Is the Market for Knowledge Saturated or Depressed? (BW)
If the idea of treating knowledge as a thing, specifically a type of good, is indeed fruitful, then it should illuminate a modern problem of knowledge that normally eludes epistemologists. With this in mind, let us consider a final question: Why don't epistemologists ever seriously entertain the possibility that we know too much? Admittedly, theorists of the Knowledge Society routinely argue that not only the average citizen but even the average member of the scientific community increasingly faces an unmanageable glut of information. However, this state of affairs is not without its skeptics, and, even when admitted, it tends to be treated as symptomatic of a lack of knowledge — specifically, at the meta-level of how one's limited cognitive resources may be used most effectively as a selection mechanism. In more economistic terms, Knowledge Society theorists presume that the available supply of knowledge creates its own demand: no knowledge is useless or unassimilable, though determining its use may require the generation of still more knowledge. If correct, this diagnosis would imply that a version of Say's Law applies just as much to knowledge as to other goods (at least as theorized in neoclassical economics). So, again, economics opens up new vistas for conceptualizing knowledge, especially since Say's Law has had its share of detractors, whose alternative vision of the economy provides an analogical basis for imagining a world with "too much" knowledge.
If the capitalist spirit is moved by a categorical imperative, it is to expand markets indefinitely. Not only does this imperative capture the capitalist belief in the basic insatiability of human wants, but also her belief that the best way to increase everyone's wealth is by everyone trying to increase their own wealth. Thus, the idea that a market could have too many goods — a "glut" — would seem to be a conceptual impossibility. For this reason, Say's Law has always had intuitive appeal for economists. However, the fact remains that capitalism undergoes periodic depressions, the most obvious explanation for which is that too many goods are chasing too few buyers. Whereas defenders of Say's Law (e.g. Ricardo and Marx) have been forced to reinterpret the market contractions that appear to characterize depressed economies, opponents (e.g. Malthus and Keynes) have taken the prima facie occurrence of depressions as refuting Say's Law. Yet, in either case, something needs to be done to repair the economy. How do these policy recommendations bear on the possibility of an analogous "knowledge glut"?
In one of the original defenses of Say's Law, David Ricardo argued that what economists call "depressions" are really depressed production levels, that is, the presence of too few goods. On Ricardo's diagnosis, large segments of the population are not producing the amount or kind of goods that can be exchanged in fair trade with goods currently on the market. Ricardo's answer, then, was to increase the production levels of the poor, which immediately led critics to charge that his thinking was more that of a "chrematist" (i.e. someone concerned only with increasing wealth, regardless of its other consequences) than that of an economist.
The critics, most notably Thomas Malthus, argued that, given the periodic nature of depressions, Ricardo was only setting up the economy for a still bigger fall in the future. Instead, efforts should be taken to stabilize markets by containing their size. Malthus accepted the commonsensical view of depressions as resulting from an oversupply of goods, which suggested to him that the surplus ought to be sold off at reduced prices and production subsequently scaled down to reflect a more "natural" level of consumer demand. Thomas Sowell notes the rival interests behind these two views in early nineteenth-century Britain Ricardo drew support from expansionist factory owners and protury Britain Ricardo drew support from expansionist factory owners and proponents of Adam Smith's new "abstract" (i.e. universal) science of economics, whereas Malthus found support in aristocrats concerned with the depletion of agricultural resources and defenders of the traditional Aristotelian conception of economics as household management.
Now let us analogically extend the debate over Say's Law to knowledge production. The epistemic analogue to an economic depression is incommensurability, whereby a plethora of specialized discourses is met with a paucity of channels for communicating across them. Consequently, bodies of knowledge accumulate in a form that is, for the most part, unbeknownst and unavailable to potential consumers. The Ricardian knowledge analyst traces incommensurability to a lack of higher-order languages into which these jargons may be translated for the mutual benefit of all concerned. Thus, she recommends the positivist solution of employing philosophers (who, bereft of subject matter, would otherwise be contributing nothing to the knowledge system) to produce schemes for effecting such translations.
In contrast, according to the Malthusian knowledge analyst, this strategy is exactly the wrong one, since it fails to come to grips with the obvious point that incommensurability results from the unmonitored proliferation of discourses, which can only be alleviated by lowering the epistemic advantage gained by engaging in such self-driven language games. In turn, she will follow the collapse of inconsequential distinctions and the reformulation of esoteric discourses in plainer terms. And so, just as the Malthusian economist takes it at face value that a depression results from the presence of too many unmarketable goods, her epistemological counterpart diagnoses incommensurability as proceeding from too much unusable knowledge. Rather than employ philosophers to generate still more knowledge of this sort, the Malthusian knowledge analyst would focus several currently incommensurable discourses on articulating a common problem-space of general public concern, which would thereby inhibit the further production of potentially esoteric knowledge. In short, this analyst would be sympathetic with the "finalization" of mature sciences for pressing social needs.
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