Wednesday, February 18, 2009


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.


Charles Nelson said...

The notion of practitioners needing to leave aside their experience strikes me as odd. So much research nowadays is becoming more and more interdisciplinary. Why can't we consider practice and theory as interacting in ways that mutually inform and reduce the ignorance that derives from an insular academic focus?

Thomas said...

Here's another way of putting my point: There is no arguing with success--nor with failure. And academia is all about having the arguments. The practioners' sense of "what works" is always a sense of what works and doesn't work for them. Academic study is trying to find out "how things work" (in general), not what works for particular people.

Like I say, I am not against letting practical experience inform theory development. I suppose I am saying that practical knowledge must be left on one side in justifying (or arguing for) academic knowledge.

An academic focus in actually exactly that. It allows us to see something clearly, but that comes at the cost of not seeing other things.

Charles Nelson said...

How does action research fit into your dichotomy?

Thomas said...

Well, the action resaercher participates in the action sometimes, but it becomes research in so far as the researcher is able to see the object of study from the point of view of a non-participant. The academic study of something in that sense makes knowledge of what is going on available to students of the subject.

Charles Nelson said...

You wrote, "But academics are right to object that they are not practitioners of the knowledge they possess."

To be a little bit of devil's advocate here, aren't academics practitioners of the research they do? And while their knowledge of others' doing may not be tacit (I'm not quite sure of that), isn't their practice of writing discourse usually tacit? And although they may not need to succeed in business or of the object they study, they do need to succeed in writing discourse. Thus, they are participants in their discourse, and they have a practitioner's sense of what works for them.

Are there significant differences in academics as practitioners and business people as practitioners?

Thomas said...

You're right. That sentence is imprecise. Academics are right to object that they are not practitioners of the arts about which they possess knowledge. (In business schools this means finance, marketing, accounting, organization, leadership, human resource management, corporate strategy, CSR, etc. In the humanities this means poetry, painting, etc. You get the picture.)

You are also right that academics have a number of tacit "craft" skills that are the basis of their work as scholars.

But my main point, I think, still holds: researchers are non-participants in the action they study. And that non-participation IS a kind of ignorance. It is important not to be ashamed of it. And it is important for those who happen to know "how things are actually done" not be too proud of that approaching an object "academically".

Thomas said...

WHEN approaching the object

Jonathan said...

I think research is much more intertwined with "practice" than you allow for. Various kinds of consulting done by professors, for example. My brother, working for the government as a PhD in finance, also produces research that he publishes, just as he did when he was a faculty member. I could go on... The idea of researchers as "non-participants" really needs a lot more development before I would buy into it.

Thomas said...

The idea no doubt does need development. But I do in fact allow for research to be very intertwined with practice. What I am saying is that there is a kind of knowledge that is characterized by those "distinctly ungrasped" components.

It's like the literary critic who doesn't necessarily need to be able to write a (good) poem. Even the critic who DOES have real poetic ability must, in an important sense, leave that ability on one side when doing literary criticism.