High value knowledge, and what to do with it

Around 830 AD the Benedictine monk and later Abbot Lupus Servatus, then living in Fulda, Germany, wrote the following in a letter to a close and learned friend: ‘Mihi satis apparent propter se ipsam appetenda sapientia.’ There are nuances in the original Latin, but the sentence has generally been translated as ‘It is quite apparent to me that knowledge should be sought for its own sake.’ Based in large part on this letter, Lupus has often been seen as the father of the humanist intellectual tradition, and the statement quoted above has been repeated and endorsed by many others, including Nietzsche and Albert Einstein. Many of those arguing for and defending a more traditional outlook on higher education repeat the formula.

In fact, the idea of ‘knowledge for its own sake’ has for many become the key test of higher education policy and strategy, suggesting a higher commitment to the integrity and independence of learning and scholarship; and often placed in opposition to a more impact-oriented or use-directed application of knowledge. But this affects not just higher education policy, but also the appropriateness and legitimacy of the strategic direction of some universities, and perhaps of certain academic disciplines or projects.

I confess that I don’t find this useful. For me, ‘knowledge for its own sake’ is a curiously empty formula, suggesting a metaphysical approach to knowledge that accords it importance without apparently knowing why. I believe strongly in the acquisition, discovery and dissemination of knowledge, but not for its own sake (which to me means nothing), but because knowledge empowers, civilises and innovates. The value of knowledge is in no way mysterious, it is compelling and clear. The case for learning is a much stronger one if its use can be explained clearly. ‘Knowledge for its own sake’ is no better as a pedagogical statement than ‘spinach for its own sake’ would be as a nutritional one.

What some who support a traditional outlook on higher education may not appreciate is that a formula such as this may have been persuasive when education and knowledge were largely the property of a social elite who had no need to justify what they were doing. Today’s society needs something more, and there is plenty to give. High value knowledge is at the root of social progress, inclusiveness, economic growth, better health, a higher quality of life. Universities need to be willing to associate themselves with such objectives and ideals, rather than arguing a much more opaque case based on a hoped for but not specifically targeted benefit flowing from detached learning and scholarship.

It may be time not just to modernise our higher education system, but also our understanding of why we do it.

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32 Comments on “High value knowledge, and what to do with it”

  1. no-name Says:

    Some of the most vociferous advocates of applied research are able to justify “knowledge for its own sake” with a reclassification through the dichotomy: “applied” vs. “not applied yet”.

    You offer this analogy, “‘Knowledge for its own sake’ is no better as a pedagogical statement than ‘spinach for its own sake’ would be as a nutritional one.” However, it is not obvious that the terms are properly comparable. It might be better to compare knowledge with something else that is also not diminished when shared and which cannot reach saturation with increments. Happiness might be a candidate. Is “happiness for its own sake” such a bad formulation of what is sought in guiding ethical choice? True, “Knowledge for its own sake” is not better, but it is not manifestly worse, either.

  2. matthiasfeist Says:

    I’ve grown up valuing ‘knowledge for its own sake’, but like the idea of ‘not applied yet’. I am worried about a reductionist approach to research though, only pursuing what’s being deemed economically relevant.

  3. matthiasfeist Says:

    Reblogged this on What I've learnt recently… and commented:
    [Reblog] I’ve grown up valuing ‘knowledge for its own sake’, but like the idea of ‘not applied yet’

  4. V.H Says:

    Just to point out sapientia is wisdom, not knowledge in either definitions used in the English language. Sophia is the equivalent in Greek. And your essay is more or less the very reason why the point was made day one. Labour isn’t everything, mysticism is not just needed but an intrinsic requirement to the very survival of the race. What could be higher that keeping someone to daydream. Especially from those dreams we’ve had virtually all the good things. While from the control of labour we’ve had every bad and nasty thing. Opus Dei my eye.

  5. anna Notaro Says:

    On Lupus’ famous quote, it might be illuminating to consider the passage below from a recent article ‘Knowledge for Its Own Sake? A Practical Humanist in the Carolingian Age'(2010) which contests the established interpretation:

    “In their joy at discovering what seemed at first sight to be an early, eloquent exemplar of the lofty ideals of subsequent renaissances, myriad historians, literary analysts, and textual critics have misconstrued the underlying, culturally specific meaning of this passage. ….Lupus’s “sapientia propter seipsam appetenda” thus needs to be understood not as knowledge for its own sake, but rather as something to be used in service to the Church. Indeed, an intellectual of Lupus’s ability, with ready access to so much classical knowledge, was therefore obliged to apply it to the pursuit of divine wisdom and grace….Lupus was also a man with eminently practical day-to-day concerns. With his syncretic attitude toward his own classical learning and Christian faith, he did not see, as later ecclesiastics might, any problem in using secular and sacred texts to further his ultimate goal of protecting the welfare of his abbey, his students, the Church, or the royal government …Lupus of Ferrières was, above all, a practical Carolingian.http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/13/stofferahn.php

  6. Eddie Says:

    Related to the HE.
    In THE today:

    “Draft governance code branded ‘weak’ and ‘meaningless’”


    OMG, what a waste of time and money!

  7. cormac Says:

    Ferdinand! I disagree with the statement “..the idea of ‘knowledge for its own sake’ has for many become the key test of higher education policy and strategy….”
    I wish. I can assure you that for the purse holders, almost all research in the sciences must show potential ‘benefits to society’ to receive any funding, at least in Ireland. More and more, those of us interested in ‘fundamental’ research are sidelined in favour of research that will supposedly offer economic benefits – have a look at the application forms for any SFI grant.

    ‘Welcome to our world’, I hear from colleagues in the Humanities, as if that made it better. I suggest the pendulum has now swung too far in the direction of short-term benefit in all disciplines. It’s also a self-defeating policy – never forget you write this blog courtesy of particle physicsts who decided they needed to construct a world wide web for sharing abstruse data on the internet. I’m glad someone gave them the time and space to develop an idea that seemed to have little practical application, are you?
    Ditto for quantum physics (the laser, the semiconductor, the transistor,) and relativity (relativistic corrections for GPS) etc…Research into any of these innovations would not have been funded by today’s agencies…so how do you know which bits will lay the golden egg?

  8. Eddie Says:

    It is time that the term “Knowledge” is redefined. When Prof Steven Schwartz as the VC of Macquarie U was arguing about universities and the wisdom agenda, meaning knowledge for its own sake, Julia Gillard, the Australian PM, dished out 2 billion dollars for TAFE ( technical and further education) institutes which VCs like Schwartz expected to come in their way!

    “never forget you write this blog courtesy of particle physicsts who decided they needed to construct a world wide web for sharing abstruse data on the internet. I’m glad someone gave them the time and space to develop an idea that seemed to have little practical application”. The last bit is not correct as the ARPA Net led the development of the Internet, the Web was a natural development. If it not CERN and Tim Berners Lee, some one in the Silicon Valley would have done it.

  9. cormac Says:

    Eddie: Fair point on www, except how do you know this for sure? And when? Developing the software for the www was just as advanced in its way as developing the hardware for the net. Suppose only a few years elapsed before a different version of the web was developed (unlikely if you look at what wen into into the task). How do you put a value on the information shared in those intervening years?
    All of which misses the central point of the role of serendipidy througout science…

    • Eddie Says:

      “except how do you know this for sure”
      I was working in the Silicon Valley at hat time. Any one with computing knowledge knew then that software interface of specific kind was needed for this global information infrastructure-that was what the Internet was referred to then. The question was who would invest to develop this. CERN was going through a hiatus and this provided an opportunity for Berners Lee to concentrate on developing this software interface.

  10. Al Says:

    Higher education should be a wide church, tolerant of dissenters! I wonder how tolerant your version would be when liberty’s light is darkened in the national interest?
    An alignment of state and corporate interests?

    • I’m not sure if you’re addressing me here, Al – but I certainly don’t believe that anything I have written suggests that there should be an alignment of universities with corporate or state interests. I am merely arguing that the pursuit of knowledge is good for a reason, or many reasons. It is not pursued for no reason at all.

      • V.H Says:

        http://www.osb.org/rb/text/toc.html This is ordering of LS’s life, every single aspect. But it is an imposed control. The quest, his quest, for wisdom is in an area where control is his.
        But that is the ordering of it. The Rule came first then the rebellion to it. And you as a quasi abbot are bound to have a jaundiced view. 🙂

      • Al Says:

        Perhaps Lupus Servatus’ worldview had a greater place for notions of chastity that we dont see as relative now and the pursuit of knowledge had a celibate element to it rather than a carnal pursuit?

  11. Anna Notaro Says:

    I just wish to supplement my earlier comment above by saying that the point of debunking the ‘myth’ of Lupus as the promoter of a knowledge for its own sake ideal was to deconstruct (a’ la Derrida) the binary thinking, the polarity which often characterizes the discourse of knowledge, the metaphysical versus the pragmatic approach which the post reflects before ending with the endorsement of modernization, which represents the pragmatic approach which today’s society demands, the *high value* knowledge, as opposed to the old, the opaque, the realm of the ‘detached learning and scholarship’, the *low value* one of the past. Well, such a ‘narrative’ might be a familiar one, however popularity or celebrity endorsement (Nietzsche, Einstein) does not automatically imply veracity. Modernization is far from being a necessary condition of our present times, I trust that Lupus’ syncretic approach to knowledge must have been perceived as quite modern and high value, the pragmatic element might not have been particularly prominent at a time of low alphabetization, pre-Gutenberg and yet its impact on society at large cannot be dismissed.

    For me such a debate perpetuates the two cultures dichotomy (humanities vs science) and it is not accidental that a sub-discipline within philosophy, metaphysics, is used to describe the emptiness of the ‘knowledge for its own sake’ formula, – see the following passage:
    “a metaphysical approach to knowledge that accords it importance without apparently knowing why”.
    Now, universals and the question of God’s existence are classic metaphysical questions, but issues concerning causal relations, freedom, and minds are also relevant to metaphysics, and these issues are incredibly relevant to our daily lives and can be explained clearly.

    The value of knowledge has always been a central topic within epistemology ( http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/knowledge-value/)
    ultimately though there isn’t such a thing as ‘high’ or ‘low’ value, all knowledge as Samuel Johnson wrote: “is, of itself of some value”, the case has always been clear, never mysterious.

  12. cormac Says:

    Eddie: that’s v interesting, do you have a good reference for this? As you probably know, one has to be quite circumspect in the history of science and technology; there are many inventions that in retrospect should and could have been invented at a certain point in time that weren’t in fact developed until much later, for all sorts of reasons. Because of this, historians tend to frown on statements such as ‘would soon have been developed by…’.
    On the other hand, if as you say a clear need for a www-type platform was already emerging, there are probably records of US attempts that didn’t quite get there in time, or indeed of related innovations and improvements in the US that quickly followed the CERN advance..those are the two criteria usually used to argue that a particular invention was simply the tip of a wave.. .

  13. Theron P. Snell Says:

    The comment that knowledge for knowledge’s sake was OK “when education and knowledge were largely the property of a social elite who had no need to justify what they were doing. Today’s society needs something more, and there is plenty to give” takes an internally contradictory stance. First, it assumes that knowledge is no longer the property of a social elite and 2. but then says that society needs ‘something more… implying that it still comes from the elites…to accept that it needs knowledge.

    What has changed is not who possess knowledge at all but the redefinition of knowledge itself: from understanding and process to a commodity needed to amass wealth. And who has taught this lesson? By selling this lesson and creating the social engineering needed to sell it,, the power elites still hold sway. Instead of a traditional definition of education, the new definition maintains social control. Note Pink Floyd’s reaction: we don’t need no education; we don’t need no thought control!” As for the general public, Pynchon said it best: “if they get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.” Read William Gibson’s novel PATTERN RECOGNITION to see it in action….or rewatch “MaxHeadroom.”

    • No, there is no contradiction of the kind you suggest, as I don’t in any way imply that it is the ‘elite’ that has to answer that question: it is the higher education system as it now exists. Your second paragraph is a caricature – I know of nobody who, in educational terms, sees knowledge as a ‘commodity to amass wealth’. Students often see learning as a passport to career and prosperity, but that is a different matter, and a good educational institution will balance that.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        That paragraph might be a caricature, however the commodification process is far being one, in her first speech on the arts since taking up the job in September the culture secretary Maria Miller argued that British culture should be presented as a “commodity” and a “compelling product” http://www.government-online.net/british-culture-should-be-seen-as-commodity-says-maria-miller/

        • Theron P. Snell Says:


          Thank you for the comment. in the USA, we continually feel the pressure to cut costs, cut the time to degree and make the degree suitable for job placement. The debate often revolves around the ROI or return on investment. The logic presents itself thus: One purchases the degree (thus a commodity) then leverages that credential on the job market. If one cannot get immediate return, then the degree program is seen as useless, something that should not be funded by universities….like various languages, Philosophy, et.al Brandise even cut its Jewish studies program!

          My second paragraph is definitely not a caricature, not now. Universities are urged to brand themselves as a product, using marketing tactics that have worked well to sell soap and motorcycles. I went to one such session a week ago. Our State legislature demands programs that lead to jobs and jobs that lead to the accumulation of investor wealth, the ultimate end of a neo-liberal, capitalist economic system.

          • Anna Notaro Says:

            yes, I know exactly what you mean. Speaking of philosophy, traditionally regarded as a lofty, ‘for its own sake’ kind of subject, it is ironic that Thales of Miletus – regarded by Aristotle as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition – proved to his fellow Milesians that philosophy could bring financial rewards as well. Thales, because of his poverty, was taunted with the uselessness of philosophy; but from his knowledge of astronomy he had observed while it was still winter that there was going to be a large crop of olives, so he raised a small sum of money and paid round deposits for the whole of the olive-presses in Miletus; and when the season arrived, there was a sudden demand for a number of presses at the same time, and by letting them out on what terms he liked he realized a large sum of money, (Aristotle in The Politics). What Aristotle’s anecdote tells us is that knowledge is always *of* and *in* this world, nothing is ‘for its own sake’, holding on to the useful vs useless or high/low value categories in such matters was as pointless two thousand years ago as it is today. Thales’ story, like most stories, is still worth retelling..

          • Theron P. Snell Says:

            An interesting way to put it, of and in the world…like our consciousness. Perhaps the issue revolves around the demand for the instant or quarterly return and the sole focus upon wealth…Note this headline:

            “Tech Training May Provide Fatter Paychecks Than 4-Year Degrees, Study Finds Graduates with technical degrees and certificates often earned significantly more than did those with other academic credentials.” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/25/2013)

            We forget that education also provides enjoyment, understanding and creates engagement in the world far beyond materiall wealth, especially for those people who either cannot or do not want to find meaning for themselves in such accumulation.

          • Theron, you write: ‘We forget that education also provides enjoyment, understanding and creates engagement in the world far beyond materiall wealth’

            That, really, is precisely my point. There are many good arguments – countless arguments – in favour of education, and the ones you have just listed are excellent. ‘Knowledge for its own sake’ doesn’t make that (or any) point.

    • V.H Says:

      At one stage, not so long ago, you’d be hard pressed to find a diplomat or a higher civil servant who hadn’t a thorough grounding in Philosophy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_with_PPE_degrees_from_Oxford It would have been the same in the USA or France. Yes it would be dressed in different cloth.
      This is where I believe FvP is in error. Those places still exist and they provide people for exactly the same positions they’ve done since the time of Castlereagh. If we follow FvP’s thinking in this essay we will still have the elite in Oxford running Whitehall having read their PPE but all the other places will become schools.
      Of course a Darwinism is in play at the moment where the son/daughter of the wealthy parent can and does cover the living ex’s for the post grad doing a year or even four of a internship. Something a grad of lesser means simply cannot play as they need to earn a living. There are many industries like publishing that couldn’t function without the never ending supply of Jemima’s, Phoebe’s and Simon’s. But I see little reason to make things easier.

      • No, Vincent – my point is that we will have better education if we are clear on why we want it and need it, and if we can articulate that. That applies to Oxford as much as anyone else, and for what it’s worth, Oxford is quite aware of that and expresses it – and reflects it in the variety of its programmes.

        • V.H Says:

          Opus Dei, the work of God, was the what Lupus Servatus was on about. In his tradition, at the time, it was understood to be physical labour. But his tradition/franchise was one of many. There was number in Ireland, a couple in Scotland at least two in England. Any number on Athos, Anatolia, Syria, Ethiopia and the Sinai.
          We take his comment without the rider. We understand it in a self centered way. The point he was making is the desert mystics were equally about the work of God as the Benedictine reaping grain.
          Oxford and Cambridge make no bones about this. Granted the ‘work of God’ notion may be a bit thin. But at heart they understand the core value of the philosophical mystic metaphorically perched in a Hermitage overlooking an endless sea. But of course they can afford to also.
          Where I think we might fundamentally disagree is in this area. You see I think a core function of the university is to protect and cosset the mystic. And do so even though you know they may only produce a blaze of brilliance once every two hundred years. People coalesce about such ‘thought’. The very humanity of their process creates an aura. No one would form about a brilliant computer scientist other than other of his ilk. But they would and do about a philosopher or a theologian.
          To get back to your point though, Lupus Servatus had recognized the core sterility of the Benedictine Rule. It was about the management of animals.

  14. […] of Robert Gordon University criticised the notion of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” in his blog.  He points out that such a notion forms a key driver of the “appropriateness and legitimacy” […]

  15. […] be fading though, with Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Vice Chancellor for Robert Gordon University, recently writing on his blog that, “‘Knowledge for its own sake’ is no better as a pedagogical statement than […]

  16. Dr Darkbloom Says:

    I agree that knowledge for it’s own sake is a quasi-metaphysical notion that has had it’s day. It leans heavily on a dualist idea of the mind/body divide, with precedence being given to mind. By pursuing knowledge ‘for it’s own sake’ it was thought we could contemplate Plato’s pure world of forms or, if Christian, have a greater appreciation of the divine and eternal while eschewing the lower material realm. The acquisition of Knowledge was never truly regarded as purposeless then.

    What I’d take issue with however is the belief that knowledge is a good because it “empowers, civilises and innovates”. This is an ideological view. The truth is that the acquisition of knowledge can have extreme negative consequences as well as positive.. Yes, it can empower mankind, but also empower them to commit terrible acts, it can civilise them but also give them the ability to destroy civilisations. it can innovate but the innovations (the obvious one being nuclear weapons). could ultimately wipe out mankind. . As to whether knowledge is man’s blessing or it’s curse the jury is still out, and to argue that it is an intrinsic good is as much an article of faith as any other.

    it might be a good line to pursue to attract educational funding, but intellectually I think it’s dishonest.

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