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Indeed, this interest of philosophers in economics and their attempt to use it as a resource for epistemology stems from the need to navigate between the Scylla of positivism and the Charybdis of relativism and propose ‘a philosophical approach that is sensitive to the critique of the Received View’ in Science Studies – i.e. the relativism introduced by Thomas Kuhn (1962) which informs the sociology of scientific knowledge – while ‘retaining an element of normative bite’ (Hands, 1997, S110; similarly, Hands, 2001, Tyfield, 2012).54 The two bodies of work described above differ significantly in terms of their motivations and driving forces, while also sharing intellectual origins in positivism, as well as significantly converging and overlapping in scope and subject matter and in the idea of a “marketplace of ideas” (see Zamora Bonilla, 2012 for an assessment of differences and similarities, but see also Mirowski, 2011 for discussion of the role of the “marketplace of ideas” in the ascendancy of neoliberalism). However, and despite their differences, both bodies of work can claim for themselves the moniker of economics for their recourse to mainstream economics as analytical framework, rather than for any consideration of the material conditions and determinants of scientific activity or of the connections between scientific activity and broader socio-economic structures, dynamics and processes.
and their drivers (Sent, 1999). In short, what is left out is the specific historical character of science and knowledge production, i.e. the way in which different concrete and historicallydetermined institutional arrangements (and their determinants) favour or impair the use, production, accumulation and diffusion of knowledge, science and technology themselves.
Therefore, neither of these bodies of work fits PROPOSITION 2 of Foray’s definition of the EK.
But, then, if the EK is reduced to PROPOSITION 1, the departure from the core contribution of economists (rooted in the attributes of knowledge as a public, semi-public, or private good) announced by Foray is nowhere to be found. In this sense, Foray’s EK stands reduced to a new bottle for the sour old wine of knowledge as a public good, albeit corrected with insights from David and Dasgupta’s “new economics of science” (1994) and the sociology of scientific knowledge.
1.4.4) Knowledge as aporia55 Interestingly, Foray (2006) himself provides useful pointers as to why knowledge represents an aporia for mainstream economic theory and a neoclassical EK is a contradiction in terms.
Firstly, as discussed above, Foray understands ‘knowledge’ as ‘something more than information’, something which ‘empowers its possessors with the capacity for intellectual or physical action’, in short, ‘cognitive capability’ (Foray, 2006, p.4). In this, Foray follows Steinmueller (2002), for whom it is the failure to operate this distinction that has pushed ‘economics, usually an imperialistic discipline intent on colonising the other social sciences’, to leave treatment and discussion of knowledge to other disciplines. ‘The problem’, for Steinmueller, would be that to incorporate issues relating to knowledge in economics ‘implies abandoning the “representative” firm and individual, introducing a range of distinctly noneconomic variables into the analysis, and rethinking the fundamental assumption that the individual is the appropriate unit of social analysis’ (Steinmueller, 2002, p.146). Indeed, and although neither Foray nor Steinmueller go as far as making the following point, agents in mainstream economic models have very little (if any) agency, given that their behaviour is the outcome of constrained optimisation problems and, therefore, predetermined by the mathematical specification of the model itself. However, this analytical endeavour negates from the onset the very possibility of understanding and incorporating within the mainstream model knowledge as cognition (or cognitive capability). A similar point is argued by Mirowski (2011, p.335), for example, with reference to the ‘asymmetrical’ cognitive status of the agent and ‘the economist/analyst in modern mainstream economic theory’, whereby economists
arrogate for themselves a ‘constitutional capacity’ which they deny to the agent in the model:
Many elements in this section directly call into question endogenous (or new) growth theory, but a proper discussion is delayed till the next section.
‘the ability to survey the rules and institutions imposed by the “model”, to critically engage in self-reflexivity, and to decide whether or not the agent (it?) will accept the terms and conditions dictated by the model’. The outcome of this asymmetry is that ‘the agent is doomed to be a total slave to the model, a cognitive robot, a fixed nonentity rather than a person in process of becoming someone else’, since, ‘by construction, the agent cannot under any circumstances rebel against the scripted role imposed by the economist’.56 Put otherwise, ‘if the economist and the agent were on the same epistemic footing, then the cognitive acceptance by the agent of the model putatively describing their experience would be a necessary precondition for the validity of the model’.57 Secondly, ‘[e]lements of knowledge are heterogenous’ and, therefore, incomparable (Foray, 2006, p.9) and irreducible to a common denominator, standard or homogeneous stock (Boulding, 1966; Metcalfe, 2002, 2010;
Steedman, 2003). Thus, ‘measuring stocks, already difficult in the case of physical capital, becomes an impossible undertaking in the case of knowledge’ (Foray, 2006, p.10) (similarly, Metcalfe, 2002, 2010; Steedman, 2003; and Cowan et al., 2000, on the basis of the distinction between tacit and codified knowledge). However, and although Foray does not make the following point, the full implication of the incomparability of knowledge is that any type of evaluation based on the maximisation of utility would be logically flawed, and the concept of marginal utility meaningless when applied to “additional units” of knowledge. Indeed, acquisition of new knowledge often entails calling into question and redefining old or previous knowledge and beliefs. This significantly undermines the idea that individual preferences are invariant, a prerequisite for the definition of a utility function to be maximised (similarly, Mirowski, 2011, pp. 59, 335). Similarly, if a stock of knowledge cannot be defined, the concept of (increasing or decreasing) marginal product of a stock of knowledge (considered as a factor of production) is meaningless (Steedman, 2003) (see below). At this juncture, lest the reader This contradictory notion of the agent, together with the latter’s asymmetrical status with respect to that of the economist, can be seen as related to, and outcome of, how the conception of the “freedom” of the individual within economic theory has changed throughout time. See Medema, 2009 for an implicit account of how the conception of individual freedom has become mechanically and rigidly (predetermined in the passage from Classical political economy (and Adam Smith’s liberalism) to neoclassical economics. See also Hands, 2010 for an account of how the tension within neoclassical economics between the aspiration to preserve ‘volition (and its associated normative implications)’ and pursue ‘causal science (and the predictive power, explanatory understanding and the epistemic distinction it brings)’ (p.642) has framed the (selective) incorporation (or not) of (specific kinds of) psychology into consumer choice theory. A perfect example of how the coexistence of these (conflicting) aspirations leads to contradiction is readily found in Friedman’s work, where Friedman’s “freedom to choose” (Friedman, Friedman, 1990) cannot be axiomatically predicted, thus standing in contradiction with Friedman’s own methodological stance (Friedman, 1953b), and can only be appended (or brought back in) as an afterthought.
In addition to this, see also Mirowski, 2009b for detailed discussion of ‘the fundamental logical obstacles to equipping the neoclassical agent with a consensus technology to take knowledge on board’ (Mirowski, 2009b, p.134) encountered from within each of the main post-war schools of neoclassical economics according to how it treats (and collapses knowledge into) information (i.e. information as a thing, information as inductive inference, and information processing as computation).
(still) think that the reception of the KBE within economics and the elaboration of an EK represent a welcome move forward beyond the limitations of the mainstream (for their break with the basic theoretical assumptions of the latter), it is extremely important to emphasise how, on the contrary, the two contradictions highlighted above do not deter the mainstream from turning to the issue of knowledge but, rather, are symptomatic and exemplary of the current state and resiliency of the orthodoxy within the discipline. Indeed, after having grown secure in its technical apparatus (organised around utility and production functions) and its technical architecture (organised around equilibrium and efficiency) – or TA2 (Fine, 2011, 2013) – economics has come to perceive itself as ‘a set of techniques and statistical methods of universal applicability’. This self-perception has been the driving force of the extension of the principles of economics both within the discipline and beyond to the subject matter of other disciplines, in ‘thoughtless’ fashion and ‘without regard to the nature of the topic, appropriate methodology, inductive foundations, and continuing traditions’ (Fine, 2011, p.207). Therefore, even if, on the surface, current developments at the margins of the discipline may seem to contradict the standard assumptions and staples of TA2, in practice the latter is never dethroned nor substantively questioned (especially in the teaching of economics itself). In this sense, attention to knowledge within economics through the reception of the KBE concept and aim to develop an EK is exemplary of the state of ‘“suspension”’ (Fine, 2011, p.207) in which the discipline thrives, implying its capability to ‘both’ float ‘free of its origins and core material whilst remaining irrevocably attached to them’, to ‘go anywhere’ without ever departing (p.208).58 Thirdly, ‘[k]nowledge is largely unobservable’, especially when tacit: indeed, the ‘most distinctive feature of tacit knowledge is its incorporation in thoughts and deeds, and its invisibility, even for those who possess it and use it “automatically”’. Thus, ‘[k]nowledge appears only when it is expressed and written and when it becomes possible to attach a property right to it. Yet tacit knowledge is constantly being reconstituted, so that a vast world remains perpetually invisible’ (Foray, 2006, p.9). But, if knowledge is in large part tacit, contextual (i.e. localised in institutions and routines, produced and reproduced for specific purposes) and weakly persistent (i.e. people forget), and if its acquisition and reproduction are in large part the outcome of processes of learning-by-doing (Foray, 2006), then the restructuring of labour markets which has characterised advanced economies since the 1970s, together with the attendant increasing flexibilisation and casualisation of labour relations, should also be seen as having caused a great deal of “de-knowledgeing”, that is, processes The concept of suspension will be taken up again and in more detail in the second chapter, where it will inform the interpretation of Italian post-workerist Marxism peculiar to this thesis (but see also footnote 78).
whereby firms are “deskilled” through ‘hollowing out of skills and knowledge by outsourcing, loss of key skills and loss of corporate memory’ through donwsizing (Littler, Innes, 2003, p.76), whether empirically valid or not.59 This is also recognised by Foray, for whom ‘[i]nternal labor markets... are approaching a state of crisis in which increasing externalization, turnover, and mobility are making traditional methods of knowledge management... ever more uncertain’ (Foray, 2006, p.84). But, then, investigation of the conditions of production and reproduction of knowledge should include consideration of whether the current material organisation of production is actually conducive to the production and accumulation of knowledge, especially since Foray’s definition of the field of analysis of the EK explicitly calls into question the historical and institutional conditions of knowledge production, see PROPOSITION 2 in subsection 1.4.3 above. However, this would inevitably require shifting attention to the systemic properties of markets and the current material organisation, functioning and embedding of production and labour processes.