Knowledge, power and democracy

There are a couple of ways that knowledge is related to power.  In one very basic sense, knowledge is a means to anticipate or predict outcomes so as to beneficially control those outcomes.  Knowledge comes as a result of learning; learning practically by definition assumes that comprehension is enhanced so as to allow improved performance (e.g., it would be practically nonsensical to speak of someone learning a skill in a positive sense who then performs that skill worse than before – a  person can learn bad habits but this would be learning in a negative sense, and not something to be sought after).  Ideally, knowledge as enhanced comprehension from learning leads to enhanced control over outcomes – therefore knowledge equals power.

Another way that knowledge is related to power is in the determination about what is worthwhile or valid to learn and what is not.  As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, in perhaps one of the most seemingly obvious observations in the history of philosophy, “the world is everything that is the case.”  But Wittgenstein then immediately followed this observation with the more nuanced declaration that “the world is the totality of facts, not of things.”  By this Wittgenstein indicated that as we can have no unmediated or pure experience of the world, any experience we do have of the world is not of the things in this world themselves but rather of our filtered representations of those things, which we organize into constructs we call facts.  Unless one is positing a transcendental spiritual faculty of pure perception, this mediation is the case in purely physical terms (i.e., our brains only experience the world as electrical impulses from our sensory organs), and intellectually (if our brains experience the world through secondhand representations, any subsequent theorizing about this world is necessarily built on these representations).  Because we have no unmediated perception of the world, all we have to work with in explaining this world are ‘clouds’ of facts.  These clouds of facts can be arranged into any number of possible patterns.  Which patterns of facts are accepted as being more representative of the world, and therefore worthy of learning for the reasons cited above, depends on many factors beyond alleged correspondence with the unmediated world.  As pure correspondence of facts with things can never be known with certainty, authoritative facts are determined by power relations between different actors; these power relations will be premised upon different factors in different contexts.

This is where theories of ontology become so important, as different ontological beliefs will interpret a given pattern of facts in significantly different ways.  Margaret Stout (2012) provides a primer of different ontologies, arranged in a 2×2 matrix categorized by what is the source of being and whether the expression of that source is static or dynamic.  From this matrix, Stout identifies four major ontological positions: Undifferentiated Individual, Differentiated Individual, Undifferentiated Relational, and Differentiated Relational.  Stout first links each of these ontological positions to distinct political forms (Classical Conservatism, Modern Liberalism, Socialism, and Postmodernism, respectively), and then to different theories of public administration based on these different ontological commitments.

In the context of public administration, Robert Denhardt (1981) proposes a critical theory of public organization, as distinct from the conventional rationalistic and positivistic instrumentalist theories which dominate the field.  These traditional theories, in both the natural and social sciences, describe the world through sets of propositions linked together by logical necessity.  These conventional theories are premised primarily upon the Differentiated Individual ontology identified by Stout, which holds that individual identities (i.e., people, instances, cases, etc.) are fixed with static properties which can be measured.  The identification and measurement of these static differences and similarities between instances constitutes scientific knowledge, and the application of this knowledge constitutes learning.

Through reference to Max Horkheimer and Jurgen Habermas in particular, Denhardt identifies how this scientific method serves specific interests and needs, “first in the control of nature, but later in the control of human beings” (629).  Habermas identifies this “purposive-rational” method of creating knowledge as intrinsically instrumental, specifically for the solution of means-ends problems.  Politically, this instrumental scientific rationality results in a narrowing of the public sphere – or the arena in which society establishes its normative agendas – to those problems which are amenable to scientific measurement.  Administratively, public management becomes a technical field premised upon the securing of predictable outcomes through scientific measurement, which in turn results in the “depoliticization of the citizenship” (631) which may not have problems which are measureable in this way.

According to Denhardt, by limiting ourselves to these measurable facts and manifest behaviors, “we implicitly endorse the social conditions which have created those facts and those behaviors,” and, in the process, “the supposedly objective analyst becomes a political actor, working in behalf of the status quo” (633).  Hence the need for critical theories of public administration which instead of controlling people “seeks to assist people in determining their true needs” through open communication (634).  For Denhardt, per Habermas, the outcomes of this decentralized critical public administration will be more democratic, and therefore better, than conventional scientific public administration.

These conclusions, however admirable, rest upon the assumption that more democracy is inherently better.  However, unless this assumption is simply accepted by fiat, it is unclear how or why democratization is either a natural outcome of openness or inherently good.  For example, Denhardt equates the democratization of social relationships – which occurs at the collective level – with the realization of “the true needs of the individual” (634), though without providing explanations for why this connection between levels necessarily holds.  As likely as the full realization of the individual is to result from this democratization, it also seems just as likely that different majorities would coalesce which would stifle individual expressions which do not coincide with the inclinations of these new majorities.  This concern for the tyranny of the majority was one of the main concerns of the Framers of the Constitution, and is not as easily resolved as assumed by Denhardt, Habermas, and so many others.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, and C. K. Ogden. Tractatus Logico-philosophicus. Mineola, N Y.: Dover Publications, 1999.

Denhardt, Robert B. “Toward a Critical Theory of Public Organization.” Public Administration Review 41.6 (1981): 628.

Stout, Margaret. “Competing Ontologies: A Primer for Public Administration.” Public Administration Review 72.3 (2012): 388-98.


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