Seminar on Practical Knowledge

(Manifesto-like) Syllabus

This seminar examines the development of knowledge embodied in artifacts (including physical objects, protocols, and organizations) intended to transform “existing conditions into preferred ones.”[i] We are particularly interested in knowledge produced by the many and for the many. Thus, we care more about how ready-to-wear footwear is designed, produced, and sold then in customizing handcrafted boots for buyers who don’t care about the price.

By traditional intellectual standards, studying practical knowledge may seem undignified and uninspiring. The ancient Greeks venerated contemplation, music and the other arts, abstract truths, and mathematical reasoning. Merchants and craftsmen (including, presumably, builders of large hollow horses) occupied the bottom rung of Plato’s idealized society; their knowledge and toil was but a means towards the realization of the good life by a small enlightened class. Modern society has raised science into the pantheon of the wisdom we venerate. While engineers, physicians, lawyers, entrepreneurs, managers, and accountants can secure higher incomes, many continue to regard their knowledge and its development as subordinate – at best, a mere application of more foundational scientific ideas or simply unfounded superstition. Similarly, in higher education: the first European universities started by offering practical medical and legal training and the University of Pennsylvania emerged from Benjamin Franklin’s 1749 proposal for an Academy to teach “those Things that are likely to be most useful.” But now, some in the upper reaches of the Academy deride professional education as verging on the teaching of trades that must be kept in its subordinate place.

Yet developing practical knowledge affirms an essence of our humanity. We are human because we create, not just because we think abstract thoughts. Beavers build dams, prairie dogs excavate underground towns, and crows craft toys. But, a relentless preoccupation with the development of artifacts that stimulate our senses and minds far beyond any natural physiological need sets our species apart. The artifacts embody knowledge created through the exercise of faculties that mark us as human: to imagine, to reason, to have faith and to control our anxieties, to communicate and collaborate with remote strangers, and to “truck, barter, and exchange” as Adam Smith put it. According to a recent book by evolutionary biologist, Joe Henrich, humans are not particularly physically impressive or even smart. Rather, our capacity for purposive cooperation has made humans a uniquely successful species.[i]

Synthesizing techniques and tools to develop other artifacts is also uniquely human: at best, other species craft simple tools such as twigs by taking apart objects found in nature. Prehistoric cave dwellers kindled fires to cook or heat. The Neolithic or the First Agricultural Revolution that, started relieving us from an uncertain reliance on hunting and gathering about 10,000 years ago through inventions such as irrigation, selective breeding of cereal grasses and harvester’s sickles. The Second Agricultural Revolution that started in Britain in the mid-17th century featured the development of crop rotation, breeding of livestock, land drainage and reclamation, and plows that could be easily pulled and controlled. The Industrial Revolution, that started after about 1760, mechanized textile production through power looms and cotton gins, increased the efficiency of steam engines 5 to 10-fold, and slashed the cost of producing iron production by using coke instead of charcoal in larger blast furnaces. And, whereas mobile phones and laptop computers may be the more celebrated manifestations of the Digital Revolution, many specialized techniques and tools such as computer-aided circuit design and numerically-controlled semiconductor fabrication have made the consumer artifacts affordable and nearly miraculously versatile.

The human capacity and impulse to jointly create practical knowledge and artifacts has enjoyed a momentous expansion over the last hundred years or so. A massively multiplayer game now provides unprecedented scope for individuals from many walks of life to exercise their imagination and initiative. And, where novel artifacts were once produced principally for powerful or wealthy patrons, contemporary innovation relies on widespread “venturesome consumption” of affordable artifacts.

Widely inclusive innovation has itself been supported by new techniques to harness the creative effort of people with diverse backgrounds and talents. These include protocols that help organizations choose goals and objectives, produce plausible conjectures for attaining these goals, evaluate and refine the conjectures, codify and communicate selected ideas, motivate contributors and partition their tasks. The multiplayer game does not exclude unplanned discoveries and epiphanies. But, like farming after the agricultural revolutions, the inclusive development of new combinations (“ideas having sex” in Matt Ridley’s memorable phrase) relies more on careful, selective breeding than on accidental or anonymous encounters. Silicon Valley has not only produced path breaking technological advances; companies like Intel have also instituted pioneering goal setting systems to coordinate and control employees dispersed across diverse locations and functions.

Scientific discoveries have provided a crucial starting point for many technologies — the transistor principle for producing semiconductors or genetics for high yielding crops. And the increased output of scientific discoveries has provided more starting points. But, just as much of the water in a river that carries boats and irrigates crops downstream does not originate in its headwaters, science does not provide all the important knowledge embodied in artifacts. In addition to general scientific principles, technological advances also require a great deal of nitty-gritty engineering know-how as well as highly context specific tacit knowledge.  To rephrase Schumpeter: apply as much electromagnetic theory as you please, you will never get a maglev train thereby. Similarly, the social sciences may offer general directions and signposts but cannot not provide a sufficient basis for the organizational techniques that undergird inclusive innovation. Just applying cutting edge economics, sociology, or psychology could not have produced Intel’s goal setting system.

That the sciences cannot by themselves provide all the knowledge embedded in artifacts is an intrinsic feature of scientific principles and methods, not a defect. In his seminal The Scope and Method of Political Economy (1890) John Neville Keynes (father of John Maynard) argued against confusing the science of economics from its ethical concerns about ends and from “system[s] of rules for the attainment of a given end,” which he called its “art.” Producing and testing universal scientific propositions about natural tendencies, J N Keynes suggested, requires putting aside what we might want to happen and prescriptive rules for attaining ends. Scientific propositions therefore must be a part rather than the whole of purposive prescription (that must also decide on ends and apply “art”). Moreover, practical knowledge that includes more than just science, integrates more multifarious contributions and relies on more disparate techniques. An inflexible adherence to methods demanded by specialized scientific communities can in fact undermine practical development.

Goals. This seminar aims to familiarize students with common techniques that facilitate the highly inclusive pursuit of practical ends. We do not seek to promote deep mastery in practices that experts have deemed as “best” (although we will read about how organizations attempt to distill best practices.) And, we examine techniques for individual use mainly to illuminate the distinctive features of collectively used tools.[1]

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