(Roughly) Daily

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”*…

A corridor in King’s College, Cambridge, England dating from the 15th century

… and, Rachael Scarborough King and Seth Rudy argue, to serve a clear purpose…

Right now, many forms of knowledge production seem to be facing their end. The crisis of the humanities has reached a tipping point of financial and popular disinvestment, while technological advances such as new artificial intelligence programmes may outstrip human ingenuity. As news outlets disappear, extreme political movements question the concept of objectivity and the scientific process. Many of our systems for producing and certifying knowledge have ended or are ending.

We want to offer a new perspective by arguing that it is salutary – or even desirable – for knowledge projects to confront their ends. With humanities scholars, social scientists and natural scientists all forced to defend their work, from accusations of the ‘hoax’ of climate change to assumptions of the ‘uselessness’ of a humanities degree, knowledge producers within and without academia are challenged to articulate why they do what they do and, we suggest, when they might be done. The prospect of an artificially or externally imposed end can help clarify both the purpose and endpoint of our scholarship.

We believe the time has come for scholars across fields to reorient their work around the question of ‘ends’. This need not mean acquiescence to the logics of either economic utilitarianism or partisan fealty that have already proved so damaging to 21st-century institutions. But avoiding the question will not solve the problem. If we want the university to remain a viable space for knowledge production, then scholars across disciplines must be able to identify the goal of their work – in part to advance the Enlightenment project of ‘useful knowledge’ and in part to defend themselves from public and political mischaracterisation.

Our volume The Ends of Knowledge: Outcomes and Endpoints Across the Arts and Sciences (2023) asks how we should understand the ends of knowledge today. What is the relationship between an individual knowledge project – say, an experiment on a fruit fly, a reading of a poem, or the creation of a Large Language Model – and the aim of a discipline or field? In areas ranging from physics to literary studies to activism to climate science, we asked practitioners to consider the ends of their work – its purpose – as well as its end: the point at which it might be complete. The responses showed surprising points of commonality in identifying the ends of knowledge, as well as the value of having the end in sight…

Read on for a provocative case that academics need to think harder about the purpose of their disciplines and a consideration of whether some of those should come to an end: “The Ends of Knowledge,” in @aeonmag.

* Albert Einstein


As we contemplate conclusions, we might recall that it was on this date in 1869 that the first issue of the journal Nature was published.  Taking it’s title from a line of Wordsworth’s (“To the solid ground of nature trusts the Mind that builds for aye”), its aim was to “provide cultivated readers with an accessible forum for reading about advances in scientific knowledge.”  It remains a weekly, international, interdisciplinary journal of science, one of the few remaining that publish across a wide array of fields.  It is consistently ranked the world’s most cited scientific journal and is ascribed an impact factor of approximately 64.8, making it one of the world’s top academic journals.

Nature‘s first first page (source)
%d bloggers like this: