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  • Dewey’s Naturalized Epistemology and the Possibility of Sustainable Knowledge
  • Aaron Stoller

in his recent text Sustainable Knowledge, Robert Frodeman argues that the unchecked proliferation of academic knowledge is unsustainable. While his account provides a basis for more sustainable disciplinary practices, it fails to show how the knowledge produced by such practices is ultimately superior to traditional academic knowledge. This essay provides an epistemic justification for sustainable knowledge. It begins by introducing the maker’s knowledge tradition as an alternative to traditional academic knowledge. It then expands and advances this tradition through Dewey’s naturalized epistemology. Ultimately, it develops an account of knowledge that is not only of a higher quality than traditional knowledge but is also self-limiting and sustainable.

It is widely acknowledged that the academy is in crisis. In Sustainable Knowledge, Robert Frodeman makes the case that this crisis is rooted, in part, in a failure of disciplinary research to meet the needs of culture. Deploying the language of ecology, Frodeman makes the bold (and I believe correct) claim that today the unchecked proliferation of academic knowledge is both irresponsible and unsustainable (6, 62). According to most estimates, over 100,000 academic journals are in print worldwide, and over 100,000 academic books are published each year (Rhode 26, 29). Although more information has been published in the past thirty years than in the previous five thousand (Rhode 29), the vast majority of contemporary scholarship goes without any apparent influence. Slightly less than half of all natural science articles receive citation (Hamilton). This number lowers dramatically in the social sciences and humanities, which both have citation rates averaging under 25% (Baker). Frodeman writes that “the epistemological regime we have been living within, that of infinite, largely laissez faire knowledge production, raises a variety of concerns. Additional knowledge can lead to results that [End Page 82] are unhealthy, costly, counterproductive, unethical, and dangerous” (62). As Frodeman argues, the simple fact is that in most cases there is not that much need for additional academic knowledge (62).

To address the problem, Frodeman suggests that a dramatic shift in the aims and cultures of academic knowledge production is required. While the growth of inter- and trans-disciplinary research might serve as an example of such change, these emerging fields are typically designed in the image of traditional disciplines and, as a result, often unwittingly reproduce their unsustainable practices. To revolutionize contemporary research, Frodeman suggests that all disciplinary activities must become sustainable, by which he means that they become cooperatively produced with and function in the service of the end-users of academic knowledge. In so doing, disciplinary activities become socially engaged and therefore self-limiting.

While Frodeman’s account goes far in providing a practical basis for developing sustainable knowledge, I believe he fails to show how the kind of engaged knowledge he suggests is ultimately superior to traditional academic knowledge. Without such a justification, his proposal underestimates the challenge that the idea of sustainable knowledge poses to the epistemic foundations of the traditional university.

This essay is an attempt to enhance Frodeman’s call by providing an adequate epistemic justification for sustainable knowledge. In the first section, I will outline the basic epistemic economy of the contemporary university and show how this economy creates the conditions for unchecked academic knowledge production. I will then introduce the concept of maker’s knowledge as an alternative, showing how it can be expanded and advanced through Dewey’s naturalized epistemology. In doing so, I will advance three claims I believe are central to providing an adequate epistemic justification for sustainable knowledge: (1) Knowledge improves as it becomes more entangled with practice, (2) knowledge gains value through its existential force, and (3) knowing is the capacity for creative action. Ultimately, I will show how maker’s knowledge is not only of a higher quality than pure or fundamental knowledge, but also that it is inherently self-limiting and therefore sustainable.

The Epistemic Economy of the University

Like all institutions, the university is grounded in a particular epistemic economy that shapes its organizational hierarchies, central values, and forms of labor. I believe the unsustainability of the contemporary academic research regime can be traced to...


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