Is knowledge a value in itself?

Here in France one major government objective has been to integrate the public universities more closely with the labor market and the private sector. Faculty protesters often counter with a claim that universities should be valued as places of scholarship and critical consciousness, whatever their external results, that useless academic work is quite fine (and indeed may lead to great things), and that knowledge is “a value in itself.”

So I think we have to ask: Does it make any sense to claim that knowledge is valuable in itself? This seems to me something that should have to be demonstrated, rather than taken for granted by academics (whose profession and whole way of life, admittedly, encourages them to take it for granted).

As a preface to this discussion, we have to acknowledge that the topic raises two major conceptual questions: what we mean by “knowledge,” and what we mean by “a value in itself.” Without undertaking a long philosophical investigation, I’ll just say that it’s not prima facie obvious to me that it makes much sense to talk about the value of human knowledge in general. Knowing the contents of my sock drawer and knowing the physical parameters of the center of the Milky Way are different kinds of knowledge with very different sorts of value; the former is of practical value to me (and pretty much no one else), while the latter is of no obvious practical value to me but is of considerable professional importance to astronomers. It’s true that basic practical, cultural, and linguistic knowledge is a prerequisite for being a socially viable human being: at some basic anthropological level, one just can’t be a person without having all the prerequisite knowledge for enacting personhood. It’s true, then, that insofar as being human is valuable, knowledge is necessary (and instrumentally valuable, at least).

But I think to go any farther we have to make a number of distinctions that tend to undermine the coherence of the original question. There are many kinds of value and, perhaps more importantly, many possible contexts for judging value. Philosophers have attempted to assess the value of knowledge in relation to other sorts of cognitive states (belief and true belief, for instance) as well as the place of wisdom in the good life. Economists have had a lot to say about the value of knowledge, which is thought to be shifting as new kinds of “intellectual property” develop (see arguments about whether knowledge is a “public good“). There is, for that matter, a whole school of sociology centered on the premise that we now live in a “knowledge society” in which knowledge has become central to the economy and polity in unprecedented ways. (I’m skeptical.) In short, we can’t assume that knowledge is just one thing or that having value is straightforward. What kind of knowledge are we talking about? And what kind of value are we ascribing to it?

Now, things get somewhat simpler once we realize that when academics talk about “knowledge” in general, they usually just mean “scholarly knowledge.” When academics defend knowledge in itself, often they’re saying that scholarship is an intrinsically valuable activity, and that scholarly knowledge is important and valuable for its own sake, regardless of its practical significance or lack thereof. I had a philosophy teacher in college who said that a culture without philosophy was an impoverished culture, which seems to be the extreme version of this view. (Of course, it’s uncertain whether ‘philosophy’ designates institutionalized academic philosophy or just any kind of organized reflection. In the latter case, every culture clearly “has philosophy” one way or another.)

It seems to me that when faculty argue for “knowledge as a value in itself,” that is, or easily enough becomes, an argument that in practical terms they should be paid to do whatever they want with no social benefit other than the ones they decide for themselves. Indeed, sometimes people even go so far as to believe (a) scholarly knowledge is intrinsically good for society and (b) that scholarly knowledge can only be evaluated by the community of scholars themselves, which amounts to saying, by unspoken implication, that (c) whatever ideas scholars happen to like, even if through the purest collective whimsy or delusion, are intrinsically good for society. It’s hard to separate the radically impersonal plea that knowledge matters for its own sake from the radically self-interested argument that academics should be paid to pursue whatever knowledge they see fit.

Now, I don’t want to deny the intuition that I have – that I think many academics have – that it’s quite simply a good thing to know. And more specifically to know about the world in the kinds of ways that academics make possible. It’s hard not to feel that it’s just a good thing in itself to know how the world is organized and where it came from and how a star is structured and how a poem is written and that birds’ bones are hollow and that there was a horrible massacre in El Mozote in 1981. Which, moreover, the US government turned a blind eye to. (Reading about that massacre, I have to tell you, was a memorable moment in my adolescent consciousness of the gruesomeness of politics and history. The value of knowledge is something that takes form in respect to particular historical and biographical moments.)

But we can’t be content to take for granted this unexamined intuition that knowledge is obviously a good thing. There are equally powerful intuitions in our culture that run in the other direction; knowledge can be misery, as Christian mythology about the Garden of Eden reminds us. Curiosity killed the cat. And so on.

Now I’m tempted to conclude by saying that, instead of a theory about the value of knowledge, we should instead propose a theory of what leads people to want to defend its value. Because what the contemporary French case indicates is that academcis defend the value of knowledge “in itself” mostly when they feel threatened with being instrumentalized by projects they don’t like. To claim that knowledge is valuable in itself is a very ambiguous positive claim, but a very strong negative claim. Above all, it says something like: you can’t reduce sociology (or whatever other liberal art) to a vocational skill or a policy research group. The claim that knowledge is a value in itself, in spite of its seemingly abstract and general nature, is actually something that seems to arise as a rejection of very concrete proposals that “instrumentalize” academic work.

But it seems to me that to say that knowledge is valuable in itself is, arguably, just shorthand for saying that one can’t enumerate everything it’s good for. It’s shorthand for saying that it’s good for society’s self-understanding as a whole, or for the good of human life, or for any number of other grandiose and general projects. To say that knowledge is valuable in itself is, arguably, just to announce that one is at an epistemological impasse: that one thinks it has larger values beyond itself but can’t spell them all out.

I hope to go farther in this line of thought soon, in future posts.

9 thoughts on “Is knowledge a value in itself?

  1. Great post! I liked your aside about practical knowledge… I think its often under-appreciated. I recommend Hayek’s

    I think I value the experience of individuals learning, the existence of learned individuals, the process of contributing to collective knowledge, as well as that knowledge itself. Formal education and institutions from primary school to universities are important.

    That said, I’d also like to move beyond such vague assessments, and consider particular tradeoffs. If we subsidize one form of knowledge, we have less money for another, or for something entirely different like foreign aid.

  2. Thanks, Mike! I’ll read the Hayek piece. And I appreciate your differentiation of “the experience of individuals learning, the existence of learned individuals, the process of contributing to collective knowledge, as well as that knowledge itself.” These seem like very good distinctions to keep in mind in this connection.

    About particular tradeoffs, I agree that it would be good to look at them in more detail. To make matters even more complex, it strikes me that this has to be thought about in a context where (esp. outside academia) there isn’t much consensus on the relative values of different forms of knowledge, or on the value of knowledge as opposed to, say, foreign aid, military power, social services, etc. Part of what happens in state or federal legislatures is an effort to provisionally adjudicate between different parties with quite different priorities, and the result is seldom what an individual actor with only one set of values would have come up with. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, unfortunately, it’s not even as simple as trying to agree among ourselves on whether to fund more education or more foreign aid. The next step would be to recognize that it’s a pluralistic world where values and priorities are never universally shared, which necessarily makes resource allocation into a matter of political compromise.

    Other thing about tradeoffs — one could argue that education/research are themselves indirectly necessary for a number of other public projects, like healthcare, participation in democratic institutions, environmental protection, possibly foreign aid (since why would anyone support foreign aid without knowing something about the world beyond our borders?), etc. Making tradeoffs between higher ed and other projects becomes even harder to figure out, it seems to me, when we have to support a certain amount of education to make a project like environmental protection feasible. I mean, environmental protection is presumably a lot harder without a population that has some clue about the environment and what kinds of things damage it…

    What do you think?

  3. I agree with everything you say. Tradeoffs will be difficult to determine, of course that is no excuse not to try. When we are less certain about tradeoffs, we should be less certain about the best course of action. And yes, even if I am convinced of the merits of some policy, even if I can point to a group of specialists who agree about this policy, we are (for better and for worse) constrained in enacting it.

    I’ll try to blog something sooner rather than later.

  4. While you touch upon it lightly, you seem to discount the pivotal distinction that is central to the question you pose – the distinction between ‘practical knowledge’ and what most of humanity would consider to be study of the obscure. Clearly, the interface between the two is worthy of its own discourse; yet, wherever the line is drawn I feel that the position of the French government is utterly reasonable. (as I understand their position, from my limited knowledge and inference)

    Take a few steps back from academia, and it becomes clear that the scope of most secondary education is rather abstract at best, and that much of our education is foolhardy and far too abstract to serve much purpose beyond sustaining and furthering and sustaining a class of the intellectual elite – a class that inherently, or by design, furthers an unconscionable social strata and class system that minimizes the virtues of vocation in favor of a class with little knowledge of their own abstract and minuscule value in our day to day existence.

    This is not to say that I in anyway discount the virtue of the intellectual, or their importance to the furtherance of society. Rather, I believe those with an inclination toward innovation, the abstract, and the inane-but-invaluable depths of knowledge and exploration are those with an inherent affinity for the exploration of the facets of our existence; yet we have a system hell-bent on promoting knowledge over vocation.

    Those with an inclination towards ‘intellectual knowledge’ should not be dissuaded, but encouraged, and institutes of learning should serve to provide ample opportunity for the driven to explore these avenues. That said, the primary focus of the educational system as a whole should clearly be more vocational in scope and strive to prepare individuals for their life, and their world, as they will experience it.

    We’ve ample opportunity for second-generation masons and carpenters, and a fistful of opportunities for career academics, philosophers and their ilk – but your average ‘liberal arts’ major has only been thoroughly prepared for a life of wasting their innate talents in favor of filling societies openings for the misfits and mediocrity.

    We’ve enterprising homeless that live fulfilling lives and thrive in their environment understand their constraints and mediocre academics who strain and struggle to no end but to meet abstract societal expectations.

    I’ve more respect for the former and more pity for the latter.

    With little exception, those whom attempt to define knowledge as a virtue unto itself are those whom in absence of this definition would posses little virtue.

  5. hi jonathan! great to hear from you. I have a few thoughts about your very interesting remarks.

    1) One thing we seem to agree about is that people have fairly self-interested relationships to the university. Academics, as I noted in my original post, have every interest in believing that their knowledge is profoundly important; college students, as far as I can make out your view here, basically want to go to college to get something useful to themselves. Probably a job, you seem to think. Or as you put it, to get prepared for their lives, which of course isn’t quite the same thing a job… and your view of “life preparation” is going to depend on how much you believe that liberal arts education is worthwhile. As I’m sure you’d agree, one *can* theoretically teach oneself a lot of liberal arts stuff, especially, like, history and literature. On the flip side, most people are not all that studious, and will hence probably never learn that much of the liberal arts if they don’t take a class.

    2. About “practical knowledge.” I mean, one difficulty with your view is that there is no such thing as “practical” in the abstract. Something can only be practical in relation to some particular person or group. In a sense, for instance, there is something deeply practical about writing scholarly articles: they’re a necessary prerequisite for keeping an academic job. For scholars, they’re very practical. For carpenters, they’re probably totally useless; but then, a table saw is pretty useless to almost everyone besides a carpenter. So, yes, on one hand, I agree with you that a lot of scholarly research is rather arcane and I certainly support making it more immediately relevant or beneficial to society at large. On the other hand, the case could be made that there’s nothing wrong with having some amount of research that’s opaque to laypeople: every profession has its private discourse.

    Also, I think it’s a bit simplistic on your part to paint all scholarly research as equally irrelevant. No end of scientific and technical inventions from the last century (or before) have come out of universities (atomic bomb); even in social sciences some pretty important things have emerged, like the demonstration that race isn’t a biologically valid category, or statistics on how the school system propagates class inequality. I mean, these latter things aren’t practical knowledge in the sense of helping to get a job, but some of these findings are politically really important in my view (I happen to believe that it’s a valuable thing to know how wealth and power are unequally distributed and how inequality works). Sure, it’s hard to see the use of a dissertation on rhyme patterns in some 17th century poet, but not all academic work is that arcane.

    I agree, of course, that some (maybe most) academics overestimate the value of their work, but let’s face it: most jobs in America in this day and age are pretty ridiculous. I mean, working tech support for comcast or making hamburgers or being a lawyer for the insurance industry? All those are pretty existentially unsatisfying in the long run. So let’s not automatically assume that jobs are a good thing. With certain exceptions, I think they’re more like a necessary evil that you have to have to get by.

    3) About your comment that academics wouldn’t have much virtue if they didn’t possess the power to define their knowledge as virtuous: yeah, this is a very interesting point. But the problem is, who is going to define what’s valuable about academic knowledge if not academics themselves? Frankly, the other big power brokers in American society with power to define what’s valuable are mostly like corporate CEOs, rich celebrities, hack political leaders, corrupt journalists and commentators in mainstream media, etc. I for one prefer the values of academia to those of most other public spheres in America these days.

    Full disclosure, though: I admit that I have every material interest, as a would-be academic, in saying that I support academic values!

  6. Your rhetoric is top notch, but the logic behind it suspect, and largely pedantic and defensive. (I’ll allow that you’ve a vested interest)

    As I stated clearly, I feel that there is an important place for the academic, and the intellectual. I don’t decry the the study of the ‘arcane’ or ‘impractical’ outright; such an ignorance of the benefit of academic and intellectual advancement and achievement would be asinine. Rather, I object to the continuing decline in the nature of ‘practical’ education in favor of the pedantic.

    The philosopher would do well to know how to use a table saw, so that he might not need to call the carpenter to build his bookshelf. The inverse of this conjecture is of doubtful practicality.

    Further, your definition of ‘practical’ in its relation to academia (i.e. “publish or perish”) is questionable, as it only has merit within its own circular, self-reinforcing construct. (not to mention that such policies really only promote the decline of reason as they promote quantity over substance)

    To wit: the world will get along quite handily without the penning of yet another redundant dissertation produced in the name of self-preservation rather than knowledge, but we will be at a loss without our burger-flipping tech-supporting, house-building un-“existentially fulfilled” friends. (in no small part because of the decline in what I consider “practical” education, leaving much of the population helpless to deal with much of their everyday life)

    If I could eat your research, or build my house out of it, it might be a different story.

    Or perhaps you’re right, maybe we should eschew practicality and vocation. After all, we’re just going to continuously outsource those skills to the lowest bidder anyhow. I would probably do myself well to jump on the bandwagon of the elite; once it’s done mowing-down anything resembling a middle-class we’ll be back to serfdom. You’ll be surprised how much wheat (I guess it’s corn these days) you’ll have to reap to buy four years in the Ivy’s.

    Our academic system, in part because of its impractical nature, (I’ll acknowledge a lot of parallel causation) and in spite of its seemingly noble intentions, is doing more than its fair share of damage to society.

    That’s all I’ve to say on the subject, so this will be the end of my discourse on the subject – I’ve got a bookshelf to build.

    (In full disclosure, I harbor no ill-will towards you, your education, or the virtue of your study, as you well know.)

  7. hey, man, I’m just going to say, (a), you come across as possibly harsher than you intend to; (b) I never said we should eschew practicality; I just think that our society is profoundly ridiculous, and that most of the stuff we do isn’t ultimately “practical” at all, even if we’re carpenters. Many carpenters, remember, work on absolutely ridiculous construction projects like mansions for the affluent or new shopping plazas. That sort of building work, no less than academia, is only “practical” in relation to what you term some “circular, self-reinforcing construct.”

    In other words, I agree with you that we have to distinguish two senses of “practical”:
    1. ‘practical’ in the sense of knowing what it takes to make a good world, a world that we would want to live in, where things would make some sense, where people would have a certain degree of self-sufficiency. You know, hippie utopia world. I think this is pretty much the sense of “practical” you believe in yourself.
    2. ‘practical’ in the sense of what is useful to do to get by in the crazy world that we actually have. Again, this is the sense of “practical” that’s only valid within the limits of its own circular, self-reinforcing construct: publish or perish is a good example, but pretty much every contemporary domain of life has its own ludicrous moments, has its things that make sense at the time as a way of getting by, but are senseless in the grand scheme of things. American politics, for instance, is full of things that are considered “practical” while being totally idiotic. Just to take one example, pork barrel military spending sounds very practical at first glance — it brings jobs to your state! — but viewed overall is a huge waste of resources.

    I think you’re under the mistaken impression that I’m defending definition (2) of practicality. Not so; I agree philosophically with definition (1), but I just want to point out that people have to do all kinds of things to get by in this world that are crackpot in the last analysis but that make sense at the time, and this I think we have to recognize has a very practical logic to it. That doesn’t mean I defend it normatively, but I think we have to recognize that it is quite practical in the short run.

    a couple other points:
    (c) I think that it’s very problematic to equate ‘practicality’ and ‘vocation.’ On the somewhat romantic, autonomist sense of ‘practicality’ that you seem to have in mind, most wage labor jobs (is that what you mean by ‘vocation’?) are totally impractical and vaguely ridiculous. I mean, there’s a reason why people who work in corporations make jokes and cartoons about the many layers of irrationality and dysfunction that build up there.

    (d) In a way, I think your position in favor of practicality, far from being the minority position you think it is, is absolutely dominant in current policy circles. There isn’t a lot of political support for a “useless” university system, and I get the sense that higher education policy is, overall, moving towards an ever more vocational model; there’s tons of technical education for people who want to get jobs right away with their degrees (IT, nursing, business), and the ‘liberal arts’ degree isn’t looking incredibly attractive at the moment, from what I can see.

    Would you consider all this vocational emphasis to be a “practical” education, though? I get the sense that by “practical” education you want something that almost by definition can’t come from universities, something like a sense of how to maintain the built environment of one’s dwelling (how to put up drywall or fix pipes or cook or sew). That stuff really has to be learned outside a classroom setting, though. It’s not fair to blame universities for not teaching them; that’s not what universities are for.

    I mean, overall, I suspect we pretty much do agree on the contours of what a good society should look like. I guess the message I want to emphasize is simply that what’s the matter with society is only partly the fault of the universities, and I would like your critique better if it took into account all the idiocies of our other social institutions, and hence seemed more evenly distributed!

  8. I’m sure I come across harsher than I intend; well, that’s not true, the medium just doesn’t lend itself to tone, so what would in conversation be drama finds itself looking like insult on the printed page. I know that, overall, we agree on most of the true causality here. As we both know, for the most part, not to fault the carpenters building the mansion but rather the question the mansion itself.

    Likewise, we all have to sacrifice “practicality” in our daily lives; many of life’s pleasures, passions, and pursuits are utterly impractical, yet they are indelible from what I would consider “life”. The practicality of existence itself is questionable if you’re in an existential frame of mind.

    My equation of vocation to practicality is admittedly romantic, and my actually outlook starkly realistic. Still, I feel as though what I include in my romantic definition is deserving of romanticism. Sadly, many vocations these days, necessary evil or not, are useless, mind-numbing, bureaucratic wastes of space – but I’d wager that the ratio of these positions filled by liberal arts, etc. majors is pretty significant.

    I’ll still, largely, disagree with the public opinion on education, or at least on the social view. Higher education is still generally deified and most trades looked upon with scorn. The titles ‘doctor’ and ‘plumber’ carry pretty significantly different weight. Likewise, while the have their place, many of those trade schools that have sprung up are pretty much scams: we never run out of ingenuity when it comes to milking the hope of the poor and turning it to cash.

    While it’s certainly not part of the canon, I disagree that more of those ‘practical skills’ cannot/should not be taught in the classroom. Actually, I think its benefits to society could be innumerable. It’s just not considered “academic” enough. Few however question the benefit of P.E. in our schools, despite its not being too academic. Once upon a time, though many school are eradicating it, more skills were taught too. Wood-shop, Home Economics, et al. – classroom education where they taught you to use tools, cook and sew was required for almost every student for a whole generation. Now, these classes are dwindling as schools care less about preparing children for life and more about the school’s standardized testing scores.

    An ever-increasing body of relatively young people don’t have any clue how to cook anything, they can just reheat prepared foods.

    But, to your last point, I acknowledge diverse causality as well as a pretty circular trail to follow if you want to look for the origins of society’s faults. I’ve stuck with education in my critique based on venue, not out of a lack of understanding of the complex causality at work. If this page was instead titled “decasia: critique of big-jerks-who-are-ruining-life-as-we-know-it”, I might have chosen a different punching bag.

    In the end though, I’ve learned something valuable here: Don’t drink and respond to blog posts, or you’ll probably be stuck defending something you didn’t remember writing in the first place.

    Though, it could make a fun game.

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