes the perspective useful is that it assembles together all or most of what some particular audience deems as important. If four of us are talking at a party, and three of us have points we’re insisting on, and the fourth manages to put together an account that does tolerable justice to those three points, then that fourth person is regarded as having knowledge. This sort of “talking at a party” knowledge is academic or theoretical knowledge.

Both practical and theoretical knowledge are instances of power: the practical is power over things, and the theoretical is power over conversations. In domains of knowledge that purport to be scientific, the theoretical parts are tethered to the practical parts, in varying degrees of snugness (natural science) or looseness (social science). But smeared over both the practical and theoretical domains is a mixed variety of social pressures. For it is a society that needs to get things done, and recognizes only some achievements as worth doing. It is a society that prizes some conversations over others, and sets values on what needs to be integrated and what does not. The upshot of all this is that knowledge is what gets you ahead, gives you an advantage, wins you accolades, or otherwise (that’s right, Frank) gives you power. And it is easy to see how this upshot is soaked through and through with social, political, and cultural circumstances.

One might object that no amount of brute power can make an untruth true, even if it can manage to force many people to act as if they believe it. But this objection suffers from an understanding of “power” that is too limited. Power can be overt, physical, and brutal, involving “truth” commissions and the gulag and the whole nightmare. But that’s just stupid power – the power of school bullies. Power is also exerted over social circles and institutions and scientific academies. These more sophisticated exertions of power reach in and affect who we want to be, how we want to think, and words we would like to use. We voluntarily put ourselves forward for memberships in these societies, asking to be trained and coached into the right sorts of things to say (“graduate school”). And, yes, in the best cases evidence and experiments and archival research all play significant roles: but the questions that are asked, the ways in which data is recorded and interpreted, the judgments about whether the line of research is worthwhile – all these important factors are determined through exertions of social power, whether explicitly or implicitly. And note well: in the end, anyone who doesn’t meet the group’s expectations is typically regarded as not having knowledge.

This might sound like a sour complaint, but it isn’t meant to be: I don’t think there is another way for knowledge to exist. Knowledge, as much as pottery or sneakers or trial by jury, is a human phenomenon, governed ultimately by social processes taking place in a natural world that contributes its own set of constraints. Pretending it is otherwise is itself a familiar power play, an attempt to legitimate one’s power by appeal to the natural order: knowledge by divine right.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Historical episodes, Items of the academy / learning, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Knowledge, that human practice

  1. - says:

    So you’ve gone full Foucault with this post. Truth is but narrative, there is only power. Those who make claims to truth are just telling marginalizing meta-narratives.

    Philosophy is dead.

    If I may poke at you a bit:

    Of course, you make your own power play by signaling that you are aware of and are thus, in some sense, above the fray. The superiority, then, of the skeptical man (deconstructionist) with no convictions. That is, increasingly, the mark of the “educated person”, no?

    One might think that what is left in this wake is only the will. Seeing truth as a mere mask for power liberates us from subjection to anything given (a divine or natural order), thus paving the way for the proper exercise of the will (Overman). But an irony lurks, for the result is quite different. The result is not the great man, but the petty politics of identity – which is how our age of the will manifests itself. Here we see the appearance of conviction in the form of virtue signaling with all of the appropriate outrage when others are marginalizing with their meta-narratives (blind, of course, to how this exercise has itself become the master narrative of the chattering classes). So, in an odd twist, the way to Nz’s Overman really just leads to a kind of Last Man (the comfortable bourgeois class of the New Philistines). Tragically, the end of Nz’s / Derrida’s/Foucult’s postmodern project is the slacktivist, nihilist, neutered hipster. To quote C.S. Lewis, “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” (Abolition of Man).

    Or maybe we made a mistake early on in the thinking that led us to this thicket of making the truth claim that there are no truth claims. Perhaps another path might lead to a clearing.


  2. Huenemann says:

    Thanks for the poke! No, I think I’m only a half-assed Foucaultian (as he may also have been). I don’t know how to understand the claim that “Truth is but narrative”; it would be like saying “Only the text exists” or “Everything is language” – provocative claims, and maybe good for getting discussion going, but patently false. Still, it’s true of course that power, narrative, texts, and language all shape our experience and our thought, most powerfully in ways we’re not usually aware of. The only way to become aware of them is through constant critique and dialogue. That doesn’t guarantee we can ever be truly free from those influences (the full-blown enlightenment ideals are illusory), but we can try to compensate for the ones we’ve discovered, piecemeal fashion. (By the way, “neutered”, “organ…function”, “castrate…geldings”??!!)


    • Mike says:

      That comment was classic poor reading comprehension digressing into an argument against a strawman who apparently holds the belief “Truth is but narrative, there is only power.” Silly strawman.


      • Kleiner says:

        I am not sure it was a silly straw man. It might have been an over-reading of the post, but I think Huenemann risks the pomo result. In the original post, Huenemann says that careful thinking, scientific research, etc, that “all these important factors are determined through exertions of social power, whether explicitly or implicitly.” Later he says that knowledge is “governed ultimately by social processes taking place in a natural world that contributes its own set of constraints. Pretending it is otherwise is itself a familiar power play, an attempt to legitimate one’s power by appeal to the natural order: knowledge by divine right.”

        Taken in one way, this is obviously true. Our judgments are always situated in a world, in a matrix of cultural significations, etc. But are those socially processes determinative, such that any appeal to natural order is a mere power play? “Determined” is a pretty strong word, and it is the word he chooses. I wonder if Huenemann might prefer to use a word like “conditioned”. In his answer to the postmodern concern, he encourages just the right thing – be mindful of how social norms are influencing thought, we careful, always ask the further question (critique), dialogue, etc. This suggests that the will to truth is not in every case just a mask for the will to power, or that the will to power is not a determinative, but merely a conditioning factor that can be overcome with adequate care. It would also mean that, at some point, one could appeal to a natural order – by demonstrating that their judgment about the natural order is considered, etc.


  3. Alex says:

    The caption ‘Frank Bacon’ seems a little ham-fisted.


  4. Alex says:

    Not that I’m trying to pork at you.


  5. Alex says:

    “What verve! If this blasphemer Huenemann is right, then all our precious theories are only the feathers of strutting peacocks competing for view. In that case, the only real measuring stick for our knowledge becomes – yuck! – beauty! Now, what kind of world will that be? A girlish one? A poetic one? A sappy, soft one? A garden where academic works hang from trees like pretty fruits, or a stadium where they are admired like Olympic feats, or a sparkling gallery of oil paintings beloved for their form as expressions of human potential and creativity? Can you imagine, a place where free-range humans are encouraged to relinquish their social and economic duties in order to make… art? To safely experiment with the wildest, most dangerous and beautiful theories imaginable? Absurd! Unthinkable! Imagine how it would smell! No, knowledge belongs confined to its proper place in the world: grasping at a truth of which a select few are already informed. Luckily these few will never allow such a garden of debauchery to exist. Despite his efforts to pull them down, academia’s corduroy pants shall remain firmly and roundly covering our proud and bare asses.” – statement of the Overseer of Academic Theory and Pantaloons, Ward #648


  6. Huenemann says:

    Remember that I distinguished between practical and theoretical knowledge: practical knowledge lets you get stuff done (build generators, etc), and theoretical knowledge gives you power over conversations. I’ll concede the distinction is messy, and the two powers can inform one another. But anyone insisting that knowledge all comes down to social power has not fixed a bicycle or a furnace. Overseer of Pantaloons, I’m looking at you.


    • Alex says:

      That weird little vignette didn’t have the effect I thought! I’ll cut the crap. What’s interesting about this conversation is the sense that you are fighting against a sort of stifling force of primitive social constraint in academia. That is, you’re warning about those “more sophisticated exertions of power” lurking behind theoretical knowledge. Research academics are not really coming up with genuine truths that correspond to a reality, but they’re behaving much like everyone else in the world: proliferating in social groups, coagulating public identities and, ultimately, competing for public attention and money. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, it’s just the way things are. Maybe I’m reading you too far to one side here.

      Anyway, where it gets interesting is imagining a Huenemanniac utopia. Pretend for a second we’re gods (or even higher, Deans) with the ability to manifest any sort of university that we want. What schools do people create based on their conclusions in a conversation about knowledge? What should a Huenemanniac university look like in which it’s not true that “power is exerted over social circles and institutions and scientific academies” or “anyone who doesn’t meet the group’s expectations is typically regarded as not having knowledge”? What do we find in Huenemanniapolis?

      For one thing, a radically different social atmosphere from anything human beings are familiar with, one which we probably don’t have the capacity to imagine today. We’re still trapped by the conditioning of the primitive current system that it’s difficult to think about education as non-authoritarian. What does a place look like in which research is not *really* about picking factions in a great game of prestige, a hierarchy, a divine ladder?Well, I figure such a university would embrace a great deal more eccentricity, wild experimentation, and free-form individuality – for better or worse. I suppose when the idea that there can possibly be such a thing as an Authority of Knowledge is debunked, the world either creates newer, scarier, more illusive authorities or opens up bewildering horizons. It could be weird good, but weird often goes bad fast.

      However the Huenemanniac utopia might look, it certainly would be different from the conservative model based on the assumption that there is a Way Things Really Are. If that’s true, scientists of knowledge need a Serious System. And some Models. And a Hierarchy of Authority. And someone to watch over everyone’s Precious Pantaloons. In this post you seem to be resisting that sort of system. Striving to figure out what a University should look like as the structures of the Enlightenment crumble away. I’m imagining you walking around wondering where the hell you are in time and why education works the way it does, trying to open up new and weird avenues for thinking. Sounds like real philosophy!


  7. Huenemann says:

    My friend Mark Notturno once parodied the allegory of the cave so that it took place in a classroom – fixed desks, facing the authoritative teacher, etc. The alternative he very briefly alluded to at the end was “a bunch of smart-looking guys all running around, disagreeing with one another.” I’d like that to be Huenemanniapolis, were it not for the fact that disagreements tend to lead to factions at war with one another. As Erica Holberg has said, “We have super-hero movies because we haven’t learned how to disagree with one another.” Lots of truth in that.


    • Alex says:

      So do you think education in itself is teaching people how to disagree?

      Forklifts filled with cheeseburgers worth of calories I’m expending lately trying to figure out what Plato’s about. And all I keep seeing is character portraits of disagreers. And the best disagreer never says anybody is wrong! How far we’ve still got to go thousands of years later.


    • Huenemann says:

      Wait – that reply (7:38 pm) was inexcusably lame. As if “people disagreeing with one another” were an exotic phenomenon! Rather, people disagreeing thoughtfully and intelligent with one another. Well, that, and a widespread enthusiasm for medieval siege weaponry.


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