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.