3 What Was Francis Bacon Talking About?

The quote at the start of this chapter says that knowledge itself is power. That sounds mightily impressive. What does it mean?


One thing it might mean is that if you have knowledge, you will have power. Maybe it won’t be a lot of power, if what you know is trivial. But if you know an important secret, it may give you some power. Certainly a lot of the power humans have is due to their scientific knowledge. If knowledge implies truth, then having knowledge means knowing what reality is. Once you know that, you will be much more successful in your endeavors than you would be if you didn’t know how reality is. Reality punishes ignorance with failure.


But claiming that knowledge itself is power might also mean something else. It might mean that knowing how reality is—just the knowledge of it, never mind doing anything with that knowledge—somehow improves our condition as beings who are able to think. It is good to know, and not just because knowledge will make us more successful, but because, well, it is just good to know. Many things are simply intrinsically good (meaning they are good in and of themselves). It is good to love and to appreciate poetry and to have fun and to have friends and to know. These things make us better human beings because they are part of living good human lives. Aristotle called knowledge a virtue which just means that it is a good thing for a human to have because the human is human. A virtue is a power in the sense of being a capacity for a specific kind of being. Humans are the sort of being that is capable of knowing; it is a power we have. Indeed, one might say it is a human superpower since we have not yet met other sorts of beings who are better at it than we are.


There is a third thing the claim might mean. Because of the first two meanings (the ones about success and virtue), human societies value knowledge. Generally, as someone gains more knowledge, they ascend in social status. The two are not always tied, of course. Some smart people lack social status, and some people with high social status don’t know very much. But, on the whole, there is a connection between the two that has existed over the long course of human history. Having higher social status means having more power. And so it follows that knowledge is power since having it gives someone greater social authority and privileges.


These three common benefits of knowledge—success, virtue, and social authority—are important to keep in mind as we explore knowledge philosophically. Some philosophers have treated knowledge as if it were in a vacuum, as if the “power dimension” of knowledge could be safely ignored. But such an approach leads to an impoverished understanding of the character of knowledge and its importance. We need to consider also what is getting done when people are making claims to knowledge or accusing others of not having knowledge.


We might consider an analogy. Imagine a society in which people generally made judgments about whether certain action were “pure.” The people in this society who perform pure actions are highly respected, receive medals, lead parades, and so on. Those who perform impure actions are shunned and sometimes imprisoned. We would want to know a lot more about what “pure” means and whether there was anything to it—meaning whether there really was such a quality as “pure” or whether it was simply imagined by people and perhaps motivated by a desire to raise some people up and push others down. This is a good question to have in mind as we explore knowledge. Is there really anything to it? Or is it a social device for putting people into favored or disfavored groups? Of course we think that knowledge is necessarily connected to truth. But at the same time, we know how hard it is to be sure a claim, especially an important claim, is true.


Given the power dimension of knowledge, it would be marvelous if we had some clear, impartial method for determining what is true and what is known.


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