The Production of Knowledge — And the Harlot of the Arts

An excerpt from the introduction to “The Birth of Understanding: Chaste Science and the Harlot of the Arts”

Celeste Michelle Condit

Two metaphors dominate our discussions of knowledge. The “old” metaphor sees knowledge as something discovered. Through this looking glass, great individuals like Newton, Columbus, and Einstein have added to the treasury of knowledge, whether by apples dropped on their heads, misguided efforts to get to the Orient, or true genius. Today another metaphor is widely employed to describe the augmentation of the international human treasure—that of production. In spite of the Nobel prize’s obduracy in spotlighting individuals, most of us know that knowledge is produced by anonymous groups relying less on apples, genius, and missed directions and ever more upon inhumanly clever computers, research teams of aspiring academics, and public funding.

What, however, if we refuse to see knowledge as “discovered” or even as “produced”? What if knowledge is reproduced? “Born” of human interactions, ways of understanding grow or fail to grow to maturity (or paradigmatic status if you will). They either pass on their genetic structure to new generations or pass on. In such a metaphor we might find the capacity for exploring the intercourse between rhetoric and science.

After all, rhetoric (the harlot of the arts) and the social science of communication (the sanctimoniously chaste youth) have been pressed up against each other for something around forty years now. Each has experienced a different torment, locked in a tiny compartment of the university, scrapping for crumbs of academic prestige (fulfilling the destiny Henry Kissinger noted for academics, by fighting so viciously because there is so little at stake). Each denies any hanky-panky, protesting respectively, that “the youth won’t pay” and “she’s no lady.” There are signs, however of offspring; there are increasing numbers of lines of study that borrow from the scholarly traditions of both rhetoric and social scientific communication research. Are these offspring legitimate? Do they give us true “knowledge”? Examining the family traits may lead us toward a genealogical conclusion.

Communication Monographs, Vol 57, Dec. 1990.

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