To put it another way: one academic cannot know anything – or better, no single academic can be said to know anything. The smallest unit that can be said to know anything is two academics disagreeing – or, at least, two academics who take seriously the fact that they are different and learn from that fact; two academics who can hold one another to account. (Higton, A Theology of Higher Education)
Mike Higton’s work on higher education is studded with lapidary phrases like “one academic cannot know anything”; in other places he has declared that “good coffee is an epistemological issue”, “knowledge is what enables one to be wrong”, and “only pedants are truly open-minded”. This one hit home particularly as part of his discussion of the inherently sociability of academic work, and of the need to nurture a generous attitude to knowledge, as an essential part of university life.
It is not that Higton has a rosy-tinted view of the way academics treat knowledge in practice. He is clear-eyed about the fact that much research activity in universities and at conferences is narrow, competitive and unhealthy. He describes this orientation to knowledge as proprietorial and anxious, convinced that learning is the process by which the individual takes knowledge from a common field and secures it for their own benefit. Secures it, moreover, in ways which deny that knowledge to others and thus build up a (false) sense of invulnerability. Knowledge, from this point of view, is the stuff from which public profiles are moulded, the fuel which keeps careers cruising along (and enables them to quickly gain altitude when given a chance), the XP which can be traded in for better weapons or a more magical hauberk.
If knowledge is regarded in this way, it validates the saying that nothing hurts like a friend’s success. Hearing of another scholar’s being awarded a grant, or securing a book deal, should make us resentful. Even if we hadn’t submitted a grant application, nor had we sent a proposal to that (or any) publisher this year, that scholar has notched up a competitive advantage over us, which they will be able to cash in at some point. One day we’ll be in competition for research funding, or a promotion, or a library fellowship. And today we just lost that contest – still five or so years in the future – without even yet knowing what we’ll be trying to win. Of course, the closer their research is to our own work, the more we see them at conferences, the greater the number of last-night parties and sociable late-nighters we’ve notched up in their company, the more likely it is we just lost out. If knowledge is treated this way, you don’t need to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Whoever’s closest to you will quietly and necessarily turn into your enemy.
It doesn’t even need to be question of recognisable competition and a prize which can only go to one winner. I’m sure a number of people reading this will recognise the clench of irritation I felt last month, when an ingenuous Facebook status from a friend in the field asked “Can anyone help me with a reference? Who was it who said X?” and my inner voice growled “It was going to be ME, IN ABOUT A YEAR. *Sod* it, someone else got there?” The moment passed, and I’m now intrigued to see how they treated the topic, but it was a reminder that according to some of the assumed rules of academe, I should be in competition with whoever came up with that idea.
This isn’t the way it has to be, of course. As Higton’s remarks above point out, knowledge is inherently a shared matter, and regarding it as personal and competitive is a distortion of its real nature. As the acknowledgements page of most monographs will demonstrate, research involves large numbers of people who made recognisable contributions to the work, as well as much larger numbers of people who cannot be assigned a specific role in the final work, but “without whose assistance and support…” as the formula goes. Taking knowledge for ourselves is parasitic on the larger processes of research and investigation, since knowledge taken out of the shared conversation ceases to be knowledge.
Like evidence abstracted from a legal case, or a paragraph nicked from a mathematical dissertation, its meaning quickly erodes to the point of aphasia. The most secure and definite fact, undeniable and provable, might seem to contain its own significance by its very accuracy. But that significance drains away if it is not surrounded by other facts, produced and exchanged by others. The date of a production, the maiden name of a politician, a verbal echo of an earlier philosopher: they are all facts, but they can only speak to us within a larger narrative. We need to see what previously-known stories they might be denying, or corroborating, or slyly undermining. Without the conversation (another characteristic term of Higton’s), they are random words shouted furiously into the gloom. Or, perhaps more accurately, words hoarded and unspoken, in case anyone should overheard them.
We cannot own knowledge. We might legitimately want our labour to be recognised, and our thoughts appreciated, but this can only happen in the process of disclosing that knowledge to others. If we’re thinking about the authentic nature of what we do in universities, and why we might regard one attitude to knowledge as more true than another, rather than more observable on average or just being nicer, we might cling to this epistemological quirk. No-one can know what we know if we don’t tell them, and then they’ll know what we know too. The more we explain, the further we go in helping them to see what we see, the more we reveal our reasoning and the evidence which we’ve painstakingly assembled, the more we expose to them. The more we give away, in fact, in several meanings of that phrase. The fatal temptation of the supervillain is also the splendid paradox of the researcher’s life. Others have to know what we know, in order to know that we know it. We have to give it all away.
The concern with “impact” in academic research is ill-defined, and potentially damaging in a number of ways, but it does display an intuitive sense that research needs to be communicated. (Even if it seems to vaguely assume that the knowledge is valuable as far as it can exert force on others in the field, like the stored chemical energy contained in industrial supplies.) The impetus to publish is, at its best, a need to share. One of the most unpleasant aspects of the Research Excellence Framework, the ranking process through universities have just been put, is that it made sharing into a competitive sport. It genuinely had the potential to corrupt a virtue into a vice; to coerce university researchers into a disingenuous parade of their generosity, whilst implying that others were not quite coming up to their standards of self-denial. In simple terms, it nurtured hypocrisy in many parts of British academic life.
The open and generous conversation which constitutes research at its best is subject to the same risks and imbalances as other conversations. Sociolinguists have spent decades patiently pointing out the ways in which power arranges and distorts conversations; how hierarchies of gender and class and race build inequalities into the very activity of talking to each other. It won’t do to be naive about the conditions under which conversation takes place, even the large and metaphorical conversation of research; which, after all, is made up of thousands of small and very imperfectly connected conversations. But reflecting on how “one academic cannot know anything” seems a good place to start thinking about knowledge and that conversation.