Conclusion: The Endless Quest for Epistemic Justice (BW)
When philosophers and sociologists talk about knowledge as a material entity, they have tended to treat it as a manufactured good whose value is the product of the application of human labor to raw material, as in the archetypal scientist who spends many years trying to penetrate the secrets of some aspect of nature. This is a perspective that Francis Bacon, the 17th century author of the knowledge-power equation, would have recognized. The value of the knowledge product is tied — just as the labor theory of value would dictate — to exactly the work done. We would now say that this mentality is itself the product of a world in which protected markets governed the factors of production: Only an academic guild or a scientific society could authorize an appropriate inquirer, and nature's singularity exerted its own monopoly over what an inquirer may study.
But what happens once all the factors of production are understood as, at least in principle, substitutable in the name of satisfying consumer demand? The marginalist revolution in economics turned this possibility into a reality, and the advent of "knowledge management" merely marks the revolution's latest phase. For knowledge managers, the production of more knowledge is a necessary evil — the more necessary, the more evil. Ideally, the production of new knowledge should be replaced by the exploitation of already existing knowledge, a line of thought that bears comparison with the eco-friendly re-cycling of material wastes. Thus, rather than engage in original inquiries, the knowledge manager urges that firms "capture" workers' knowledge by encoding it in computerized expert systems, just in case the workers move to another place of employment. For their part, scientists have made their own contribution to the marginalist revolution in knowledge management by "virtualizing" nature, initially by controlled laboratory experiments and increasingly computer simulations.
The trajectory of organized inquiry — following the general pattern of high capitalist economies — appears to be "dematerialising," as the markets for the relevant forms of labour and capital become open to a wider range of competitors, each trying to outdo the others in providing the largest epistemic impact at the lowest cost. From one perspective, currently popular in European science policy circles, this tendency is salutary. It has generated an "entrepreneurial" environment for knowledge production that is endlessly innovative in response to the epistemic needs of an expanding range of constituencies. However, entry to the epistemic field of play remains as restricted as ever, even though academic credentials no longer guarantee access. Rather, like the perpetually solvent gambler, the current epistemic environment favours those sufficiently affluent to bet often and suffer losses with impunity. That a percentage of the human population - far less than the majority but above a certain threshold — have now reached affluence is crucial here. It means that those who survive the necessary risks incurred by participating in the market-place of ideas are qualified to dictate the epistemic standards to which everyone, at least in principle, will be held. There would seem to be no higher court of appeal, no "ends" of knowledge independent of the market-based solution to which the disadvantaged might appeal in the name of epistemic justice. If economists have discovered only one absolute truth, it is that scarcity never disappears: It is merely reproduced at another levels.
My argument here should be understood as an attempt to resolve the profound ambivalence that Western intellectuals, especially philosophers, have felt toward the equation of knowledge and power. This ambivalence may be seen in terms of the traditional emphasis on the production of knowledge but the distribution of power. These asymmetrical interests have led to an overriding concern with, on the one hand, producing more knowledge regardless of its distribution across society and, on the other, empowering those allegedly entitled, without providing an epistemically adequate account of that entitlement. The autonomization of epistemology and ethics as philosophical specialties in the 20th century has only served to occlude the knowledge-power equation. Thinking about knowledge from an economic and legal standpoint — as product and property — helps to reintegrate these two branches of philosophy into a properly normative social epistemology.
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