All Knowledge is Political: A Lament

When I was in graduate school, my advisor Jean-Pierre Protzen used to say that all knowledge was political.  I think he might have attributed that idea to Horst Rittel, but I would nod my head in agreement because there are many different sources from which that idea could have come, including Michel Foucault, whose work I have found generally compelling in its arguments about the nature of systems of knowledge and the political roots of what gets to be considered knowledge.  Logically speaking, I am generally convinced that all knowledge is shaped by politics.

Emotionally speaking, however, this is cause for despair. Without some objective standard to determine knowledge, all discourse devolves into whose voice is loudest and/or whose stick is largest. Logically, I see the problems with the idea of objective knowledge, but in my heart, not only do I long (desperately) for objective truth, but I believe that there is, in fact, a big difference between fact and fiction. As a philosopher, I recognize the many, many non-objective factors that shape any statement of fact, but still… There is a big difference between truth and fiction.

This view that all knowledge is shaped by political (or social/cultural/historical) forces only captures one half of the idea that all knowledge is political, however.  It looks at how knowledge is created and how we can or can’t know things.  This is very important, but there’s another side of the coin that I would like to look at, and this is the active side of knowledge, if you will: this is the way in which knowledge shapes politics.  

When people “know” something, that shapes how they behave.  In this sense, it may be that “knowledge” is not necessarily the right word—perhaps “belief” or “certainty” would be better. But I don’t want to get into close debate about defining the idea of knowledge. If the foundations of knowledge are uncertain or contingent (as argued by my advisor, Foucault, and many others), then what is the difference between “knowledge” and “belief”?  To say that our beliefs shape our politics is hardly surprising or interesting, I suppose, though I think it can be a factor that we lose sight of, too.  

This active dimension is crucial in understanding political discourse. Take, for example, the case of a hypothetical university department.  Different professors might compete for funding for their research and their students.  This competition will at least partly grow out of differing ideas of what is true.  To take a broad example, consider a Marxist economist and a Free Market economist.  What may immediately spring to mind is the political difference—one might believe in Marxist communism as the best government and the other in some form of capitalism.  But does that political difference drive the debate, or is that a result of something else? Given what I’ve already said, it should be clear that I think that an idea of what constitutes knowledge is what shapes the debate.

Let us imagine, for a moment, that these two competing professors share the view that economic/political systems should treat people with justice, should protect the general welfare, and should reward the virtuous.  Such agreement is, I believe, to be found between Marx and Adam Smith, on some level, at least: both share an interest in the betterment of the overall polity.  The differences lie in how they view the workings of societies and economic systems.  To frame the difference broadly (yet, I believe accurately), Marx argues that the betterment of the overall polity arises from community action—from the action of the classes, while Smith argues that the betterment of society grows out of selfish, individual action (“By pursuing his own interest, [the individual] frequently promotes [the interest] of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.” From Wealth of Nation’s famous “invisible hand” passage. This is the second sentence following the “invisible hand” sentence).

In this example, the politics of the one professor are driven by the views of the importance of the collective action.  This professor will quite naturally align with political movements that also valorize the community over the individual.  And the politics of the other will be driven by the view that the individual must predominate.  

We would see this on the level of national politics—choice of political party, for example—but it can have more ramifications, in the form of departmental politics, for example. Within this hypothetical department, this difference in view will result in difference of opinion about which applicants/students/job applicants are best suited to the department—decisions that have very real impacts on the department as a whole. 

As I write this, it reminds me of a case of how underlying assumptions like these shape action that isn’t obviously political, but might lead to reinforcing certain views in certain ways and thus wind back to political impacts. In one of his books, George Lakoff analyzed a Chinese proverb: “cows run with the wind; horses run against it.” (I think this was in More Than Cool Reason, co-written with Mark Turner, but I’m not checking sources here—I’m going on my memory of a lecture given by Lakoff that I attended. Since I’m using this example as a way to illustrate how political beliefs influence people, it doesn’t require perfect accuracy.)  The analysis he gave was that the proverb valorized horses, recognizing their independence. But after publication, readers (at least one) informed him that in Chinese culture, the proverb valorized the cows, showing their wisdom in working together.  The proverb (at least this translation of it), does not explicitly valorize either the horse or the cow, it merely differentiates.  The value system adopted by the interpreter shapes the interpretation. In our hypothetical example, the Marxist professor, preferring community action might interpret this in favor of the cow, and thus view this as evidence confirming their view. At the same time, the Free Market professor will interpret in favor of horse, and view it as evidence in favor of individual action  (and yes, although the Free Market professor is wrong/factually inaccurate in the historical/ethnographic interpretation—the people who use the adage don’t interpret it this way—that’s not really relevant in this discussion of how “knowledge” shapes actions that have political impact).  And in both cases, these interpretations tend to shape further action and investigation in the future, as well as future potential competition for department resources, with both professors feeling that their agenda is best for their department.

There is, to be sure, a feedback loop here: what one accepts as knowledge is shaped by political forces, and then goes on to shape political action, which leads to shaping what gets accepted as knowledge. 

My lament is that this basic political nature of knowledge is, as far as I can see, tearing the world about and risks the future of humanity and most other species of life on earth. This statement, which is political in nature, is based on my understanding of the world—on my “knowledge.” It is not a statement driven by political partisanship, but by my best attempts to understand objective reality, even though I believe such understanding is problematic. To the extent that I prefer one political party over another, it is due to this understanding of the world: I prefer the party that recognizes the same situation in the world that I recognize.  And I passionately believe that certain things should be done as a result of being firmly convinced that my understanding of the world is basically accurate.  The thing is, that the folks who disagree with me would say the same thing. And they, too, are passionately committed.

Everybody is committed to their own view of the world. Few are willing to make the effort to learn and understand. Most are convinced of their own rightness. Hence the tremendous stress on the world, on the nations of the world, on the people of the world, and on all the creatures living in it.

“If only people understood the world with the clarity that I do,” I cry. That is my lament. And the lament of billions.  And if all the human race can do is compete over who is right and who is wrong, the future of humanity looks very bleak.