x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Knowledge as power and commodity

Our penchant for reductionism has led us now to a full-bore commoditisation of knowledge; knowledge as product, knowledge as commodity.

It used to be that knowledge was reduced to "power". Somehow, access to the means of production, exposure to the behind-the-scenes machinations of social competition, or merely holding the right combination of certificates, could facilitate admission into the halls of recognition and influence. But our penchant for reductionism has led us now to a full-bore commoditisation of knowledge; knowledge as product, knowledge as commodity. Perhaps the first reductionism has led to the second. People are willing to pay for access to power, and a cottage industry that has developed around it is turning into a factory town.

It may be said that this is not new; the Greek sophists were selling their wares of instruction in the arts - chief among them rhetoric - to the highest bidder. All to satisfy their clients' desire for ascendancy in the senate. The result, however, is the same, as the sophists held no moral position and taught that an argument could just as easily be made in both directions: for the case in point, and once again, just as easily, for its exact opposite. But even their methods did have some semblance of substantial technique, unlike today's knowledge industry that revolves on surface profitability alone.

The frontline criticism of the sophists came immediately from Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle; and then from an overwhelming majority view that valued knowing in and of itself as the foundation of an enlightened - and thus completed - human person. The objectives of knowledge are threefold, and they are all intrinsically valuable in and of themselves. The first, erudition, to know things as they truly are, is to know that truth and reality are synonymous. The second objective is certainty; which is the confidence and the coolness of certitude regarding these ultimate truths. In Arabic,. certainty is yaqin, from the word for water when it becomes calm and still. From this comes gnosis, which is an ontological state of intimacy with ultimate realities. Each of these three flows from the one before it. Any levels of knowledge below these three comprise a descending spiral of approximated utilities.

Traditionally, knowledge was valued for its own sake. It was considered an essential pillar of civilisation, not as a utilitarian means to a material end, but as a pre-eminent ontological station. Its value lay not in its refinement of the human person alone, but in its completion of the human soul. The human being at his and her best, if you will. But schools and universities the world over are all struggling with the ethical dilemma born of the marriage between industry and education. From pharmaceuticals to financial markets, graduates are rolling off the assembly line tailor-made for the industries that support and dictate the form and structures of the institutions that produced them. The institution adjusts its curriculum in such a way as to increase the size of its own portfolio with Goldman Sachs, as well as producing the "Quants" that will eventually run strategy for those portfolios. In the situation of western universities it is a mechanistic logic at play, but in the developing world that logic - however sinister - is conspicuously missing. In a period of human history when we are most in need of securing continuity with our organic human origins, when we are most in need of minds that can innovate compassionate solutions, the knowledge industry is no longer endeavouring to cultivate persons. Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi