Embodying Knowledge as Professional Power (BW)

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If the original epistemological myth is to think that one can represent the world without intervening in its causal processes, the original economic myth is to think that knowledge has use value but no exchange value. In other words, for their part, economists have tended to regard the value of knowledge in the way that Adam Smith regarded the value of air: its value lay entirely in its utility to the consumer, not in its exchangeability with other goods, largely because air and knowledge did not seem to be scarce resources. Yet, no less than air in our polluted times, knowledge is now increasingly seen by economists as good that some have only at the expense of others. As we just saw, however, both epistemologists and economists try to salvage the original, uncontaminated view of knowledge by shifting the emphasis from the immaterial to the multimaterial character of knowledge. In particular, economists have minimized the extent to which knowledge's material container contributes to its value by distinguishing the "high fixed cost" that a piece of knowledge has for its initial production (i.e. the original formulation — be it discovery or invention) and its "low variable cost" for each additional unit of production (i.e. its reproduction). Indeed, this is what makes knowledge an "ethereal good." For example, it may have taken Darwin twenty years of toll to construct the theory of evolution, but since its publication and subsequent refinement by biology rescarchers and teachers, if a student nowadays takes even a third of the original time to master a more advanced version of Darwin's theory, it is regarded as a sign, not of the theory's profundity but of the student's incompetence.

This last example suggests an epistemological analogue to the economic strategy of lowering the variable cost of mass production. It is captured by academic disciplines and scientific paradigms. Here disproportionate epistemic value is credited to the products of research on the "cutting edge," accessible only to a few knowledge consumers, over products whose chief source of value is their role in education and other forms of knowledge diffusion. This would explain the minimal epistemic value added to evolutionary theory today by each new biology textbook and each new student. Indeed, learnability is already built into the value of an accepted scientific theory to such an extent that, say, evolutionary theory would lose epistemic value were it to become too difficult to teach and learn. However, in principle, there is no reason why originators should be privileged over successors. Rather than rewarding those who stake out their own epistemic market niche, one might reward those who make an already existing market niche more accessible. In that case, the difficulty of original works would be simply regarded as "first passes" or "lucky guesses." The extreme valorization of originality that characterizes modern disciplinary knowledge backhandedly reflects the value ordinarily accrued to conformity as a means of minimizing conflict and exerting authority. It is as if the following question is asked of each potential originator: Is this shift in focus worth the loss of peace and stability?

However, following Andrew Abbott's usage, the situation for disciplines must be contrasted with that of professions, in which the knowledge producer is mainly interested in "colonizing" everyday life and hence opens herself to heterogeneous standards of evaluation, namely, the effects her knowledge has on people outside her discipline who expect to be served by it. Thus, each time a patient relapses after following a doctor's orders counts more against the medical profession's epistemic status than does each patient's recovery count in its favor. Let us now look at this difference between disciplinarity and professionalism in a little more detail.

On the disciplinary side, eligibility or ability to produce knowledge on the cutting edge is restricted to those who have learned to embody knowledge "canonically," say, a theory's exact verbal or mathematical formulation or the cycle of routines in a laboratory practice. By submitting herself to such training, the knowledge producer has agreed to have her subsequent actions judged in terms of their appropriateness as an extension of the canon. Moreover, the agencies that initially administer the canon — the personnel of university departments — are the same agencies that subsequently evaluate actions against the canon. This commitment to a canonical embodiment of knowledge has the psychological consequence of making the knowledge producer's attempts to extend the knowledge base more circumspect than had she been taught to take seriously the fact that the same knowledge content can be embodied in any number of ways. For example, she is less likely to claim originality (at least over a large domain) for her own efforts, given that her credentials need to be examined and reaffirmed on a regular basis — be it in terms of career promotion or ordinary peer review — by keepers of the canon. This point is perhaps most evident in the narrow stylistic range within which scientific findings are reported in research journals.

On the professional side, knowledge not on the cutting edge of a given discipline may nevertheless revolutionize another discipline or animate the public sphere, which characteristically incorporates passd disciplinary judgments and practices. This epistemic lag is characteristic of professional knowledge. John Maynard Keynes famously observed its personal side when he quipped that every living politician is in the thrall of a dead economist. Professional knowledge maintains its mystique as long as the public believes it can judge the consequences but not the content of knowledge. Whereas disciplines typically do not die but rather fade away as their research domains becomes exhausted, professions have lost their jurisdictions to competitors who managed to persuade the public of their superior effectiveness, as in the clergy's loss of authority over personal problems to psychologists and self-help gurus.

Steve Fuller: Knowledge as Product and Property (BW)

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Besser Wissen (Vorlesung Hrachovec, 2006/07)</root>