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From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society").
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Francis Bacon is usually credited with delivering to us the notion that “knowledge is power” in his collection of religious meditations Meditationes Sacrae (1597). Bacon had strong ties to early Empiricism and was influential in the establishment of experimental methods in the sciences. In this context, the claim that knowledge is power can be understood as reflecting Bacon’s reverence for major advances in our knowledge of the natural world made during his lifetime and which represented, for him, a previously unrealised power.
Today, that same claim has become something of an aphorism; a natural choice for motivational classroom posters and school mottos, and no less popular among product branding teams. I have, for example, seen it deployed as the somewhat unlikely strapline for a Volkswagen pick-up truck. Likewise, if you search “knowledge is power” online, the most prominent results do not point you to the Latin phrase “scientia potentia est” and its Baconian origins, but to a “brilliantly entertaining quiz show game” launched by PlayStation in 2017, alongside a slew of critical reviews from less than satisfied gamers.
Distracting as they are, contemporary appropriations of the claim that knowledge is power reflect something interesting about what it has come to mean in the twenty-first century. They indicate, in the first place, that we still recognise and engage with this idea. Moreover, the familiarity of the aphorism and its use by both educators and marketeers alike suggest that it has retained broadly positive connotations over the centuries. These connotations can no doubt be attributed, at least in part, to the cultural context in which Bacon first gave expression to the idea at the start of the Scientific Revolution, planting a fertile seed for the European Enlightenment to come. Knowledge, it seems, is still power.
Of course, the claim that knowledge is power is not a literal identity claim: a claim that knowledge and power are the same thing. It is not an analysis of knowledge; rather, it is a claim about the role that knowledge can and does play in our lives. This leaves a central question about knowledge unanswered: what exactly is it? This question is as old as the study of knowledge itself, forming the basis of Plato’s most extensive work in epistemology, the Theaetetus. And, it must be said, there has been no shortage of philosophical attempts to answer it in recent decades either. In fact, a preoccupation with analysing knowledge constitutes a not insignificant proportion of the work of epistemology throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.
This preoccupation was galvanised in 1963 by a short paper entitled “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” In it the author, Edmund Gettier, used two simple cases to argue compellingly that the answer to the titular question must be “no”, thereby challenging the widely accepted account of knowledge (as justified true belief) presented (although not actually affirmed) in Plato’s Theaetetus. Gettier’s paper prompted an epistemological revolution of sorts. Measured by number of words in the paper to number of words published in the aftermath, it is undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s most generative pieces of philosophical writing.
It is fair to say, however, that the jury is out on whether the ink spilled over increasingly complex analyses of knowledge in the following decades has been wholly positive for the trajectory of epistemology. Introductory epistemology courses are a striking case in point. Undergraduates inspired to pursue philosophy degrees have, over the past decades, more often than not been confronted with epistemology course texts and syllabi dominated by discussions of a series of abstract examples and counterexamples concerning the existence of sheep-shaped dogs and the positioning of fake barns (known collectively as “Gettier Cases”).
I have taught these courses myself. The classroom discussions can be fun and Gettier Cases provide a useful stimulus for students to develop and exercise their analytical muscles. But as an engaging or inclusive introduction to the study of knowledge, such courses are missing much of what might entice and motivate a new generation of epistemologists. Exclusive focus on the analytical (albeit central) task of defining knowledge has, until recently, come at the expense of examining the role that knowledge plays in our lives.
Exclusive focus on the analytical (albeit central) task of defining knowledge has, until recently, come at the expense of examining the role that knowledge plays in our lives.
Happily, the tide is turning. Contemporary epistemology has expanded significantly in recent years to encompass a broad range of topics concerning not just what knowledge is, but what we do with it, who has it and who lacks it, how it is generated, accessed, and distributed, and how it shapes both who we are and how we live. As such, epistemologists are once again working across inter-disciplinary boundaries alongside ethicists, political philosophers, legal philosophers, and education theorists, to name a few. While this shift is not easily pinpointed to a single author or philosophical contribution, it nonetheless reflects an epistemological revolution of its own. There has perhaps been no better time to rewrite the book on knowledge.
So, what approaches are emerging to address these new questions about knowledge? Take the question of how knowledge shapes us. The way we relate to and utilise knowledge (and other epistemic goods like belief, justification, and understanding) reflects much about our epistemic or intellectual character. One might, for example, be especially disposed to seek new knowledge on a wide range of topics, exhibiting tenacious curiosity, or be particularly willing to listen to different ideas and opinions, demonstrating admirable open-mindedness. One might, along with Socrates, claim to know little (or nothing!) on a particular subject, reflecting one’s intellectual humility, or, on the other hand, be inclined to overstate one’s knowledge and so fall into arrogance.
These different traits or aspects of intellectual character impact everything from the way we learn and communicate, to the way we discuss controversial topics with friends and family, or with strangers online. As such, understanding these traits is a key piece of the contemporary epistemological puzzle: can we cultivate different aspects of intellectual character in classrooms and workplaces? Can we help people become, for example, more open-minded and less dogmatic, or more intellectually thorough? If we can, should we? Analysing and examining these traits, often called intellectual virtues and vices, is a task taken up by virtue and vice epistemologists centrally concerned with the question of how we, as individuals, can be good thinkers and knowers.
Likewise, feminist epistemology approaches the question of what it means to be a knower, taking into account the necessity of having a standpoint or perspective. Knowing is, after all, a relationship between a particular knower and the world in which they live. As such, knowledge is situated. This arguably influences much of what one comes to know, how one comes to know it, and why. For example, if a person’s perception of an event is affected by their gender, race, sexuality or something else unique to them, they may come to know an entirely different set of things about what happened compared with someone else witnessing the same event. Different perspectives as a knower can result in radically different lived experiences for individuals.
Different perspectives as a knower can result in radically different lived experiences for individuals.
Moreover, focusing on individual knowers cannot capture the whole picture. Throughout the history of philosophy, thinking has often been characterised as a solitary activity, but knowledge does not arise in a vacuum. We reason and form beliefs on the basis of knowledge acquired in the past and shared among our communities, whether in classrooms and libraries, via newspapers and the Internet, or in conversation among peers. In short, we rely on each other for much of our knowledge. This means that our practices for acquiring and exchanging knowledge are also an essential feature of the epistemic landscape.
These include, centrally, the practices of inquiring and testifying. The latter has been a central topic in contemporary epistemology for several decades, gathering increased momentum alongside the growth of interest in the social dimensions of knowledge and an appreciation of our need, as knowers, to rely on each other for our individual and collective epistemic success. Think of all that we learn from what our parents and teachers tell us in our early years, and from the many diverse sources of testimony that emerge as we mature. Likewise, inquiry has become a topic of interest in more recent years. The questions we ask often determine the knowledge we end up with and, as such, they constitute a vital tool in our epistemic toolkit from an early age. Epistemologists are concerned with understanding not only the nature of the practices of inquiring and testifying but also the norms that govern them.
Epistemologists are concerned with understanding not only the nature of the practices of inquiring and testifying but also the norms that govern them.
Understanding these practices is perhaps more important than ever in a world increasingly defined by the existence and exploitation of vast amounts of information online: the so-called “Information Age”. The spread of misinformation and “fake news” in the “post-truth era” represents just one of the more pernicious epistemic ills of modern life. Can we, and to what extent should we, attempt to control the spread of such information? How can we promote the quality of information online and how deeply should we rely on artificial intelligence to both generate and distribute knowledge? Social epistemologists are centrally concerned with the questions of how we, as communities of knowers, acquire, transmit, and manage knowledge.
These questions concern our institutions, as much as they concern our local epistemic communities. Knowing who or what to trust when we are searching for truth is as important as ever, and declining trust in politicians, media outlets, corporate business, and science shines a spotlight on the way that knowledge is represented or misrepresented in these institutional contexts. Indeed, expertise itself has come under scrutiny in recent years, combined with an apparent rise in overt conspiracy theorising and increased polarisation on a range of topics. These are vital and profoundly epistemic concerns.
Epistemic injustice occurs paradigmatically in cases where a person is dismissed or disenfranchised as a knower.
Evidently, the themes explored by social epistemologists extend into many aspects of our daily lives, as well as into the moral and political domains. A further topic for moral and political epistemology, brought to widespread attention by Miranda Fricker, is that of epistemic justice and injustice. Epistemic injustice occurs paradigmatically in cases where a person is dismissed or disenfranchised as a knower. Think of a Black man’s testimony being dismissed in court on grounds of racial prejudice. Experiences of epistemic injustice in turn raise questions about how we identify and protect epistemic rights: the right to know, to be informed, to understand, and so on. Do we, for example, have a right to know the possible side-effects of any medication we take, or to be informed about the collection and surveillance of our personal data? If so, whose responsibility is it to uphold and protect these rights? Here the study of knowledge wades deep into the waters of moral and legal theorising.
It is perhaps also clear by now that the applications of contemporary epistemological theorising are wide-ranging. Having moved, for the most part, far beyond the purely analytical task of defining knowledge, the work of epistemology today touches on almost every aspect of our lives. With this comes an increasing emphasis on putting the theory to work. Epistemologists are well positioned to both highlight and elucidate the role that knowledge plays in different settings, and to work within those settings to mitigate epistemic risks and harms, as well as enhance the quality and availability of epistemic goods. This is perhaps no more evident than in the case of education, where epistemology has a rich contribution to make.
In broad terms, epistemologists, no longer exclusively preoccupied with defining knowledge, are now engaged in a multitude of diverse topics, drawing on increasingly diverse sources, and shining a light on the many ways in which knowledge features in our complex, interconnected, and fundamentally social world. The questions of contemporary epistemology reflect its expanding horizons. In many respects, these return us full circle to the Baconian claim that knowledge is power. We might wonder what Bacon would make of the many uses and misuses to which our knowledge is put in the modern world. Indeed, this brings to the fore a new question that is arguably now central to the study of knowledge: what kind of power is it.
Lani Watson is a Research Fellow with the Oxford Character Project, at the University of Oxford. Lani’s research is in applied social and virtue epistemology, with a focus on the nature and value of questioning. Her first book, The Right to Know: Epistemic Rights and Why We Need Them, is published by Routledge.
From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society").
We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.