Monday, July 24, 2017

All Knowledge is Political

When I say “All knowledge is political,” I am not thinking of the epistemological concerns—I am not concerned with the question of whether or not knowledge can be objective or not. That question is of interest, but not my subject here. I am interested in the political ramifications of accepting something as knowledge, and in that sense, it is related to my two recent posts about research institutions.
Accepting an idea has political ramifications. The stronger our belief in an idea, the greater our commitment to responding to that idea, and therefore, the greater that idea’s impact on political behavior. In my earlier post on political allegiance, I wrote about how partisan political attitudes towards certain ideas (e.g., evolution and climate change) would naturally lead to a partisan sorting: those who strongly believe in climate change have a strong motivation to align with the political party that accepts climate change. This sorting is a directly political dimension of knowledge: a belief in how the world works leads to political choice.
There are many such issues. Abortion, for example, is politicized according to beliefs about whether abortion is right or wrong. Beliefs about economic behavior become politicized, leading to choice in party alignment. The issues that define the political parties grow from beliefs about how the world works, thus all knowledge is political. Not all beliefs are necessarily partisan, but they can become more so: anti-abortion Democrats were more common once than now, for example, but as Democratic opposition to abortion became more conventional, anti-abortion Democrats had an increasing motivation to leave the Democratic party. This is the sorting process that I mentioned in the earlier post.

But this political nature of knowledge is not only a matter of national partisan politics, it’s in every arena where people interact. Scholars have to deal with politics in many places—publication is not pure blind review, for example, and university departments are often rife with political differences, some of which stem from beliefs. When I say “All knowledge is political,” I am being, I suppose, a bit hyperbolic, inasmuch as there are some ideas that do not immediately lead to political action. Knowing how to boil an egg, for example, is not likely to carry many political ramifications—at the least, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which disputes over how to boil an egg impact a community. But to the extent that ideas lead to action affecting people, those ideas are political in one dimension or another (in the general sense of “political” as meaning interactions among members of a community).

As a philosopher whose interest is the search for “truth,” whatever that may be, it seems to be completely appropriate for political action to follow knowledge. This is essentially the idea of evidence-based practice: we want to act on the basis of ideas that have been tested and demonstrated to be sound.
The opposite is not true, however. It may be unavoidable that knowledge will be shaped by political factors—certainly there is a vast body of philosophy that discusses such political factors that shape that which gets accepted as knowledge—but that does not mean that research should be founded on political concerns. Knowledge may be unavoidably shaped by political or social conditions, but this does not mean that research should be shaped by adherence to political ideology. Research should be exploratory and should strive for objectivity, even if objectivity is impossible in practice. In a sense, the goal of research should be to confirm, deny, or elaborate on/modify theories. And yet, even in such contexts, there are political influences that are undeniable—the very choice of subject of interest may be guided by political concerns.
This post, I suppose, is influenced by the current situation in the US, where news media outlets are regularly attacked as being biased—and some absolutely are, even explicitly. News organizations, like academics, are supposed to set out in search of the truth, of the facts, of that which is true for everyone, but the politicization of news, and the partisan lines drawn, work against this ideal. Outlets that expressly support one view or another—e.g., Huffpost on the left, or Breitbart on the right—have to be approached with great caution for the precise purpose that their material is driven by ideology, rather than non-partisan search for understanding. Such explicitly conservative or explicitly liberal news organizations would have been frowned upon in a different age when newspapers at least laid claim to objectivity. Fox News used to try and present itself as fair and balanced, but the need to be fair and balanced no longer seems to be necessary, as news outlets become increasingly politicized by the very choice of which stories to pursue.

The political dimension of knowledge cannot be eliminated. But if society hopes to avoid increasing partisan division and conflict, shared foundations need to be identified on which to build some sort of consensus. As a philosopher, I believe that the search for truth guided by good standards for research can provide such foundations. Some common ground is necessary for cooperation. Where can this be found if we let all knowledge be shaped by partisan politics? The idea that there can be knowledge that is shared—that is generally true, generally objective—is a crucial element in building some sort of consensus. The idea that we should strive for objectivity, even if it is not possible, is also political, in that it would guide actions and debates.

Bertrand Russell once wrote something like “with subjectivity in philosophy comes anarchy in politics” (in his History of Western Philosophy). Russell, obviously, was espousing objectivity, and in this paraphrase, and yet he captures the important political dimension of knowledge that knowledge leads to action, and without some sort of consensus of knowledge, there is a corresponding difficulty of finding consensus in political arenas.
I don’t know the answer to the increasing partisan differences in the US, and the increasing presence of false or misleading information masquerading as knowledge, but I would say that trying to find common ground in accepted truths and values would be a good place to start. Is there anyone who thinks that researchers/investigative reporters should be trying to find confirmation of what they already believe? Research—the search for knowledge—needs to strive for disruption: it is not about accepting common knowledge, but challenging it. Ideas should be challenged—but only on their own merits. Attacking an idea because of the person who espoused it is to surrender to the ad hominem fallacy and to lose sight of the attempt to understand the world.

Is there any way to find a common ground that grows out of earnest attempts to develop our understanding of the world?

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