Not only is the truth of a given idea measured by the degree and celerity wherewith it goes into action, but a very distinct component of truth remains ungrasped by the non-participant in the action./ And this statement is at diametric remove from a gross pragmatism that cheapens ideas or accepts the "pragmatic pig of a world". (Ezra Pound, GK, p. 182)
So I am trying to say something that sounds like pragmatism./ Here I am being thwarted by a kind of Weltanschauung. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, OC§422)
I am an epistemologist at heart. My interest in academic writing is really an interest in scientific knowledge. Academic writers are bound by the injunction to "write what you know" in a very rigorous sense.
The pragmatists were no doubt right to say that knowledge is utlimately know-how. If we know something, we know how to do something, and if we do not know how to do it then we don't really know it. But academics are right to object that they are not practitioners of the knowledge they possess. They are not business people. And at a business school this difference is, of course, especially acute. Management researchers take a distinctly academic interest in business.
So what is it that academics know how to do in so far as they know anything at all? The short answer is that they know how to write about it—more generally, they know how to talk about it. They are able to discourse on their chosen subject.
Pound and Wittgenstein (see epigraphs) were obviously uneasy about pragmatism. Pound was writing around 1938; Wittgenstein in 1951 (in fact, we know that he wrote those words on March 21, 1951, or about a month before he died). Given the times (the Weltanschauung that threatened to "thwart" them) I think they were right to be concerned. It is easy to valourize "know-how" as a kind of tacit knowledge, a craft skill that one can be in possession of without being able to explain it. There are those kinds of knowledge, of course. And people who are able to do things with their hands (and their hearts and their minds) that we are unable to do are worthy of our respect.
But academics cannot claim to possess only tacit knowledge. They have to be able to "hold discourse". They must be conversant, articulate, about the things they know something about precisely because no one is going to ask them to succeed in practice. The economist does not have to predict the next bear or bull market (nor know where to invest your money), the entrepreneurship theorist need never have started a business (let alone successfully). Putting it in the strongest possible terms, "a very distinct component of truth remains ungrasped" by the academic. It corresponds to the component of truth that remains ungrasped by the student until the student gets that first job and "finds out what life's about". The academic's distinct contribution is to know without grasping that component.
Practitioners who "return" to academia, i.e., who leave business and get a PhD in order to teach at business schools, can of course use their practical grasp of business to their advantage. But they must also learn how to be academics, and that means learning how to discourse without drawing on their experience. It means respecting a fundamental kind of ignorance, despite which one can nonetheless know a great many things.
Academics are "non-participants in the action" essentially by definition. Their epistemic authority derives from theory, not from practice. When they say something, what they say is "right" or "wrong" (i.e., true or false) in accordance with a particular way of seeing things, not a particular way of doing things. Where business people are able to convert talk into action (and vice versa), academics are able to convert perception into talk (and vice versa). Both abilities can be expressed in writing, but they are very different kinds of writing. Each leaves "distinct components of truth" ungrasped.