Seminar on Practical knowledge — manifesto-like syllabus

(Manifesto-like) Syllabus

This seminar examines the development of knowledge embodied in artifacts (including physical objects, organizations and practices) intended to transform “existing conditions into preferred ones.” We are particularly interested in knowledge produced by the many and for the many: thus, we are more interested in standardized techniques developed for the average tennis player than in coaching customized for a prodigy.

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. And, while engineers, physicians, lawyers, entrepreneurs, managers, and accountants can secure higher incomes, many continue to regard their knowledge and its development as subordinate – a mere application of more profound scientific ideas at best, or simply unfounded superstition. Similarly, although Western universities started by offering practical medical and legal training, some in the upper reaches of the Academy now deride professional schools as verging on the teaching of trades that have no place in institutions of higher learning.

This is unfortunate.

The disdain cuts against the essence of our humanity. We are human because we create, not just because we think. 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.

Moreover, we now have unprecedented scope to exercise these faculties, and not just because the exponential growth of scientific knowledge provides more raw material for new artifacts; innovation has also become more “inclusive” and systematized: Even lone geniuses and solitary inventors participate in a massively multiplayer game with more or less well-ordered rules of engagement. Organizations, communities, and networks help nearly everyone, including factory workers, to exercise their creativity and initiative. And, where novel artifacts were once produced principally for powerful or wealthy patrons, contemporary innovation aims at and relies on widespread “venturesome consumption.”

The inclusive, systematic pursuit of practical ends has a distinctive character. Practical knowledge developed by and for the many isn’t simply or mechanically derived from scientific knowledge or by the application of scientific methods. Rather, as we will see, practical knowledge is more multifarious in its content, in the contributions it integrates, and in the processes of its development than scientific knowledge. It therefore warrants study in its own terms.

Goals.  In contrast to most courses in the natural or social sciences, we are less interested in “positivist” propositions (about what must or will naturally happen) and more in “normative” prescription (to secure what we want). And, like its subject matter, the seminar has a practical purpose: to improve your capacity to develop and apply practical knowledge.


Click here for pdf of complete syllabus

Leave a comment