When Knowledge Becomes Powerful

When people say “knowledge is power,” what they really mean is knowledge is empowering. Generally, the idea is that knowledge is the foundation of individual achievement — that it makes a person more capable, effectual, and successful. This is why one can commonly find the adage featured on school posters intended to encourage students to prioritize their learning. Partly because I’m sympathetic to that goal, I won’t be contesting that particular sort of claim. Instead, I’d like to take the opportunity to interrogate the history of the phrase “knowledge is power,” in order to illustrate how it may be fraught in surprising ways. 

Before I begin, it should be noted that the relationship between knowledge and power has been an accepted feature of politics in just about every place and time. It has been particularly essential in modern political philosophy and social sciences, as seen in Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony and Michel Foucault’s power-knowledge (savoir-pouvoir). Considering the breadth of the topic at hand, I’ve limited this piece to the two dead white men most relevant to the story I am going to tell: Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes.


In his unfinished novel, The New Atlantis (1626), Francis Bacon depicted his plan for a perfect society, the empire of Bensalem under the rule of King Solamon. Of all the “excellent acts” of the good king, Bacon wrote, the most important of all was the establishment of “Solamon’s House,” a scientific order “dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God” and unraveling the secrets of nature.1 Bensalem was envisioned as a utopia sustained by scientific discoveries, which perform two main roles. First, Solamon’s House provides the people with useful inventions and safeguards them from disease and natural disasters.2 Second, it upholds the authority of the king, whose generous support of the scientific community is the source of Bensalem’s prosperity. 

In both respects, The New Atlantis was remarkably forward-looking. Just as Bacon imagined, scientific knowledge today claims to protect us from danger and improve our lives. By the same token, we are expected to have confidence in our system of government, the entity most responsible for pushing science forward and bringing us new advancements in medicine and technology. We have no king to thank, but at least democracy and capitalism are always giving us shiny new toys to play with (have you seen those new foldable phones?)

Francis Bacon is often credited as a “father” of the scientific method, but he’s also generally recognized for coining the expression “knowledge is power.” The phrase is actually somewhat of a misquote, but it does accurately describe Bacon’s political project and his quest to establish the perfect scientific community.3 In The New Atlantis, Solamon’s house was a dream of the prosperity that science could one day bring, but it was also a dream of an imperial monarchy with unquestionable legitimacy. The frontispiece to Instauratio Magna (1620), makes it clear that science was not just about gathering knowledge, but also imperial ambition: 

Fig. 1: It is telling that this illustration, of a great British warship crossing the Pillars of Hercules, introduces a treatise on inductive reasoning in science.4

To Bacon and his contemporaries, the age of exploration presented a world ripe for the conquering by men of science. They were not wrong in that — European colonial and industrial expansion was indeed driven by technological advancements that enabled faster communication, safer travel, and a more capable military. For Bacon, “knowledge is power” for the state or civilization that could harness knowledge in order to extend its authority and prosperity.

Bacon’s vision of a learning community backed by the state proved convincing, and in many ways it marked the true beginning of modern science. In order to do science, after all, you need money, equipment, time, and a certain degree of freedom. Luckily for the scientists of The New Atlantis, the mythical King Solamon wasn’t just a kind monarch — he was also extremely rich. 

In the years to follow, intellectual elites heeded Bacon’s utopian call for a more organized scientific enterprise, founding research societies, publishing scientific journals, and seeking state support.5 Most successful among these was the French Académie Royale des Sciences, created as an instrument of the state in 1666. In exchange for salaries and facilities, members were to provide valuable services and be a “source of glory” for the monarchy. This model was then adopted by many governing authorities during the 18th century; dozens of newly chartered societies received financial support and “reciprocally performed official functions as part of formal or informal government bureaucracies.”6 

During this period, a more rigorous scientific method was developed, but just as importantly, the proper institutions were established where the new science could be applied to the benefit of state and society. As Robert Fox has shown, governing authorities recognized that scientific knowledge has unmistakable utilitarian power, but also that it produces legitimacy for the state:

[Patronage of science] was inspired, to very different degrees in different countries, both by a belief in the value of scientific knowledge for manufacturing, agriculture, medical improvement, public works, and warfare and by a perception of science as a form of culture whose promotion would lend luster to any regime seeking to parade its adjustment, however cautious, to the beneficent forces of enlightenment and modernity.7


So far, I have outlined two possible interpretations of “knowledge  is power;” one centers on the individual, and the other on the collective (and especially the state). Both prioritize the benefits of knowledge and its overall utility. Next, I will offer a third interpretation as outlined by Thomas Hobbes, which combines the first two by dissolving the distinction between the individual and the collective, leaving behind only an absolute sovereign power. In this interpretation, utility will take a back seat to unity. To be specific, for Hobbes it is less significant whether knowledge itself is beneficial, as long as people reach a consensus and disputes are resolved.

Incidentally, Hobbes did some secretarial work for Bacon, although it’s hard to say how much, if at all, Bacon’s views influenced him.8 In any case, by coincidence perhaps, it was actually Hobbes who used the precise phrasing “knowledge is power,” in the English translation of De Corpore (1656):

The end of knowledge is power; and the use of theorems… is for the construction of problems; and lastly, the scope of all speculation is the performing of some action, or thing to be done.9

In this passage, Hobbes repeats the idea that the “power” of knowledge lies in its practicality to human life, in some “thing to be done.”  He later clarifies this pragmatic view, listing astronomy, geography, architecture, and engineering among the “sciences” that bring “great benefits” to men.10 However, if we take these statements in the context of Hobbes’s broader political theory, it is clear that “knowledge is power” is about much more than straightforward pragmatism. 

Hobbes matured as a thinker in the years leading up to the English Civil War (1642-1651), and along with all his contemporaries, was profoundly influenced by the unrest of the period. Even before the war began, in fact, Hobbes’s fundamental goal was to establish a philosophical foundation for politics so unshakeable that a civil war could never be possible.

Hobbes famously begins his theory with a description of the “state of nature” — that is, a world without a stable political community — in which “the life of man” is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”11 Without a central authority, humanity is entangled in “war of all against all,” and every person has only one interest: self-preservation. In order to escape the horrors of anarchy, Hobbes says, rational individuals enter into a covenant and submit themselves to a common authority.12 This sovereign power, ideally a monarch, must be obeyed, regardless of how he came into power or what he does to maintain it. For Hobbes, the stability of political community, no matter how imperfect, is always better than the alternative; he suggests “that you will think it better to enjoy your present state (though it may not be the best) rather than go to war.”13 After all, there can be no civil war, or really any conflict, in the presence of a truly absolute ruler.

For Hobbes, the only sensible decision is to forfeit all one’s rights to the sovereign power. In this “fact,” Hobbes believed that he had discovered an indisputable foundation for all politics. He predicated his argument on human rationality because only an undivided power that everyone can reasonably agree on could provide stability. The king’s authority derives from the collective and unanimous agreement on the part of the people; because he represents all men, his authority cannot be challenged. Herein lies the paradox: Hobbes’s sovereign power is singular and absolute, but it is nonetheless a collective enterprise.14

Fig. 2: In the frontispiece of Leviathan (1651), the king is the literal embodiment of “the people” — but you might have to zoom in to really see it. The implication is that the people lose both their rights and individuality.15

According to Hobbes, scientific knowledge is just as absolute as political knowledge. As Bruno Latour has argued, “For Hobbes, Power is Knowledge, which amounts to saying that there can exist only one Knowledge and only one Power if civil wars are to be brought to an end.” It is for this reason that Hobbes believed that all legitimate science requires mathematical proof, “the only method of argument capable of compelling everyone’s assent.”16 Only mathematics is truly inarguable, and therefore universal, making any sort of dispute impossible. In this way, Hobbes hoped, science would serve the state and create a lasting peace.17 

Indeed, science does lay claim to objectivity and universality, albeit in a more limited way than Hobbes imagined. In the presence of inarguable proof, science is generally understood to be absolute. For instance, there is more or less no disagreement on the existence of germs, DNA, or atoms. According to Hobbes, science can therefore eliminate disagreement and foster unity among rational individuals. This is a claim characteristic of knowledge in the age of COVID-19 — that scientific facts should command the assent of everyone, for mutual benefit. Social distancing, for example, is scientifically inarguable and its benefits are apparent — provided that everyone is united in abiding by its truth.    

In practice, however, science is always contested; it is not a singular power, but a democratic one. Just like democracy, science is open to all and based on the free exchange of ideas, at least in theory. Dispute is an expected, if not cherished, component of scientific inquiry. 

Of course, scientists make mistakes, but the more fundamental issue is that science is not truly universal, at least not most of the time. Granted, the fruits of science and technology are undeniable — but if science simply “discovered” pre-existing entities and truths that everyone could agree upon, there would indeed be little room for dispute. To the contrary, scientific knowledge is always provisional to some degree, imputing imperfect human classifications onto non-human things in order to make them intelligible. Scientific truth does correlate to real, physical entities — but it also relies on an arbitrary set of standardized units, measures, instruments, and linguistic conventions.18 This conditional quality is why there is always room to refine, redefine, remodel, and reform scientific truth.19 

But it is nonetheless true that citizens are expected to assent to the reliable knowledge of scientific consensus, much like citizens in a democracy are obliged to support and defend democratic institutions. Science and democracy are both cooperative by nature; anyone can participate, but this also means that everyone must accept their results. This is, so the theory goes, the most rational and inclusive social system (even though in practice it is never truly inclusive). In reality, not everyone agrees, whether or not they are rational. There are those who would challenge democracy (fundamentalists, right-wing extremists, the President, etc.), and those who would reject scientific truth altogether (flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, the President, etc.). This disunity is why Hobbes favored autocracy over the chaos of factionalism.  

Hobbes’s vision of an unassailable foundation for politics has failed; only a single absolute power can eliminate all dispute, and we have no such thing. However, his insights remain relevant, and in my view, quite disconcerting. Hobbes understood that knowledge can be unifying (if there’s little room for argument) or destabilizing (if it invites controversy). It can of course be both, but the point is that consensus is an important, yet often overlooked, dimension of knowledge. Science should not be so quick to dismiss its storied connection to the state and the consolidation of power.  

In our present moment, science and democracy are widely considered rational because one cannot “reasonably” deny the benefits of GPS, microprocessors, antibiotics, the internet, vaccines, disease control organizations, free elections, or free courts of law. All these things are based on the reliable consensus of rational individuals; to reject the consensus that they are good (or that they are real) is also to destabilize the unifying “truths” that provide us a firm social foundation. It should therefore come as no surprise when science or politics reject pluralism in favor of some kind of unity, however tenuous that may actually be.


Conclusion

According to the popular readings of the phrase, “knowledge” is “power” when exercised by individuals, communities, or nation states. It is a tool that can bring prosperity, but also a weapon to gain the advantage over one’s adversaries. For Hobbes, the power of knowledge is instead that of unity: the power to impose cohesion on a society and prevent its otherwise inevitable disintegration.  

This interpretation is noteworthy because we routinely forget the power of consensus in science and other fields of knowledge. This has changed recently with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made everyone hyper-aware of the influence of scientific facts on politics and our everyday life — but only in a limited way. Narratives that foreground US-China antagonism remain common, and to some extent COVID-19 has disguised the degree to which scientific consensus has always regulated our lives. We just didn’t notice it before, or at least not often enough. 

Accounts of science in global politics, for instance, place far too much emphasis on rivalries between competing powers — formerly between the US and USSR, and more recently between the US and China. As John Krige has shown, the United States has promoted its “scientific hegemony” not by way of coercion or hostility against its enemies, but consensus among its allies. Since World War II, the US has established its leadership of an international network of consenting elites “who circulated within a common geopolitical scientific space, along with instruments, procedures, interpretative techniques, and data that collectively made them producers and consumers of reliable knowledge.”20 Much like the fictional Solamon’s House, western science promotes the glory of America and justifies the status quo with useful inventions.

In some sense, knowledge has always been powerful, for those who are smart or capable enough to wield it. But there is another sense, in which knowledge is at its most powerful — and its authority at its most unshakeable — only when everyone shares in it.    

Related:


Notes
1  Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (Project Gutenberg, 2008), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2434/2434-h/2434-h.htm
2 Solamon’s House is said to prevent and/or remedy “diseases, plagues, swarms-of hurtful creatures, scarcity, tempests, earthquakes, great inundations, comets, temperature of the year, and divers other things,” Ibid.
3 Wikipedia has a good summary of the misquote; in context, Francis Bacon was saying that “knowledge” is the “power” of God. “Scientia Potentia Est,” in Wikipedia, accessed May 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientia_potentia_est#Francis_Bacon.
4 From the title page of Francis Bacon, Instauratio Magna (1620), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Instauratio_Magna_1620.jpg.
5 For more on these developments, see Part 1 of Roy Porter, ed., The Cambridge History of Science, Volume 4: The Eighteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
6 James McClellan III, “Scientific Institutions and the Organization of Science,” in The Cambridge History of Science, Volume 4, ed. Roy Porter, 89.
7 Robert Fox, “Science and Government,” in The Cambridge History of Science, Volume 4, ed. Roy Porter, 89.
8 Noel Malcolm, “A Summary Biography of Hobbes,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes, ed. Tom Sorell (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 18; Malcolm notes that despite broad similarities, Hobbes rejected Bacon’s inductive method and metaphysics of “form.”
9  Thomas Hobbes, “Elements of Philosophy: Concerning Body,” in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, ed. Sir William Molesworth, vol. 1 (London: John Bohn, 1839), https://archive.org/details/englishworkstho21hobbgoog/mode/2up, 7.
10 Ibid.
11  Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Project Gutenberg, 1651), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm#link2HCH0013, Part I, Chapter XIII.
12 Hobbes argues that “a common authority is created when everyone in a state of nature agrees ‘to submit their Wills, every one to his Will, and their Judgements, to his Judgement’, fom Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson (Penguin Books, 1968), quoted in Richard Tuck, Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP Oxford, 2002).
13 Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 14. 
14 For more on this seeming contradiction, as well as Hobbes’s views on democracy, see Kinch Hoekstra, “A lion in the house: Hobbes and democracy,” in Rethinking the foundations of modern political thought, ed. Annabel Brett and James Tully (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 191-218. 
15 Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1620), engraving by Abraham Bosse, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leviathan_by_Thomas_Hobbes.jpg.
16 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Harvard University Press, 1993), 19.
17 For more on how Hobbes sought to limit knowledge in service of a stable monarchy, see Margaret C. Jacob, “Reflections on Bruno Latour’s Version of the Seventeenth Century,” in A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science (Oxford University Press, 1998), 240–54.
18 See Karin Knorr Cetina, “Laboratory Studies The Cultural Approach to the Study of Science,” in Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, ed. S. Jasanoff et al. (Sage Publications, 1995), 140–66.
19 The most influential book on shifting paradigms in scientific knowledge is Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962).
20 John Krige, American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe (The MIT Press, 2006), 270.

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