Knowledge, science and managerial liberalism

What is knowledge? The question has been supremely important in modern times. Before we could know about the world, it seemed to Bacon, Descartes and others, we should criticize our ways of knowing. Our investigations should free themselves of the things that lead to error. They should be exact and impersonal, based on logic and on observations that anyone could repeat with the proper training, equipment and care. They should be, in the modern sense, scientific.

Those aspirations have been borne out by success. By building on them modern natural science has vastly extended man’s knowledge and control of things. It hasn’t been all gain, however, because scientific standards are not as neutral as they look. By rigorously limiting what qualifies as knowledge they limit what can be known and therefore what can be viewed as real. To accept scientific standards as final is to prejudge the nature of the world. It is to permit only those things to exist that we can measure, manipulate, and know without regard to personal qualities or commitments.

In fact, of course, there are no such things. Knowledge always depends on a complex of habits, attitudes, and inarticulate common understandings, one’s own and those one shares with others. It can’t be altogether scientific, so science can be maintained as a final standard only through obfuscation. Further, it is more rational to accomodate knowledge to the world than vice versa. If the cosmos has a purpose then too bad for impersonality as a standard for knowledge.

What follows is that scientific standards must be kept in a subordinate place. Reality comes first, and we must rely on a sense of reality that can never be fully articulate or demonstrable. It is easier to state that conclusion than to get it accepted, however. One reason is that taken in an extended sense the principles of modern natural science serve as the foundation of the political and moral ideology dominant today. The demand for scientific proof is a handy way to debunk traditional understandings, which are in fact the way we come to know how to lead happy and productive lives, and substitute for them the authority of those in a position to claim impersonal expertise.

Scientism thus favors bureaucratic elites and the knowledge and communications industries at the expense of local and informal authorities such as the family and religious and ethnic communities. The fact that almost all formal education and public discussion are in the hands of the former makes it very difficult to fight them, no matter what the intellectual weaknesses of their position. The situation is made worse by the tendency of those who try to escape scientism to do so by arbitrary commitments or some truly irrational form of subjectivism.

Nonetheless, the fight must go on, and each of us must do what he can. The dependence of today’s political and cultural battles on basic issues of knowledge and being show the dimensions of what is needed. Still, the depth of the issues measures the depth of the intrinsic weakness of the outlook that is now dominant. As times and circumstances change the fundamental irrationality of that outlook will necessarily tell against it in a thousand ways. Regardless of the power it now has, it cannot last.
Posted by Jim Kalb at December 28, 2002 01:52 PM | Send


“The demand for scientific proof is a handy way to debunk traditional moral understandings … ” — Jim Kalb

When challenged with an opponent’s reaffirmation of some common-sense truth that is not only age-old but obvious to anyone with his head screwed-on frontwards, one of the other side’s favorite tactics is to ask, “What data do you have to support that? I haven’t seen any data supporting that,” as if we needed “data” to know that the sky is blue or the sun is going to rise tomorrow.

I don’t believe this tactic is spontaneously thought-up on the spot and blurted-out by each and every leftist and liberal who spouts it. I believe it is explicitly taught them by their Sociology and Poli-Sci college professors as a tactic to be used when arguing against “right-wingers” (ie, against normal people).

For example, a liberal or leftist will solemnly affirm that the healthiest way to raise young children is to oblige little boys and girls to play with the opposite of what little boys and girls have always liked, forcing the boys to play with dolls while forbidding them toy guns and soldiers, and forcing the opposite on the little girls (which a lot of gullible mothers actually foolishly did to their children during the 70s and 80s, following this idiotic leftist advice). You will then express doubt as to the wisdom of that. The liberal’s rejoinder will be, “What studies do you have which support your position? I’m not aware of any data which support that.”

You’ll get this every time. If you doubt that women can be as good firemen as men because they can’t carry adults down ladders or hold and manoeuvre the quite heavy, strongly recoiling firehoses which squirt under high pressure, or if you doubt that the arrangement where an ablebodied, non-handicapped husband stays home and keeps house while the wife goes off to work as the breadwinner just will not work over the long run for most people, the liberal you are talking to will say, “What data do you have that prove that? May I see your studies on that?”

They attack the most obvious, elementary truths, then put the onus on their opponent to prove them wrong.

Jane, the liberal Canadian correspondent who posted here the other month, was apt to trot that debating tactic out during an argument.

Posted by: Unadorned on December 28, 2002 4:32 PM

What I found most interesting in Jim Kalb’s post was the idea of there being a connection between a society’s theory of knowledge and the locus of authority in that society.

If all forms of knowledge are gained through a scientific method then authority to speak on social issues will fall to accredited “social scientists”.

I have often noticed the failure of my teaching colleagues to challenge the strange and impractial theories of the educational experts sent to our school. Perhaps this is due in part to an underlying acceptance that the “scientific” authority of these academics overrides their own daily experience and their own good sense.

Posted by: Mark Richardson on December 29, 2002 7:45 PM
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