DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P059-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

4. The value of knowledge

Questions about the value of knowledge are perennial in philosophy, going back at least as far as Plato’s Meno. It is fairly obvious that knowledge has great practical value. Knowledge allows us to get things done. As a popular slogan has it, ‘Knowledge is power.’ A puzzle arises, however, if we think that knowledge has only practical value. For consider: we prefer knowledge to mere true opinion, but true opinion also has practical value. Socrates makes this point in the Meno. The man who wants to go to Larissa, Socrates notes, gets there just as well by having a true opinion about which road to take as by having knowledge about which road to take. Nevertheless, we prefer to have knowledge. But why should that be so, if the practical value is the same?

Some philosophers have denied that the practical value of true opinion and knowledge are in fact the same, arguing that we prefer knowledge because knowledge has more practical value than mere true opinion. This seems to be Socrates’ answer in the Meno, when he suggests that knowledge is ‘tethered’ or ‘tied down’ in a way that mere true opinion is not. A more recent defence of this position is offered by Williamson (2000), who argues that knowledge is more stable than mere true belief. Consider again the man who wants to get to Larissa. If the man has only a true belief that a particular road will get him there, he may give up and turn around if things start to look otherwise – for example, if the road takes an unexpected turn. The man who has knowledge, however, is less likely to be deterred by misleading evidence.

Even if knowledge does have more practical value than mere true belief or opinion, many philosophers have thought that knowledge has a different kind of value, over and above the practical value that it has. For example, knowledge seems to be valuable for itself, as opposed to being valuable merely as a means for getting something else. In related fashion, knowledge seems to be valuable in itself, as opposed to being valuable merely insofar as it is related to other things. Accordingly, many have thought that knowledge has final value and intrinsic value, as opposed to mere practical value.

The considerations above raise at least three questions about the value of knowledge:

Why (how, in what way) is knowledge valuable?

Why is knowledge more valuable than true opinion?

(This is sometimes called ‘The Meno Problem.’)

Why is knowledge distinctively valuable?

(That is, why does knowledge have a special value, over and above its practical value?)

Finally, questions about the value of knowledge are not unrelated to questions about the nature of knowledge, or what knowledge is. For example, Kvanvig (2003) argues that proposals about the nature of knowledge should not make it difficult to see why or how knowledge is valuable. If it does, then that very feature counts against the proposal in question. Pritchard (2010) makes a somewhat weaker point: that an adequate theory must at least explain why we think that knowledge is valuable. Accordingly, Pritchard allows for ‘revisionary’ accounts that reject our widely held assumptions about the value of knowledge. Nevertheless, such accounts thereby incur an important theoretical burden: that of explaining why the value of knowledge is illusory. Pritchard goes on to defend such an account, arguing that understanding (rather than knowledge) is especially valuable, since only understanding counts as a genuine intellectual achievement. (See also Epistemic value.)
Citing this article:
Greco, John. The value of knowledge. Epistemology, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P059-3. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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