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.
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.