The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
On the whole, Rauch’s new book is an important contribution to the culture. It has some problems, philosophically, but the overall sweep of what Rauch is doing is intriguing and worthwhile. The analysis of cultural trends and his advice on how to defend against these harmful trends is useful.
The general idea Rauch is getting it, the real insight of his book, is that knowledge is something that has to be produced and that its production is best accomplished under a particular kind of system. A system where knowledge production is decentralized, has lots of diversity in it, has no sacred totems, and is subject to constant criticism and challenge.
This is the Constitution of Knowledge. Like a political constitution, this constitution provides rules, institutions, and structures by which knowledge is produced. Rauch argues that the best constitution for knowledge is analogous to the best political constitutions: it provides a structure by which difference, disagreement, and contrary interests are transformed into a valuable product. In the sciences, this product is knowledge; in government, liberty and social harmony. A third analogy he uses is the marketplace. Here too there is a structure that coordinates the disparate ends and interests of those in the market, leading to greater efficiency, wealth production, and general overall standard of living.
In all three constitutions of liberal markets, liberal governments, and liberal science, diversity of all kinds is key. In markets, the more diverse actors with different insights, advantages, and experiences, the greater the market. This is akin to Adam Smith’s famous idea that the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market: the bigger the market the greater specialization that is possible. In government, diversity of political ideology and interest is essential to keeping all the factions and interest groups at bay. The more factions there, the harder it is for any one group to take over and impose its will; instead all the groups have to find a way to work together to find the right balance. And in knowledge production, different thinkers and researchers with different ideas, training, and perspectives help to prevent bias and oversight.
This central importance of diversity is part of the other major theme of the book: how the constitution of knowledge is being attacked and undermined. One way is through cancel culture and how that is undermining intellectual and political diversity. Another is the way in which some people manipulate and (mis)use aspects of the Constitution of Knowledge, through the spreading of misinformation, to gain control and power.
This is the book at its strongest: laying out the threats to the Constitution of Knowledge: be it those spreading disinformation in order to sow distrust and confusion, or those who use social media to discourage dissent and criticism. And Rauch offers some good advice on how to combat it.
But Rauch is not a philosopher and when he attempts to give a history of the theories of knowledge, as well as provide his own epistemological foundation for this constitution of knowledge, he’s a bit out of his depth. The discussion is a bit of muddle, or worse, at times.
He wants to defend a view of knowledge that sees knowledge as produced and justified through a network. Relying on C.S. Peirce and others, he sees knowledge as a social product, and not something individual. While I think he’s right to point out the importance of the networks and institutions in creating, maintaining, and extending knowledge, he’s wrong to reject what we might call epistemic individualism: knowledge is something an individual has.
I think Rauch can get his defense of the Constitution of Knowledge and his defense of the importance of the checking and testing of knowledge by many individuals engaged in knowledge production, without having to accept the epistemological foundation he is offering (quite the opposite). He doesn’t need to reject individualism in epistemology, anymore than we need to reject individualism in political or economic constitutions. Individualism is not the rejection of community or networks: it is their core purpose. Individuals make up the communities and the communities exist for the sake of the individuals (not the other way around). To reify community and institution over the individual is a fundamental error and it undermines the very goal for which Rauch is trying to ultimately argue.
The book is still worth reading, even with this serious philosophical error. Rauch’s analysis of cancel culture and the misdeeds of the misinformation networks is important. His advice on how to combat these is also helpful.
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