Steve Fuller: Knowledge as Product and Property (BW)
Why are economists and lawyers relevant to knowledge policy in a way that philosophers have not been? The somewhat ironic answer is that economists and lawyers take the "ontological status" of knowledge more seriously than philosophers. They routinely treat knowledge as a sort of thing, specifially, a system of social relations that is fixed by a common physical object. This enables the isolation and manipulation of knowledge as "product" (in economics) or "property" (in law), which then becomes the object of "knowledge management" in our "knowledge societies." I develop this argument, first, by contrasting the immaterial conception of knowledge typically found in metaphysics with the multi-material one that follows from seeing knowledge as having the capacity to empower its possessor. This leads to a discussion of disciplines and professions as vehicles for embodying knowledge in people. I then turn to consider the conversion of knowledge products into intellectual property, which raises the normative implications of embodying knowledge in specific people. Next, I analyze how issues of epistemic validity and economic value are affected by interpreting goods as more or less "knowledge-like." I then show how this materialist conception of knowledge can be used to raise a pressing epistemological question of the Knowledge Society, namely, whether we know too little or too much for our own good. In the conclusion, I reflect on the recent "dematerialization" of knowledge that marks the incursion of knowledge managment into science policy. Its overall effect, I argue, is to extend the marginalist revolution in economics into a previously protected domain of human activity, raising anew the question of "epistemic justice."
Philosophers generally think that knowledge is about things, but rarely is knowledge itself conceptualized as a thing. To make a 2500 year-old story short, the main reason why philosophers have shied away from thinking about knowledge as a thing turns on conceptual difficulties that are supposedly involved in treating knowledge as something both in the world and about the world. More metaphysical ways of making this point have included: How can the whole (i.e. the world) be represented by one of its parts (i.e. knowledge)? How can "the view from nowhere" (i.e. the objective standpoint associated with knowledge) be located somewhere (e.g. in particular beliefs and theories)? lt would seem that if knowledge is roughly defined as a faithful representation of reality, then it is essential that reality not be contaminated by the fact that it is being represented. Thus, philosophers since Plato have imagined knowledge as immaterial propositions that "transcend," or have no causal interaction with, the material reality they represent. This is still the most natural way for philosophers to think about knowledge. It explains why such surrogates for knowledge in the different branches of the discipline — most notably "beliefs" (in epistemology) and "theories" (in philosophy of science) — are just as difficult to pin down to bits of worldly matter as were Platonic propositions. Are beliefs to be found in my brain as well as in my mind? In what sense do the physics textbook and Newton's Principia Mathematica express the same theory of classical mechanics? Even assuming that philosophers could agree on the best method for getting the right sort of beliefs or theories, where should the policymaker then look to see whether that method and those beliefs or theories are being promoted? In short, what are the empirical indicators of knowledge? If the policymaker arrives at an answer to these questions, it is unlikely to be because she has continued reading philosophy.
Before considering the relevance of economics and law to both the metaphysical and policy questions of knowledge, a proviso is in order. In keeping with naive intuition, economists tend to think of knowledge as a commodity, one of the things that money can buy and sell, a list of which would also include machinery, services, and food. Economists often speak of the things that embody knowledge as "ethereal" or "informational" goods to distinguish them from the more familiar sorts of goods. Yet, as has just been suggested, there is also a peculiar, and metaphysically interesting, feature of knowledge, to wit, that it can be embodied in rather disparate ways. Knowledge is said to be contained in (at least) books, brains, and databanks — three sorts of things that are produced in quite different ways, yet for roughly the same reason (if not to the same effect), namely, to provide knowledge.
A common philosophical strategy for dealing with something as multiply embodied as knowledge is to say that while there may be no material constraints per se on what can count as a piece of knowledge, there are constraints on how the thing in question can be interpreted so as to count as a piece of knowledge. This is because knowledge implicates a system of concepts that forces the interpreter to decide which objects in the environment count as, say, "evidence" and "inference." This need to systematically reinterpret the environment is what analytic philosophers call the "holism of the mental." It applies no less to the economics of knowledge than to the psychology of cognition. I will be adopting this strategy in what follows. What difference does it make to the evaluation of knowledge? In effect, I am claiming that only an interpretive convention — albeit one with decisive implications for how values are ascribed to things and how responsibility is assigned to people — determines, say, that physics books count as knowledge goods but that cars do not, or that engineers get held accountable for mechanical failures, while physicists do not. Thus, I will be talking more about, so to speak, the chemistry than the physics of knowledge production. That is, I will not be interested in finding an underlying unity that distinguishes knowledge from other things, but rather principles for converting anything into a piece of knowledge.
- 1 The Substitutability of Knowledge and Power (BW)
- 2 Embodying Knowledge as Professional Power (BW)
- 3 From Knowledge Product to Intellectual Property (BW)
- 4 Conferring Validity and Value on Intellectual Property (BW)
- 5 Is the Market for Knowledge Saturated or Depressed? (BW)
- 6 Conclusion: The Endless Quest for Epistemic Justice (BW)
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