The Improprieties of the Pretense of Knowledge

By Klein, Daniel B. | Independent Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Improprieties of the Pretense of Knowledge


Klein, Daniel B., Independent Review


Today we see a lively interest in plumbing the depths of knowledge. Daniel Kahneman (2011) tells of thinking fast and slow, and Jonathan Haidt (2012) distinguishes minds awake and asleep. In this article, I consider our knowledge in relation to the tasks for which we use it. Our knowledge is rich, deep, and multifaceted, but is it up to those tasks? By admitting the complexity of the things to be known and by appreciating the richness of knowledge per se, we better assess the adequacy of the knowledge we actually have.

A candid understanding of knowledge makes us more virtuous and more libertarian. Friedrich Hayek ([1974] 1978, 1988) spoke of "the pretence of knowledge" and "the fatal conceit," and Adam Smith denounced the folly and presumption of interventionists ([1776] 1981, 456). The new candidness about knowledge may illuminate the errors of governmentalizing social affairs.

I say "governmentalize" because in treating government involvement in morals and culture, we need to see not only the coercions, notably taxation and restrictions on would-be competitors, but also the large role of the governmental institutions that those coercions create and sustain. The coercion is one thing, and the consequent cultural behemoths are another. The term governmentalization covers both.

The knowledge critique of governmentalization is certainly alive among classical liberals today. For example, Jeffrey Friedman (2007) writes about the depths of public ignorance; Mark Pennington (2011) explains the epistemic failings of governmentalization; Roger Koppl (2010) speaks of epistemic monopoly in governmentalized affairs; and Bryan Caplan (2007) and Paul Rubin (2002, 2003) tell of systematic biases in the public's thinking.

One of the curious aspects of knowledge is that as we plumb its depths, we never seem to get to a bottom. There always seems to be more plumbing to do. Students of Smith, Hayek, and Michael Polanyi, however, have grown used to that condition. These thinkers taught us that behind any articulation of our interpretation of things, of the means-end framework we supposedly employ, is a well of tacit knowledge from which the articulation emerged. And it emerged not as a complete and faithful representation of what we know--imagine an articulation of how to ride a bicycle-but merely as something we managed to spit out in the circumstances.

Indeed, we expect our interpretations to evolve. As soon as we get one into words, we learn to tinker with it. Polanyi noted the "peculiar opportunity offered by explicit knowledge for reflecting on it critically" (1963, 15). With email, Facebook, and iPhones, we lose no time in doing so. As soon as a blogger sets out an interpretation, the comments field piles up criticisms and variations. Even our best interpretations may be self-retiring.

Knowledge has its counterpart in action, and our actions emerge from our normative judgments in personal policymaking. On those two steps I propose to bring to the traditional Hayekian knowledge problem a prism of Smithian moral analysis.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith discusses the dialectics of our notions of propriety. Propriety for Smith is the benchmark that separates what is praiseworthy from what is blameworthy ([1790] 1982, 26, 27, 80, hereafter cited as TMS). Each community develops, for all manner of context and conduct, its understandings of propriety. In this way, people interpret the conduct and character first of their neighbors and afterward of themselves, to echo the full title of Smith's work.

In affairs between equals--say, between you and your neighbor--Smith affirms an invisible hand in the evolution of our interpretations: "Frankness and openness conciliate confidence. We trust the man who seems willing to trust us. We see clearly, we think, the road by which he means to conduct us, and we abandon ourselves with pleasure to his guidance and direction .

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