Seminar on Practical knowledge — revised syllabus


This seminar examines the development of practical knowledge intended to transform “existing conditions into preferred ones, ” as Simon (1996) put it.  Such knowledge is embodied in artifacts that do not exist in nature including physical objects, organizations, practices, and paradigms. Knowledge of what naturally happens or naturally is — of facts (such as of atomic structure), of physical laws (as of planetary motion), and of axiomatic theorems and models (e.g. in geometry or micro-economics) – lies outside our scope, except to the degree that we can harness such knowledge to develop and use artifacts.

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 the development of that practical knowledge as subordinate – a mere application or translation of more profound scientific ideas. Similarly, although Western universities started by offering practical medical education, some in the upper reaches of the Academy now regard professional schools as verging on the teaching of trades that have no place in institutions of higher learning.

This is unfortunate.

We are human because we create, not just because we think. Beavers build dams, prairie dogs excavate underground towns that shelter thousands, and crows craft toys for their play. But, a preoccupation with the relentless development of new artifacts that stimulate our senses and minds far beyond any natural physiological need sets our species apart. Moreover, the artifacts embody knowledge created through the exercise of faculties that mark us as human: to imagine, to reason, to have faith and to overcome our anxieties, to communicate and collaborate with remote strangers, and to “truck, barter, and exchange” (as Adam Smith put it).

Moreover, practical knowledge cannot simply be derived from scientific knowledge or by the application of scientific methods. As we will see, it is distinctively more multifarious in its content, in the processes of its development, and in the contributions it integrates than scientific knowledge. It must therefore be studied in its own terms.

Goals.  Like its subject matter, the seminar has a practical purpose: to improve your capacity to develop and apply practical knowledge rather than to just deconstruct the process of its development. Thus, in contrast to most courses in the natural sciences, math, logic, and economics, we are less interested in “positivist” predictions (what will naturally happen) and more in “normative” prescription (to secure what we want).

There are also subtle differences in the focus and purpose of this seminar and in much of professional education. The latter also seeks to provide instrumentally useful instruction, but typically such instruction is anchored in the application of existing techniques or paradigms with relatively little emphasis on how to develop new techniques. For instance, professional schools do not provide an analogue to the “scientific method” that guides the development of new knowledge in the natural sciences. Nor does professional education provide much training in what we might call the discriminating use of existing knowledge – how to choose between alternative techniques and adapt them to particular circumstances. Yet, this is precisely what most professionals have to do: change the way things are by skillfully applying and extending practical knowledge.

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