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What We Know About Knowledge

Prof. Dr. phil. Armin Nassehi

HENN Akademie, April 22, 2010

Knowledge was once the solution to the problem, as to how validity claims can be asserted independently of authorities. Knowledge that is valid irrespective of the person who expresses it, developed emancipatory potential in the Age of Enlightenment, with practical consequences for society. Pre-modern rulers were able to rule by intent and the validity of what they said was based on their position. Through knowledge, it was only now possible to assert that somebody was wrong even though he was a hierarchical superior. This view of knowledge has imperceptibly shifted since that time: nowadays, the sociologist is examining the conditions under which we treat assertions as assertions of knowledge. The question no longer is what knowledge actually is but how it circulates – in other words what we do and say with one another if it relates to knowledge and what the consequences are for the way in which society functions.

Obviously we should look at language although the statements usually made are those in which we come across knowledge. For example, somebody who asks the way to the station in a particular city and gets the reply “the station is in front of you to the right”, understands this sentence as an item of fact, which is independent of the person who states it and is also independent of the statement by which it is expressed:  The station “is” simply “there”. This independence also applies to the case where the sentence turns out to be wrong. If the answer were “I believe it’s back there to the left”, then the information initially consists in the fact that the speaker is of that opinion. Only in the first answer does the world appear to be independent of the description and of the person who knows it. Both answers could lead the traveller to his destination; in the manner in which knowledge is “given here” the responses are basically quite different. This example gives you an idea of the fact that knowledge is ultimately bound by contexts, in which action and speech take place and in which knowledge proves itself.

Knowledge has a performing side – we always witness a specific performance that has to be mastered if we are to show that we are receptive to what other people do and say. In specific social situations, knowledge always has to be “enacted” again and again. This also applies to scientific knowledge. Amongst expert cultures, such as doctors’ circles, we can follow the habitus right to the point as to how knowledge is formulated and introduced in the concrete dealings with patients or colleagues. It is within these forms of practice that we now search for the conditions of knowledge.

Knowledge proves itself in practice and is built up over time, which can be conceived as condensation practices. However, this jeopardises the idea of the Enlightenment. Assertions are assertions of knowledge based on valid objective factual criteria. Instead of communicating truths about the world, knowledge appears to be an enclosed portrayal of the world as a whole – and these portrayals can be quite different from one another. We have become accustomed that expert statements again and again radically contradict one another. An analysis of the practices of knowledge tell us that knowledge is that form with which we jointly simulate direct access to the world. It is impossible for us to leave such forms on an ad hoc basis in the same way as we can look past our eyes or touch past our sense of touch.

This is why knowledge has now become a problem: what was too well known previously can prevent us from finding the correct solution in good time. Architects always know what houses and streets look like and what space solutions are. What is necessary is to look more closely as to what practical forms actually distort our vision through knowledge and how we can circumvent this. This is why Enlightenment now no longer means being able to destroy intent but rather to destroy knowledge.

Prof. Dr. phil. Armin Nassehi born in 1960 in Tübingen, grew up in Munich, Teheran and Gelsenkirchen. Studied philosophy. Sociology and Education in Münster and Hagen. 1992 awarded a doctorate and 1994 post doctoral dissertation in sociology. Since 1998 appointed to Chair I for sociology at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich. His areas of work include cultural sociology, sociology of knowledge and political sociology. At the same time he is a lecturer and consultant to companies in different sectors.

Armin Nassehi
Prof. Dr. phil.